Archive for March 2012

More about Dog Training

March 19, 2012

www.animalcarecollege.co.uk – caring for people caring for animals

www.rtcbooks.co.uk – Brilliant Books: biography, fiction and non-fiction

 

‘The only thing two dog trainers can agree about is what a third trainer is doing wrong’  Steve White, Vice-president of the USA Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers.

Back in the 1940s, a psychologist called BF Skinner did a great deal of work on animal behaviour.  He argued that it is pointless to imagine what is going on in an animal’s head.  It was better to treat its mind as a black box, closed and unknowable, with inputs that lead to predictable outputs.  He identified four ways to manipulate behaviour: these were – positive reinforcement (good dog – have a biscuit), positive punishment (bad dog – administer physical punishment), negative reinforcement good dog – stop punishment) and negative punishment (bad dog – take away the biscuit).  He argued that by connecting an action to its outcome almost any behaviour can be trained.  Skinner called this ‘operant conditioning’ and considered it as effective for people as for their pets!

There is no doubt that these processes work, but over the years, new ideas have been introduced which emphasise the positive and eliminate the brutal.  Curiously, this change did not come from dog trainers but from marine parks and aquariums.  In the 1960s an animal behaviourist called Karen Pryor discovered that rather than punishing bad behaviour, dolphins and killer whales loved rewards and, more importantly, if a reward was available they would repeat the good behaviour.  She found that all she needed to do was wait for the behaviour she wanted, give a reward. Very quickly, the animal would repeat the behaviour because it wanted the satisfaction and pleasure of the extra food.  She also discovered that even if you replaced the reward of food with a whistle, the behaviour would be repeated.  She once taught a goldfish to swim through a tiny hoop in response to the flicker of a flashlight!  ‘Its easy’, she said.  ‘You just have to have a healthy, hungry goldfish.’  Karen developed what we now know as ’clicker’ training and most advanced training and obedience work with dogs uses the ‘clicker’.

There will be many demonstrations of Heelwork to Music at Crufts and I would be very surprised if any of those dog trainers did not use a clicker.  Certainly Mary Ray, who will once again be putting her dogs through their paces in the big ring, uses the technique and if you ever have a chance to attend one of her demonstrations of how she trains her dogs you will see how effective it is.  This does not mean it is easy: the trainer needs intelligent, amenable dogs who are willing to please and must exercise considerable personal discipline and patience to achieve those displays which look so easy.

Karen Pryor and her colleagues and followers have wrought immense change in the way in which dogs are trained.  Heelwork to Music is a wonderful spectacle but the principle is being used in many ways by dog trainers to make use of the fantastic powers which dogs have to make our lives safer and better.  The dog has immense and useful abilities which can improve our lives and alert us to danger.  Working dogs can jump higher, run faster, see further and hear better as well as being equipped for subduing the most fractious of men.  But these are nothing compared with the sensitivity of their sense of smell, which can detect a few particles of a specific substance per trillion, with ease.  So, apart from being wonderful companions for families and individuals who are also able to take part in our leisure activities whether it be racing, agility, flyball, obedience or hunting or pointing game, dogs have further, more professional roles.  There are three primary areas of their activity: they are the helping hand (as with herding, guide dogs or dogs for the disabled), detection and protection and pursuit.

It is in the interest of all pet dogs to be well trained: to ‘walk to heel’, ‘sit’, ‘wait’ and ‘come’ when told to do so are simple commands well within the training capabilities of most pet owners.  Problems arise when the dogs are, usually inadvertently, spoiled – for once they are adults and have bad habits, it is very difficult to modify their behaviour.  Such problems require specialist skills as does the formal training for leisure pursuits and the higher levels of training required for working dogs.  To have some understanding of the expertise and the knowledge required go to www.petbc.org.uk and click on to the cover of the booklet at the bottom of the homepage called ‘Defining roles for dog behaviour and training professionals’.  If you have not thought about it, you will be amazed at the dedication and patience of those involved and complexity and range of the skills required.

However, let me get back to the development of the modern techniques of dog training.  By the 1940s when Skinner was putting forward his ideas, Guide Dogs for the Blind (as they were then called in the UK) and Seeing Eye (in the USA) were already well established, but it was not until the 60s onwards that Hearing Dogs for the Deaf and Dogs for the Disabled (among many other charitable training groups) were established.  During the last 40 years there has also been a much greater demand for pet dogs to be well trained and in the Kennel Club’s words be ‘good citizens’.  This has led to an explosion of dog trainers at every level – and when there is an explosion there is nearly always collateral damage.

