Outrage helps nobody – “Will my puppies make me rich?”

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

An insight into brachycephalic dog health from The Kennel Club

The Kennel Club has hosted a unique webcast to discuss brachycephalic health and what can be done collaboratively to ensure a healthier future for dogs. Chaired by Kennel Club Chairman, Tony Allcock OBE, the webcast panel comprised Dr Jane Ladlow, European and Royal College Specialist in Small Animal Surgery and leading BOAS researcher; Bill Lambert, Head of Health and Welfare at the Kennel Club; and Charlotte McNamara, Health and Welfare Development Manager at the Kennel Club.

The panel discussed brachycephalic health, approaches across Europe, the need for a collaborative, evidence-based approach, including how the Respiratory Function Grading Scheme can help protect and improve the health of brachycephalic dogs now and in the future, and the importance of data collection and ongoing research into the complex Brachycephalic Obstructive Airways Syndrome (BOAS).

Further information about brachycephalic dog health, what the Kennel Club is doing and which tools and health screening is available to breeders can be found at: https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/flatfaceddoghealth

To donate and support further research into brachycephalic dog health and BOAS, visit: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/charity-web/charity/displayCharityCampaignPage.action?charityCampaignUrl=BDH

Puppy buyers: mismatched expectations?

IMG_2281On the day the UK Covid-19 lockdown was announced, I wrote a Friday Essay for Our Dogs describing some of the potential unanticipated consequences of the pandemic and the government’s response to it. I asked, “what do we think will happen to the current trend in declining registrations of pedigree dogs?”. Even at that point in the pandemic, there was emerging evidence that puppy enquiries were booming and that seems to have continued. Breed Club Secretaries that I have spoken with have seen a massive increase in the number of enquiries. As a consequence, the Kennel Club has been busy providing advice for buyers and breeders to try to head off some of the potential problems that might arise. One of the concerns is that, once life returns to some semblance of normality, many of those dogs may be surrendered to rescue organisations.

We have known for a long time that there is a group of buyers that do virtually no research and appear to buy on impulse. A KC survey in 2017 showed that 1 in 5 people admitted they spent no time researching where to buy a puppy. More than one-third of respondents (34 per cent) admitted they were clueless about how to find a reputable breeder for their puppy and were therefore vulnerable to the scams that should ring alarm bells. Choosing a puppy took 36 per cent of people in the survey 20 minutes or less! It would be surprising if much has changed since 2017 and, with so many people having “time on their hands”, the temptation to buy a puppy on impulse is probably much greater.

Those of you who read my “Best of Health” articles (thank you!), will know that one of my recurring messages is that addressing canine health and welfare problems is actually a human behaviour change (HBC) issue, rather than a veterinary or scientific one. Unless breeders, buyers and owners (and a few others) change their behaviour, we will continue to see dogs suffering.

How hard can a puppy really be?

I’ve recently been speaking with Justine Williams who launched the Our Family Dog website last year. She’s also interested in human behaviour change and has been applying some of the HBC principles and tools in the design and content of her website and a support forum. Her blog recently featured an article titled: “How hard can a puppy really be?” where she describes the mismatch between the expectations and reality of owning a puppy. She says: “The reality of what new puppy owners have let themselves in for only hits home as the sleepless nights, piles of poo and puddles of pee on the carpet, and having to be on puppy watch 24/7, begin to take their toll”.

An Open Access paper published at the end of April discusses some long-term research into the dog-owner relationship. It found that how owners’ expectations and beliefs changed over time depended on whether they had experience with dogs (owning a dog presently, in the past, or never). In the first six months of ownership, especially for people with no prior experience with dogs, the owners had to adapt their expectations and beliefs. In the subsequent year, only a few differences based on dog ownership history were found. 

Who are the puppy buyers?

