The Great British Puppy Survey

GB Puppy SurveyI’ve recently finished reading The Great British Puppy Survey 2016 which was organised by a group of independent dog and animal welfare campaigners. They are Canine Action UK, CARIAD, Hidden-in-sight, The Karlton Index, Naturewatch Foundation and Pup Aid.

This group wanted to examine the behaviours and attitudes of UK puppy buyers to provide data that might inform future campaigns and policy-making, with the overall aim of improving welfare outcomes for dogs.

The online survey ran for a year (January 2015 – January 2016) and received 4303 responses, of which 3670 were described as “complete”. The responses comprise both quantitative and qualitative data, from a mixture of multiple choice/ranking questions and free text questions.

The first question you have to ask is to what extent that sample size is statistically significant. If it’s not, then any conclusions and, more importantly, any recommendations may be flawed.

Virtually all the puppies (97%) were purchased by survey respondents between 2010 and 2015 (6 years), a period when a reasonable estimate of total UK puppies bought would be 750,000 per year. Given that population, a quick test shows that a sample of 4000 responses would lead to a Confidence Interval of +/- 1.55 at the 95% Confidence Level. In other words, we can consider this to be a big enough sample upon which to draw statistically significant conclusions. We do, however, also have to consider the potential biases in the sample and their responses.

70% of people had bought a pedigree dog and many of those who had bought a crossbred had chosen a so-called Designer Breed, such as a Cockapoo or Cavachon. Interestingly, 80% of people had previous experience of owning a dog, so this does introduce a particular bias to the results. You would assume that the buying attitudes and behaviours of people with previous dog-owning experience would be somewhat different to those who had never owned a dog.

Unfortunately, the data presented in the report has not been analysed in this way, but it would be very easy to do this. I would be really interested to see if new owners were less rigorous in their research and decision-making process than experienced owners, or if they ended up with puppies that had more health and welfare problems. This could be important to help determine whether communications to the two groups should be different. There has been some interesting evidence published, based on Government (HMRC) “nudge” communications. Using language that is tailored to the audience has improved compliance rates in letters about tax returns. For example, “9 out of 10 small business owners like you have already submitted their Tax Return” gets a better response than “your Tax Return is overdue”. A similar approach could perhaps be used with puppy buyers to help them in their decision-making.

Pre-purchase Research

Half the respondents researched both “responsible dog ownership” and ”different breeds” via books, magazines and the Internet before buying their dog and 1 in 8 consulted the KC for advice. 15% asked their vet for advice, which I suspect is a reflection of the number of existing/previous owners in the sample. I’d be surprised if a first-time buyer would consult a vet. Perhaps surprisingly, 15% also visited dog shows to find out about their preferred breed. This is obviously encouraging and a good reason to make shows welcoming to visitors. Only 2% of these respondents did no research, which again suggests to me that many of the responses are slightly skewed by the 80% who had previously owned dogs.

Online classified websites were the main source of adverts, with Pets4Homes being used by about a third of buyers. Having found a breeder (or seller), nearly one-third did an online search for that person’s name. That, I think is interesting and positive as it is more likely to throw up articles on puppy farmers and welfare issues that have made it into the public domain.

Puppy sellers

There appears to be significant confusion among the puppy-buying public about licensing, KC Registration and accreditation (e.g. ABS membership). Half the respondents did not know the difference between people who were selling KC Registered puppies and those who were ABS members. In another question, buyers ranked “the seller was licensed” at number 7 in importance to their buying decision, compared with “able to see mum” and “right breed, sex, temperament” which were ranked first and second. It would appear that “licensing” or accreditation are not high in the priorities of buyers and, given the numerous puppy farm TV programmes where premises are licensed, there is probably still a big credibility gap to bridge. I wonder if the tarnished reputation of Local Authority licensing is carried over into scepticism over the value of the ABS. Surely, UKAS accreditation is the factor that differentiates the two.

In this survey, 80% of buyers saw the puppy’s mother when they bought their puppy. That leaves a shocking one-fifth who didn’t and suggests the “See Mum” message has much more work to do. Add to that the evidence that dealers and other less reputable sellers are setting up “fake Mum” situations to hoodwink buyers and it’s clear that “see Mum” might be overly simplistic as a single message to buyers.

Post-purchase experiences

One in five buyers reported problems with their puppy that required veterinary treatment. Of those, just over a third developed symptoms within the first week of ownership, with 1 in 20 facing vet bills of over £3000.