In this case that damage was caused by some trainers and charities being so seduced by the concept of positive reinforcement (the first of Skinners conditioning operants) which they, rightly, perceived as ‘kind’, that they forgot that in the domestic situation there have to be rules and an element of discipline.  This requires a degree of negative reinforcement but this does not, repeat not, mean ‘cruelty’ or hurting the dog in any way.  There is no doubt at all that given the right conditions and an amenable dog which wants to please, positive reinforcement is very effective.  But the enthusiasts for this approach have, as enthusiasts tend to do, taken the idea to the extreme and even used it to distort our understanding of the way in which the mind of the dog works.

You will remember that Skinner felt that the dog’s mind was a black box which we could not begin to understand.  This is no longer the case.  Over the past 60 years we have learned a great deal about how the brains and minds of animals work and an enormous amount of research has gone into trying to understand precisely the way in which developmental, evolutionary, environmental and genetic factors have combined to provide the behaviours that we see in all animals and particularly in dogs.  Unfortunately, much of this research is contradictory and it has led to a significant schism between dog trainers.  I have written in the past that this divide is more a question of semantics then of real differences in approach, but nevertheless those at either end of the spectrum (especially those at the ‘kind’ end of the spectrum) see themselves as being at war!

The key to all this is in the way in which we understand some of the words used to define the various interrelationships between animals of the same species.  Skinner and many of those working with dogs and animals at the time believed that man had to behave in a way that asserted his authority over the animals he wished to train. They drew parallels with what they said was the standard model of relationships in the wild.  This implied a ‘pack’ and a ‘pack leader’, who was in ‘control’ of the group.  The words used to describe these relationships were ‘dominance’ and ‘alpha’ among others designed to emphasise and establish power and authority.  Those committed to using only positive reinforcement techniques believed that this theory was not relevant and that research showed that such ‘packs’ were equivalent to ‘family groups’ and the idea that control was being exercised was both wrong and misleading.  They also suggest that those who do not concur with their view are themselves cruel in the techniques that they use.  Those trainers who see themselves and realists (and recognise that a measure of discipline within society and family groups, which has uncomfortable consequences, is essential if it is to be well ordered) see the first group as ‘bunny huggers’. They suggest that many of the problems of dogs in society  (specifically the increase in dog bites that we have seen over the last few years) is a result of ground rules not being applied.  There have been similar discussions among psychologists regarding the upbringing of children for as long as I can remember – and I began teaching back in 1963!

Who is right?  I do not believe that there is any need to treat dogs cruelly ( and no trainer worth their salt does so) but I am a realist and I was pleased to read a recent article by somebody who should know that rather supports my view.

Roger Abrantes is very well-known in the world of dog training.  He holds a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology and another in Ethology and is the author of seventeen books many of which have become standard works.  He is a world-renowned lecturer on animal behaviour and the drawings of dog positions and expressions he has published are generally agreed to be the clearest and most definitive of the many available.  The article is called ‘Dominance – Making Sense of the Nonsense’ and in it he says: ‘the discussion on dominance has run away with us’.  He explains that the word has ‘so many meanings and connotations that it is difficult to know how to use it as a precise scientific term in the behavioural sciences’.

The article is the first of a series and if you are interested you should certainly follow them through.  You will find them at http://rogerabrantes.wordpress.com.  The detail of his discussion is too long to discuss in Speakers’ Corner but in my view his arguments are convincing and should be studied by everyone who has any interest in dogs and why they behave in the way they do.  This does not just mean dog trainers – it means anyone who feels the important to have a better understanding of canine psychology.

David Cavill is Chairman of the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council.

Caring for animals’ education in schools

March 19, 2012

www.amimalcarecollege.co.uk – caring for people caring for animals

www.rtcbooks.co.uk – Brilliant Books: biography, fiction and non-fiction

An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. Benjamin Franklin

I have been very lucky over the years and been given a helping hand in almost all of my endeavours by friends, family and sometimes just acquaintances.  They are far too numerous to mention but within the world of dogs, in education and in all other activities with which I have been involved, individual kindnesses have far outweighed the occasional attempt to trip me up.  And I have been lucky, too, in the fact that such attempts have mostly rebounded and I have been able to live my life (rather longer now than Emma Woodhouse’s twenty-one years) with “very little to distress or vex me”.