A recent study by a marketing communications company, Pegasus, identified 4 core pet owner “behaviour types”:

  • The Nerdie Newbie – New and eager young pet owners who want to be the best owner they can be. They are proactive in safeguarding the health and wellbeing for their pet
  • The Selfie Sidekick – Pet owners who see their pet as part of their lifestyle aesthetic. Likely to refer to their pet as their “fur baby”, they place higher importance on the appearance of their pet over its health and wellbeing
  • The Good Companion – Older, more experienced pet owners who love and value their pet as another member of the family; health and wellbeing is an absolute priority for their pet and they have an established, organised routine 
  • The Practical Caretaker – Pet owners who don’t “anthropomorphise” their pets. Pragmatic in their care, they understand their pet has different health and wellbeing needs to themselves but could have a more reactive approach to health and care

Research by the KC has also identified different buyer profiles and this highlighted attitudes to dog health, in particular. 

Hit the “panic button”

Justine, at Our Family Dog, has identified 4 key buyer/owner problem behaviours which she has mapped to the early stages of the dog ownership journey. The behaviours are:

  • People launch into getting a puppy without any preparation
  • People make impulse buying decisions
  • New puppy owners ‘panic’ and access poor quality information on puppy care during the early weeks (8-12)
  • People use unqualified trainers, feed the wrong diet and leave dogs alone for too long (from 12 weeks onwards)

When I was speaking with her, I suggested there must be something we can learn from the challenges faced by first-time human parents. She agreed and said there’s a lot of HBC thinking behind organisations such as NCT (National Childbirth Trust) where, for example, they have resources to support the first 1000 days (from pregnancy to a child’s 2nd birthday). The peer-support offered through Mumsnet is another example. Our Family Dog has worked hard to collect stories from new dog owners and these help other new owners to realise that a puppy is hard work and it’s perfectly normal to panic or despair. 

Thinking about the dog ownership journey as a series of discrete stages is a really helpful way of identifying the problem behaviours that owners make and for developing practical tools and tips to get them through to the next stage.

The reality is that it’s extremely hard to overcome the impulse-buyer problem but we can make sure that good quality advice and support is available when novice owners “hit the panic button”. 

[Justine Williams’ blog post is here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-hard-can-puppy-really-expectations-versus-reality-williams/]

The Dachshund Breed Council’s Advice for Buyers and Tips for New Owners

 

Health-tested does not mean “healthy”

I’ve been involved in several conversations over recent months about where we should focus our efforts if we want to improve the “health of dogs”. In my breed, Dachshunds, we often focus on back disease (IVDD) as the most significant health issue facing the breed. The evidence suggests the breed is 10-12 times more likely to suffer IVDD than dogs in general. Our breed health surveys also tend to support the widely quoted figure of 25% of Dachshunds being likely to suffer an IVDD incident at some point in its life. However, that means, on average, 75% of the breed won’t have IVDD and in some of the Dachshund varieties, the risk of IVDD is lower still.

There are, no doubt, similar situations in other breeds; for example, heart disease in Cavaliers, cancer in Bernese Mountain Dogs and BOAS in brachycephalic breeds. In some cases, screening programmes exist which breeders can use to reduce the risk of breeding puppies that will be affected by a particular condition.

Screening programmes typically make use of 2 types of test; phenotype tests and DNA tests. Of the former, Hip, Elbow, Heart, Hearing and Eye tests are well-known and (mostly) well-established ways for breeders to test their stock. The Kennel Club’s recent paper Effectiveness of Canine Hip Dysplasia and Elbow Dysplasia Improvement Programs in Six UK Pedigree Breeds demonstrated good participation in Hip Scoring and a reduction in the prevalence and severity of Hip Dysplasia. In contrast, the Respiratory Function Grading Scheme for Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Pugs is relatively new but offers a useful way to reduce the chances of breeding puppies affected by BOAS.

When it comes to DNA tests, most breeders are now familiar with what the genotype results of Clear, Carrier and Affected mean and can use these to avoid producing affected puppies. For example, breeders of Mini Wire Dachshunds have used the Lafora Disease DNA test to reduce the number of at-risk litters containing affected puppies from 55% to 2% since 2012.

The world’s healthiest dog?

More and more DNA tests are becoming available, so it will be increasingly challenging for breeders to decide which ones to use. This is particularly true where the test may not have been rigorously validated to demonstrate its link to a clinical condition. The issue of test validation was one of the emerging concerns from the 4th International Dog Health Workshop, held last year in Windsor. The arrival of panel tests potentially adds yet more confusion to the debate about healthy dogs. Just because a dog can be screened for 150 known genetic mutations and found to be Clear of all of them, doesn’t mean it is “the world’s healthiest dog”. Many of those mutations may be completely irrelevant to your breed in terms of clinical illness.