It’s probably not surprising that so many issues emerged in the first week of ownership as it can be a stressful transition for any puppy, however well-reared, as it moves to its new home. However, there is plenty of research evidence that the temperaments of poorly-reared puppies are worse than those from a good welfare background and you would assume that well-reared puppies will have a less traumatic transition. This also raises a strong argument for puppies to have only one transition; that is from their breeder to their new home. Transport between commercial breeders and retailers, via dealers, and time spent in pet shops cannot be good for the welfare of any puppy.

Puppy owners in this survey also appear to have been either unaware or unclear where they could complain if their puppy had problems. 72% took no action, while others typically complained to the KC, Local Authority, Trading Standards or the RSPCA. With this range of reporting, it would probably be very difficult to identify recurring issues from particular sellers. More than half the owners who had problems found their seller to be “very helpful” and only 6% said they were “completely unhelpful”.

Did these buyers learn any lessons?

More than half the buyers claimed they would do nothing differently and it would be really useful to know how this differed, if at all, between new owners and those who had previously owned a dog.

Surprisingly, nearly one third said that, next time, they would rehome from a rescue centre. This perhaps suggests they are looking for some degree of certainty about who the seller is, but they may not have considered why a dog might be in rescue in the first place. It’s certainly debatable whether there are sufficient dogs in rescue to meet this potential level of demand.

The other main lessons learnt were: visit the puppy at least twice before purchase, see the puppy interact with its mother, request health test results, ask more questions and do an online search for the seller’s name. It strikes me that if we could achieve this combination of buying behaviours it could make a significant difference to the puppy-buying process and would make it significantly more difficult for high-volume, poor-welfare breeders to continue their trade.

Next steps: See Mum Twice!

The report suggests that further analysis of the responses will be carried out and acknowledges that more data is needed on the behaviours and experiences of first-time puppy buyers. Both of these will, I’m sure, be helpful.

The current licensing and inspection system is clearly flawed and failing, but the chances of politicians addressing this anytime soon seem remote.

I’ve said before “if you wait for the perfect set of data, you’ll wait a very long time” and there are certainly some actions that can be taken quickly to help nudge buyers in the right direction and to make it more difficult for low-welfare sellers to get away with it. “See Mum twice” could be a key message that has the potential to make a big difference.

Download The Great British Puppy Survey 2016

 

[Originally published in Our Dogs: Author Ian J Seath]

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Grappling for political attention: the case of dog welfare

This article, by Philippa Robinson, was first published on the Centre for Animals and Social Justice blog in October 2014.  With an upcoming election, the message is particularly relevant today…

Lewis… people don’t drink the sand because they are thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference
An American President (Aaron Sorkin 1995)

Campaigners for improved health and welfare in dogs (in England at least) will not be at all disappointed with DEFRA’s initial dismissal of CASJ’s call for an Animal Protection Commission. Not disappointed sadly, because it is what we have come to expect. We have lever-arch files and inboxes full of similar correspondence, all making the same spurious claims.

We are all too familiar with ministerial insistence that: the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) 2006 is sufficient protection for dog welfare; there is no need to consolidate the piecemeal legislation, nor update longstanding laws; local authorities have all the power they need to enforce better breeding and ownership of dogs; DEFRA and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health have issued more than adequate guidance; and, political channels for effective consultation and implementation are in place through such structures as the Animal Health and Welfare Board of England (AHWBE).

That government stands by this, in the case of dogs, is disconcerting because a not-insignificant amount of parliamentary time has been invested in exploring dog welfare and bringing the key issues to their attention. But to what effect?

Running up to and following the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the plight of companion animals received increased scrutiny, with dogs in particular benefiting from that:

  • In 2003 the Companion Animal Welfare Council set up its inquiry into the welfare issues attached to selective breeding with a published report in May 2006.
  • The Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW) led an inquiry into dog health in 2009 and published a full report.
  • The Bateson Inquiry funded by Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club reported in January 2010.
  • As recommended by Bateson an Advisory Council for the Welfare Issues in Dog Breeding (DAC) was established in 2010 whose remit was to provide independent, expert advice and make recommendations including advising on appropriate regulation.
  • That was followed up by the House of Commons Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee inquiry into Dog Control and Welfare resulting in a debate in the main chamber in June 2013.

Therein, ample opportunity was provided to explore the welfare issues attached to dogs, work up actions to address them and elicit political buy-in. Both the EFRA committee and DAC concluded that consolidation of dog law, together with secondary legislation under the AWA 2006 was needed to secure better welfare goals for companion dogs.

In 2013, running alongside these traditional yet frustrating (there still has been no consolidation nor secondary legislation) parliamentary routes to policy improvement a campaigning vet, Marc Abraham, decided that another tactic might prove more fruitful in tackling one pressing welfare issue in dogs. That of unscrupulous intensive production of puppies for the pet market, commonly but unhelpfully referred to as puppy-farming.