However regular readers will know that I have the ‘scepticism gene’ deeply embedded in my psyche and I am seldom prepared to take public statements, whether they be from governments, organisations, bureaucratic public relation companies or through advertisements at face value.  It is said that ‘interests never lie’ and I as I get older I have found this increasingly to be the case in almost every aspect of public life: as a result, the scepticism gene has become increasingly sensitive as it has been honed by experience.

Once we are outside the cosy nest of our family and friends (and unfortunately sometimes even inside it) we can develop a very different, public group persona.  In the worst instances it creates the ‘mob’: in more civilised circumstances it gives rise to the ‘spin’.

The reasons are buried deep in our psychology and are complex for it matters not where in the social strata we find ourselves, where we came from or where life is taking us. Neither does our chosen income generating or leisure activity, nor our level of expertise within it, make any difference – we are intellectually and emotionally programmed to do the best for ourselves and those closest to us and all the research indicates that the selfish gene has been the prime driver for the advancement and the success of humanity.  That said, our brains have developed many dimensions: dimensions which allow us to analyse, make judgements, be protective, thoughtful, helpful and work together for the common good. This may be partly of course, because the common good benefits us as well, but also because in our climb down from the trees – or out of the swamp – a trait has emerged which we broadly refer to as ‘humanity’.  The reasons for this are discussed in depth by many philosophers and scientists and two of the best summaries of these ideas are to be found in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind – both of which I thoroughly recommend.

So, despite the chaos of the world around us, sometimes at home and often abroad, ‘humanity’ gives us hope that we will eventually achieve civilised balance.

These thoughts were triggered by a recent meeting at the House of Commons of the All Party Group for the Welfare of Animals (APGAW) – there is nothing like the workings of our Houses of Parliament to bring you down to earth.

I have reported all too often about the hypocrisy of the major charities.  Most were founded (and their Trustees continue to attempt to administer them) with the best of motives and I am happy to accept that they continue to do some very important and useful work within society but, like government departments and big business, they lose focus and become more concerned with the continuance of the organisation than its objectives – as we saw in OUR DOGS last week in my article concerning the new CEO of the RSPCA.  These organisations recognise they have common aims but often find it difficult to work together because of their specific ‘interests’.  For instance, the Pet Advisory Committee (www.petadvisory.org.uk) does a great deal of good work and has established itself as a useful forum for government and local authorities but some years ago the RSPCA tried to force through its views (specifically on licensing, if I remember rightly) and had to resign (it is now back as an observer, I understand, but not as a member).

I am therefore delighted to be able to report a very positive and valuable initiative by the major animal charities and some associated organisations (one of which is the Kennel Club) which I believe will have significant and valuable long-term effects.  To begin with, it was a pleasure to hear David Allen, a senior employee of the RSPCA and a man I have known for many years, say in public, that he saw his role as ‘putting himself out of a job’. David has been working with Vicki Craighill of the PDSA on a project which is being supported by seventeen pet related charitable and trade organisations and which is funded largely by one of them – the Pet Food Manufacturers Association.  They have come together to form the Animal Welfare Education Alliance and I was very impressed with their presentation.

This project has been two years in the making and is the result of the group, recognising that if pets are to be looked after properly within our society, work needs to be done within schools to help pupils understand society’s responsibility for animals and how they should be careful.  There is some work done in schools now and much of it is extremely valuable.  The Pet Care Trust encourages pet retailers to help schools in projects, particularly in primary schools and there is a great deal of piecemeal information on the Internet but this new proposal has an ambitious twofold objective.

The first is to provide a one-stop shop for information and signposting to useful material for schools regarding pet ownership and pet care.  It is also hoped to create specific material for schools so that children understand what their pets need to ensure that they are healthy and happy.

Secondly, and more importantly, they want to persuade the government in their forthcoming deliberations regarding changes to the national curriculum, that knowledge and understanding of the five welfare needs of animals – diet, environment, companionship, behaviour, and health- of the importance of pets to people and that their care and welfare should be an essential and integrated component of the education of all children.
The Alliance believes, as I do, that teaching children about animal welfare from an early age ‘can bring about positive change for animals and help shape compassionate and responsible citizens of the future’.