When we consider both phenotype and genotype tests, we are really looking at diseases, not health. It can, therefore, be potentially misleading to puppy buyers to hear a breeder describing their dogs as “health-tested”. At best, we can say we have screened our dogs for particular, known, conditions to reduce the risk of our puppies developing that condition. We can’t say anything about the risks of them developing other health conditions for which no test is currently available. In the case of phenotype tests, the risk of a dog developing a problem often has an environmental and lifestyle component.

An owner’s view of health

This is where I think it becomes interesting to talk about what we mean by “healthy”. In 2014, the VetCompass project published a paper on the Prevalence of Disorders Recorded in Dogs Attending Primary-Care Veterinary Practices in England. The top 7 conditions diagnosed by vets were: Otitis Externa, Periodontal Disease, Anal Sac Impaction, Overgrown Nails, Degenerative Joint Disease, Diarrhoea, and Obesity. For the owners of these dogs, “health” largely boiled down to issues with ears, teeth, and bottoms!

Purebred dogs had a significantly higher prevalence compared with crossbreds for three of the twenty most-prevalent diagnosis-level disorders: otitis externa, obesity, and skin mass lesions.

According to the PDSA, vets estimate that around half the dogs in the UK are overweight or obese. A study published in 2018 found 65% of dogs were overweight and 9% were obese. The knock-on effects of dogs being overweight include a reduced quality of life as well as increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis.

Given this evidence about “health”, there’s a good case for investing time and resources into helping people to be better dog owners. In 2015 we carried out a Lifestyle Survey of Dachshunds with the specific aim of identifying any factors that might be associated with the risks of IVDD. This built on a 2013 study done by the Royal Veterinary College that found obesity was one of the risk factors for IVDD. We found, unsurprisingly, that dogs that were more active and given more exercise had a lower risk of IVDD. More surprisingly, we found that neutered dogs had an increased risk of IVDD and the younger they were neutered, the greater the risk.

2 routes to healthy pets

It’s pretty clear that simply using disease screening programmes (“health tests”) as a means of saying we are breeding healthy dogs is too narrow a perspective. Breeders, buyers and owners need information from 5 questions to make an informed decision about how healthy their dog is likely to be:

  • Is there a breed-specific predisposition to any particular health conditions?
  • What is the prevalence of those conditions?
  • What is the severity of those conditions (chronic or acute)?
  • How long might the dog suffer from these conditions (age of onset)?
  • What treatments are available and how effective (and expensive) are they?

 

There are probably 2 main routes to healthier dogs: breeding healthier pets and owning healthier pets. Firstly, breeders can use less conformationally exaggerated, more genetically diverse, and disease-screened dogs in their breeding programmes. Secondly, owners can implement choices such as life-stage appropriate diet and exercise.

The term “healthspan” has been used to define the length of time during which dogs (and other animals, and humans!) are generally healthy and free from chronic illness. Maybe we should be having more conversations with breeders and owners about how they can increase the healthspan of their dogs.

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Breeders, the good, the bad and the future

Question: What’s the definition of a Puppy Farmer? Answer: Anyone who breeds more litters than you do!

The problem with the Puppy Farmer label is that it’s laden with emotion and it’s a term that gets used to brand some breeders who clearly aren’t farming puppies with little regard to their welfare, socialisation or the homes they go to.

As part of our Dachshund Health Committee, we have 3 Pet Advisors. These are experienced owners who are not involved in breed club committees and who don’t show their dogs. They are all experienced owners and their role is to offer advice and support to people thinking of buying a Dachshund and to those who may be new to the breed. Needless to say, they spend lots of their time answering fairly basic questions on the numerous Facebook Dachshund Groups.

Recently, we have been discussing how we can improve the advice we give to potential owners so they can find the most reputable breeders possible. This is particularly important in the case of Mini Smooth Dachshunds where we have seen demand for the breed grow exponentially in the past 4 years. Demand far outstrips supply and, even with the growth in availability of KC Registered dogs, there is a booming market for imports which are often brought into the UK illegally. 

