Outrage helps nobody – my “Best of Health” article for August 2021

I have written previously about the International Partnership for Dogs’ paper “A call for respectful dialogue, collaboration, and collective actions”, published in 2020. In it, IPFD Chief Executive Brenda Bonnett described the polarised positions of different groups on the issue of pedigree dog health (and welfare). She discussed how, at each end of the spectrum, people are expressing views diametrically opposed to each other, for example ranging from “some breeds should be banned”, through to “it’s a war against pedigree dogs and we need to fight back”. Somewhere (in the middle?) there are people trying to work hard, using available data and sound science, to find ways to address the complex problems that we find in the world of pedigree dogs. Those problems aren’t just health matters, some of which can be addressed with scientific, genetic and veterinary knowledge. Some of the most difficult challenges are the behavioural change ones; how to get breeders, buyers, vets, judges and others to behave in ways that work to the benefit of dog health.

Clickbait programme title

Last year, when it was announced that a TV production company would be making a film for the online channel BBC3, there was outrage. The cause of that outrage was the clickbait working title “Will my puppies make me rich?”. Unusually, in this case, the outrage was equally distributed across the spectrum of those in the dog world, including those campaigning for improved pedigree dog health and, of course, the show world. Stories appeared in the canine press as well as national press, all expressing horror at the suggestion that a film could be made that would encourage people into breeding dogs purely for profit. In addition to letters being written to the producers and BBC3 Controller, there was also an online petition (if I recall correctly).

As you might expect, the Kennel Club’s public affairs team, along with other dog welfare charities, contacted the producers to offer advice and to try to steer the programme makers in a less sensational direction. I was soon made aware that my breed, Dachshunds, were to be featured in the film. At that time, the angle was young people breeding Dachshunds and young people buying them. Clearly, that had the potential to add to our woes in the breed, particularly for Mini Smooths where registrations have grown from 3450 in 2015 to 10369 last year and no sign of their popularity declining.

On behalf of our Breed Council, I contacted the producers to offer our help with information on the breed and to try to engage with them in a way that might lead to a storyline that might be less damaging for our breed. I suspect that our emails came as something of a surprise to them as the tone was one of collaboration, rather than outrage and criticism. Consequently, I had several conversations with them and they were really interested in finding out more about breeder and buyer motivations for Dachshunds, as well as the health and ownership aspects of the breed. BBC3’s target audience is younger people (than your average dog club committee member!) and I was able to direct them to some younger breeders as well as representatives of our breed rescues.

Luckily for us, one of our Health Committee is a breeder, exhibitor and veterinary student and she ticked lots of boxes for the producers. I was really pleased to hear when they confirmed that they would be interviewing Bryony and thought she was an ideal person to include in the programme, being young, knowledgeable and undergoing vet training. Win win for all of us.

Undercover storyline

The programme hit our screens (albeit online) in mid-July but, disappointingly, I heard just before its launch that Bryony’s interview had been cut. While filming, they had discovered various canine fertility clinics and a more “juicy” storyline of illegal practices when they went undercover. 

So, sadly, we didn’t get the opportunity to see a member of our Health Committee sharing her knowledge on Dachshund breeding. However, a member of the Red Foundation (Dachshund Rescue) did get a few minutes of airtime and managed to get across to the young couple looking to buy a Dachshund some key messages about doing their research and the hard work needed to train a puppy. The presenter, a vet, briefly discussed our breed’s major health issue, Intervertebral Disc Disease but it was disappointing that there was nothing stronger about this from a buyer and owner’s perspective. It would have been brilliant if somebody could have mentioned our IVDD Screening Programme which was formally adopted by the KC earlier this year.

In the end, the young couple who originally wanted to get a Dachshund puppy took on an RSPCA foster puppy. We didn’t get to see whether it was a breed or a crossbreed, for legal reasons associated with a pending investigation and potential court case. Was that a good outcome for our breed? Possibly. It was one less buyer who had perhaps realised the breed was not the one for them and their lifestyle. Whether the messaging in the film was strong enough for other young buyers to recognise the responsibilities that go with buying a Dachshund, I doubt. Thankfully, we didn’t get to see anyone breeding Dachshunds and, some of the breeders we did see, made it clear how easy it is for things to go wrong and for it to become a very expensive exercise. Overall, I’m not convinced the programme will have any impact on the breeding of Dachshunds or their popularity. 

Collaboration works

I do think the programme was constructive and another helpful insight into some of the things going on in the world of dog breeding and buying. Probably most importantly, it was aimed at a young audience, presented by a young vet and included young breeders and buyers. That demographic is typically influenced by their peers so that fact it wasn’t shown on terrestrial TV and seen by us older folk, doesn’t matter that much.

The learning point for me is that collaboration works and is likely to be a more constructive approach than mere outrage. It’s far easier to share facts and evidence if you start from the perspective of there’s an opportunity to work together to improve things. Outrage rarely enables a conversation based on science and evidence, and often starts with the assumption that the other party is “wrong” and you are “right”. 

There is nothing more foolish, nothing more given to outrage than a useless mob.

Herodotus

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