They have done some of their research in the United States (where there is lots of activity but which I think is patchy at best and insignificant at worst) but, in my view, they should turn their attention to Australasia.  Such programs are already well established in New Zealand and Australia and the resources available to teachers are superb.  They do not just include Teachers Resource Kits but often involve free visits to Primary Schools: there are 65 trained pet educators with their temperament tested pets available in the State of Victoria in Australia alone and they go to hundreds of schools every year.  I hope that the Animal Welfare Education Alliance will draw heavily on the Australasian experience, not just because of the resources that State provides and which are available but because the success of the programs ought to provide an important and powerful lever when the group comes to lobby the Department of Education.
Subjects which are already established in the school curriculum such as science, Citizenship and PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) already provide opportunities to incorporate Animal Welfare into lessons.  But what the Alliance would like to do is to see is a ‘thread’ of animal welfare education throughout the key stages of education in the UK, which will help shape responsible citizens who understand how they should care for animals and, of course, why they should do so.  Such programmes, which are founded on the reasons why animals are protected and why they are important to people, encompass scientific, legal, moral and ethical issues which are educationally essential and are crucial facets of our everyday lives.

I therefore urge you to write to your MP supporting this group and asking that animal care education be incorporated into the national curriculum.  We know that MPs are bombarded with circular letters and e-mails which have been generated by small groups.  It is clear where they have come from and they are usually treated as the ‘spam’ that they are.  But this means that an individual letter from a constituent in their own words, carries considerably more weight. So please do not hesitate to put pen to paper or digit to keyboard.  The long-term effects on the care of pet animals in the UK could be significantly improved if this initiative goes through.

Initial reaction by some specialists in the industry has been suspicious: they fear that the powerful and well-heeled charities will shoehorn their agendas into the curriculum.  This is understandable but my view is modified by my 26 years teaching experience.  One of my responsibilities as Head of Department at a large comprehensive school was a marvelous educational initiative called the Humanities Curriculum Project and I know that any such component of the curriculum will be filtered through teachers (who may have their own interests and we have to put up with that), who would not be prepared to simply propagate the specific interests of any interest group.  Also, because so many people are involved in the development of this material, which includes the Kennel Club and the Pet Care Trust as well as the National Office of Animal Health and the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, we can be assured that the material will be balanced.
How gratifying it is, when pet animals – and pedigree dogs in particular – are being put under so much pressure from so many directions, to be able to be so positive.

Brave new world

March 2, 2012

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

RTC Books – Brilliant Books: biography, fiction and non-fiction

‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’ Prospero in the Tempest – Shakespeare

There was a brilliant full page advertisement in The Times a few days ago which consisted of 2000 words of text.  The type was quite small (about 8pt) and the text was so laid-back that most people would quickly have tired and turned the page.  However, I was fascinated and I continued to read paragraph on paragraph until I discovered that not turning the page meant that you were the sort of person the advertisement was designed for.  There were no logos and there was no heading – you actually had to read every word to find out what it was about.  I found it fascinating and it was not until a few lines before the end that there was an e-mail address to contact.  If you had got that far and would be interested in the job that they had to offer you are asked to contact an email address direct – and not tell anyone else.  It was a recruitment advertisement for MI6!  This weeks Speakers’ Corner is a bit like that.  You need to read all of it to get the point

A couple of months ago Channel 4 broadcast three unusual plays under the heading Black Mirror.  The programmes were created by Charlie Brooker who, apart from being a writer, columnist and broadcaster, is a comedian whose style is described as ‘satirical pessimism’.  He has been responsible for cartoons and cartoon strips, one of which had to be pulled from the shelves of newsagents because it suggested that one way of making society safer was to allow children and young people to take out their aggressive instincts on animals rather than humans.  Many found the images not just uncomfortable but shocking.  Eight years ago he wrote a column on George W Bush and the then forthcoming US Presidential election which concluded with the words ‘John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr – where are you now that we need you?’.