We have, therefore, been trying to categorise the different types of breeder so that potential buyers can look out for warning signs and make more informed decisions. We ended up with an infographic describing 4 types of breeder.

Large Commercial Breeders: They are characterised as ‘high volume; low welfare’ and would typically fit the Puppy Farmer label. Breeding puppies is purely a business. They typically have multiple breeds for sale and advertise regularly online. Bitches are bred from continually throughout their lives, producing puppies that are either sold on-site or via dog dealers. Their puppies generally do not receive adequate healthcare and most receive little human interaction or socialisation. The problem for puppy buyers is that their adverts often look highly credible to novice buyers and puppies may actually be “sold” from a network of respectable-looking premises. The recent case of more than 100 Dachshunds seized in raids across the North-West of England is a topical example of this sort of breeding operation. Hopefully, Lucy’s Law will make life more difficult for this type of breeder but it wouldn’t be surprising if they find a way round it.

Hobby Breeders: These are ‘low volume; experienced’ breeders. They have extensive knowledge of their breed and are up-to-date on the latest health and genetics information. They are likely to be involved in some type of dog activity such as showing, working or obedience. They carefully vet their potential puppy buyers and will usually provide a lifetime of support to their puppy owners. They understand how to rear puppies well and often act as mentors for newcomers to their breed who want to begin breeding. While the term Hobby Breeder may seem to imply ‘amateur’, these breeders are most certainly not amateurs and take their responsibility for their dogs and the future of their breed seriously. Since the introduction of the Dog Breeding Licensing legislation last year, many of these breeders will almost certainly not be having more than 1 or 2 litters per year in order not to require a breeding license. Recent figures from the KC suggest 81% of breeders who register puppies with the KC only breed 1 litter per year.

Professional Breeders: These are ‘experienced breeders running legitimate businesses’. Similar to hobby breeders, they breed more often, with more dogs and are, invariably, licensed by their local authority. They usually show their dogs and may have a grooming or kennel business associated with their breeding business. They may own several breeds and will be very knowledgeable about all of these. Their puppies will be well-reared and will usually have a lifetime guarantee of support. A recent comment in Our Dogs said that these breeders are often frowned upon because of the number of puppies they breed and that this is a misguided attitude. These professional breeders fill a genuine market demand for good quality puppies. Without them, that demand would invariably be filled by puppy farmers.

We struggled to come up with a suitable name for the fourth type of breeder. “Backyard Breeder” seemed too derogatory and didn’t really describe this group, so we ended up with “I’m not (really) a Breeder”. These people breed few litters and have little knowledge or experience. They may be producing puppies for the right or the wrong reasons and everyone has to start somewhere. If it’s their first litter, they may have little or no knowledge or experience of breeding but they may have the support of an experienced mentor who has helped them choose a suitable stud dog. Alternatively, they might just have used a dog down the road, with little thought. If they have bred ‘to make money’, ‘because it would be nice for Daisy to have pups” or “they have friends who have told them they should”, then buyers should think carefully before committing to buy. 

In an ideal world, we would want to encourage more Hobby Breeders because the demand for well-bred KC registered pedigree dogs outstrips supply. Existing Hobby Breeders should be encouraging their puppy buyers to get involved in KC activities, for example, training via the Good Citizen Dog Scheme, and to consider breeding from their dog when it is old enough. Discouraging them from showing or breeding (e.g. with endorsements) simply makes it more difficult for us to bring on the next generation of pedigree dog enthusiasts. Hobby Breeders and Professional Breeders should be helping the “I’m not (really) a breeder” to learn more about their breed and about breeding. Breed Councils and Clubs can do the same. That’s why the Dachshund Breed Council is developing a set of resources for potential breeders. We want to see more, better-bred Dachshunds and fewer puppy-farmed or poorly-bred ones available. It’s also why our Pet Advisors are so important in helping potential buyers decide if a Dachshund is the right breed for them and how to find a really good breeder of KC registered puppies. 

Our challenge is to convert the “I’m not (really) a breeder” people into “Hobby Breeders” who will help secure the future of our breeds.