In May 2013 Abraham launched an e-petition calling for a ban on the sale of youngpuppies and kittens without their mothers being present, and within six months had received over 111,000 signatures, enough to trigger further action. Now, Angela Roberts points out that e-petitions are proving to be no more than a sop to public opinion as their outcomes are not legally binding and government appears deaf to them. That may well be the case. The life of this e-petition and its resultant debate in the main chamber, however has been revelatory. For as well as amplifying the message that animal welfare is an issue taken very seriously by the public and reiterating the need for more explicit protection and increased resource for effective enforcement, it did something else.

I accept e-petitions may just be sops but the speed with which Abraham’s petition reached the requisite 100k signatories, the profile it achieved within the dog campaigning community, and its highly successful #wheresmum social media campaign meant it gathered some disruptive power, which though limited, may well be extremely valuable to dogs. That power is located not in its ability to rattle government, (as suggested by Angela e-petitions tend not to rattle Government) but in the fact that its momentum rattled the existing stakeholders such as welfare charities and the pet trade. Stakeholders that perhaps, and I am just surmising here, perhaps, had become inured by those prevaricating ministerial mantras.

Initially Marc Abraham’s petition did not enjoy public support from the RSPCA, Dogs Trust, or DAC. It was driven by Marc himself, and a growing body of entrepreneurial campaigning micro-organisations such as CARIAD, ones that are not shackled to corporate interests nor limited by outdated charitable objects. As the petition gained momentum the welfare charities began to express their support and in the final debate were recorded as backing the motion. This expression of support, made late in the day, in turn rattled the pet trade, not least because some of the very same stakeholders such as the Dogs Trust, that now support a ban on selling puppies in pet shops, were only very recently engaging in collaborative drafts of CIEH guidance on pet vending licencing conditions. Guidance that allows for the sale of puppies in pet shops. The Dog Advisory Council has never called for a ban on pet shop sales either but thanks to Marc, now they do. So if nothing else, his petition did at least secure a change in heart amongst key stakeholders.

This petition began to shape the agenda, and it is an agenda that really does need shaping. I have long argued that what dogs need is strong leadership and a coherent strategy if their welfare is to be protected adequately and I have argued that we should be concerned that despite long, illustrious stakeholder histories (dates they were established respectively are RSPCA 1824, Kennel Club 1873, Dogs Trust 1891) dogs are still yet to benefit from coherent legislation and effective enforcement. In his review (published September 2014) of the RSPCA’s prosecutions work Wooler concluded similarly, in stating that the role of the RSPCA now “owes more to history than strategy”. The exact same thing can be said about all mainstream dog welfare organisations. There has never been a “dog strategy”. There is no overall leadership on this matter even with the “independent” DAC. In the absence of both a welfare strategy and strong leadership it is no surprise that the puppy and kitten e-petition, as singular as it was in its focus, grabbed the attention of the pet loving community.

There is one final observation to make about these recent dog-related political activities. In both the EFRA inquiry debate and the e-petition one, backbenchers let slip a very worrying characteristic of our democratic process. That even if calls for consolidation of legislation are heeded by ministers, the civil servants will advise and counsel against it. The civil servants? That revelation felt quite sinister to me and in its light the CASJ’s proposal for “a joined-up” approach to animal welfare involving “deeper, structural changes” no longer seems desirable, but absolutely essential.

Government may have relied on the complex machinations of Westminster to create a mirage of meaningful political activity and they may hope e-petitions remain a sop. I would argue those are dangerous assumptions on which to proceed towards a general election. E-petitions are a great deal easier to understand by the public and failure to listen to them will be very obvious to those of us that have taken part. Petitioners and campaigners like me remain thirsty for political change but are beginning to wonder, given that it is proving so very difficult to secure, that may be all this time we have just been drinking the sand. Parliamentary candidates be aware: an electorate that draws that conclusion is a very different beast from one that does not.

Find out more about Philippa Robinson and The Karlton Index – measuring progress in the health and welfare of dogs

Knowledge and perception of UK Dog Laws – Survey

If you live in the United Kingdom you are invited to take part in a survey being conducted by Anthony Raynor, currently based at Newcastle University. The aim of the study is to assess and evaluate knowledge and perception of UK dog related laws.

The survey consists of 12-20 questions and takes between 8 – 10 minutes to complete (dependent upon responses).

Your responses are completely anonymous and any information gathered will be used solely for the purpose of this research topic in accordance with the Data Protection act 1998.

If you would like any information about the survey or a summary of the results please contact the author at the following e-mail address: a.raynor@newcastle.ac.uk