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

 

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.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Last month, I commented on the potential unintended consequences of breeders endorsing their puppies because “that’s what responsible breeders do”. There aren’t enough well-bred, KC registered puppies to meet demand and an estimated 70% of pedigree puppies are not KC registered. If someone has bought an endorsed puppy (dog or bitch) and is determined to breed from it, they are more likely to look for an unregistered mate and produce a litter of yet more unregistered puppies. They are unlikely to go back to their puppy’s breeder for advice or to understand what health tests may be required. It is debatable how much knowledge they will have about canine husbandry, how to care for a pregnant bitch or how to rear and socialise puppies.

Not only might this result in more pedigree dogs being bred outside the KC registration system but it probably also increases the chances of the puppies growing up with temperament and developmental issues.

A quick trawl through any of the online puppy sales sites shows just how many unregistered dogs are being bred and advertised. Many of the puppies (certainly in my breed) look rather untypical specimens and seem to command virtually the same prices as KC registered ones.

More “responsible owner” fallacies?

In this country, many new owners are encouraged by their vet to neuter their dogs. The BVA’s policy on neutering states:

“Neutering helps to reduce the number of unwanted litters. BVA strongly supports the practice of neutering cats (castration of tom cats and spaying of queens) and dogs (castration of dogs and spaying of bitches) for preventing the birth of unwanted kittens and puppies and the perpetuation of genetic defects. Such surgical intervention removes the problems associated with finding homes or increasing the stray population.”

The 2018 Dogs Trust survey said there were 56,000 stray dogs across the UK, which is the lowest level reported by councils for 21 years. That’s about half a percent of the UK dog population and hardly seems the best evidence for neutering. About 10,000 of those strays ended up in welfare organisations. The Dogs Trust report also estimated that 130,000 dogs come into rehoming charities every year.

A recent paper (Throwing the Baby Out With the Bath Water: Could Widespread Neutering of Companion Dogs Cause Problems at a Population Level? – Dawson et al) starts by saying “In many countries, ‘responsible dog ownership’ also involves spaying and castration”. In the USA, Australia and New Zealand, neutering is normal practice now and, in some cases, puppies are neutered at a very young age, before they go to their new homes. In contrast, in several European and Scandinavian countries, routine neutering is not the norm and is considered to be mutilation, similar to ear-cropping or tail-docking. In those countries, it is illegal. Here, just over half of all dogs are neutered as part of so-called responsible dog ownership.

More than health impacts

There have been numerous studies on the association between neutering and dog health. These cover large breeds where there are links with musculoskeletal conditions such as hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament disease, and also with osteosarcoma and diabetes. In my own breed, our 2015 and 2018 breed surveys identified an association between neutering and an increased risk of back disease. A VetCompass study published this year showed that spaying of bitches increased the risk of urinary incontinence.

The information on the effects of neutering on behaviour is more mixed, with some studies suggesting it increases the risk of nervous aggression and others saying it reduces dog-dog aggression.

The Dawson paper considers the possible effects of widespread neutering on the breeding of dogs and their success as human companions. The authors describe 3 types of breeder:

  • Hobby breeders – who are often very experienced in a breed and often also participate in canine activities such as showing, obedience or agility. These people breed for their hobby/sport primarily, rather than to supply the pet market.
  • Commercial breeders – who breed primarily to make a living (profit) and specifically target the pet market, with higher volumes of puppies.
  • The general public – who have a dog and decide to breed from it, possibly without much experience of husbandry, whelping or puppy-rearing. They may be described as “backyard breeders” and probably know very little about health testing or genetics. They possibly breed because “it would be nice for Daisy to have puppies” or “to make a bit of money”.

No doubt breeders in all 3 groups would describe themselves as “responsible” but, Dawson et al go on to explain the changes they feel are needed if dogs and owners are not to be exploited.

Firstly, breeding choices and puppy-rearing processes should be based on knowledge of good practices. Clearly, schemes such as the Assured Breeder Scheme and the Dog Breeding Standard can help here. The free resources for breeders on the KC Academy is another useful starting point.

Secondly, they advocate that all dogs should be independently tested for suitability before being bred from. In addition to suitability from a health point of view, they believe behavioural testing is important to check their suitability to be good companion animals. There are several canine mentality/behaviour tests available, but programmes such as the KC’s Good Citizen Dog Scheme is another option. Dogs that are themselves good companions, are more likely to produce puppies that will be as well.

Thirdly, experienced breeders should be helping their puppy buyers who may be interested in having a litter so that these people don’t become “backyard breeders”. It would be relatively easy to include advice on breeding in the puppy pack that is given to new owners. Advising them not to neuter could also be beneficial from a genetic diversity perspective by keeping breeding options open. Widespread neutering excludes thousands of ideal companions from the gene pool. This includes dogs neutered by their breeder before sale or those who are sold with a contract stipulating they should be neutered or not bred from.

The paper concludes by saying: “Over the long term, a more considered approach to the breeding of companion dogs would help lessen the gap between owner expectations and the dogs available to them. However, this is only possible if attitudes toward neutering are addressed and “responsible ownership” is broadened to include a dynamic partnership between owners and breeders to produce dogs most suited for life as companions.

If we don’t change our thinking on what is meant by “responsible breeding” and take a population-wide view, we risk continuing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. More and more unregistered puppies will be bred by inexperienced people and the gene pools of our closed stud books will get even smaller.

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]