This may give you some idea of the compelling power and drive of these three plays which are set sometime in the future, although not so far as not to provide a recognisable environment.  One of my theatrical heroes is Kenneth Tynan, a critic and writer of extraordinary brilliance whose criticism during the late 40s, 50s and early 60s provided some of the finest analysis of plays and players that have ever been penned.  Lawrence Olivier recruited him to work for what was then the new National Theatre and although their quarrels are legendary, it was a time of immense creativity in British theatre.  I am fortunate to be old enough to have been there and I still remember Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic in 1960 with a young Judi Dench as Juliet and an amazing Lear with Paul Scofield, which was directed by Peter Brook at the Aldwych when the Royal Shakespeare Company was in residence.  This last was so good that for many years, directors did not have the courage to revisit the play as it would inevitably be judged against this particularly spectacular production.  I think that Ken Tynan would have been knocked out by Black Mirror.

So what was it all about and why has it any relevance to those whose passion is pedigree dogs?  The plays are focused on an extrapolation of current trends in society and the media.  The first concentrated on the increasingly bizarre demands of artists to gain attention for their ideas and thoughts, the second on the incredible impact of TV talent shows such as Britain’s Got Talent and the X Factor while the third took the concept of recording everything that happens in your life (as so many currently do through their mobile phones and the Internet), to the point where everything that happens in your life could be recorded and played back to yourself and to others via a chip that you could have embedded behind your ear.

These thoughts were triggered by a conversation I had with the secretary of a general canine society – please be patient.  I am getting there.  She told me that she is having an extraordinarily difficult time finding judges for her shows and that other secretaries she knows (and she seems to know an awful lot) are in the same position.  She has calculated that it takes between two and three hours to find one judge that is prepared to officiate and the reason appears to be twofold.  Firstly, breed specialists are reluctant to travel far when the entry is likely to be very low.   She makes the point that there is a tendency for breed specialists to have lower entries anyway, simply because they are nearly always identified by exhibitors as having preferences for dogs of a particular type (good) or belonging to a particular person (bad).  Whatever the reason, finding suitable specialist judges is becoming increasingly difficult.

I suggested that perhaps it would be sensible to use more all breed judges.  She says that they generally draw a slightly larger entry but this is only the case if they are taking on breeds where they have a genuine knowledge and contact.  They do not do so well in other breeds but most of those she describes as ‘up and coming’ are more interested in clocking up breeds, classes and numbers so they want to do as many as possible to make coming worth their while.

The environment within which general shows are currently working (with some exceptions) is such that there may be an inevitable and fundamental shift in the future, very much like those described in Black Mirror although perhaps not so funny, tragic or dramatic.  We have already seen overseas that judges from some countries are often promoted over their competence.  This is not to say they are not interested in dogs or that they have no knowledge.  But the idea that after breeding a couple of litters and making up a couple of champions (within an environment where that is relatively easy) enables a specialist to judge all breeds (however genuinely they believe that they can) is mind-boggling.

You can see the problem that our Kennel Club has with judges from overseas in allowing them to have the same status as those who, in this country, have 20, 30 and sometimes 40 years experience and have judged many thousands of dogs.  There are many from overseas who have immense experience and acknowledged expertise and commitment and we are always very happy for them to judge in the UK but, and it is a big ‘but’, once an FCI country (and the same applies to the States) has decreed that a judge is competent for a group or for all breeds, they are given exactly the same status as those who have been recognised internationally as genuine experts for many years.

Given what is happening in the UK, what is the likely outcome as far as our specialists and non-specialists are concerned?  Might we find that in 10 years time there is a serious shortage of specialist judges as the world of pedigree dogs comes under more and more pressure from lobby groups who have money and the media ‘ear’ behind them.  It is quite likely that fewer dogs will be bred and therefore fewer shown so the current situation deteriorates and a vicious spiral ensues.  The number of specialist will inevitably contract and those that remain in will have fewer and fewer opportunities to gain experience.

The pressure on societies to appoint non-specialists will increase and it may not be very long before those coming into the show world will think that being judged by a non-specialist is the norm – a non-specialist, who has little experience other than attending seminars and Judges Development Programmes.  We are already in position whereby the number of judges available for JDP is almost exhausted (despite the qualifications bar having been lowered (although for some reason Terriers are an exception) and this is also evidenced by the change in the regulations (which once required judges of varieties and not separately classified classes at championship shows to have been passed for a Group) enabling anyone passed for three sets of tickets (of unrelated breeds) so to do.

Increasing travel costs and financial pressures may make it more and more difficult even to recruit non-specialists, for many of those that we have relied on for many years have been reasonably well-heeled but I understand some have drastically reduced their commitments recently because they feel the time has come to retire, do not want to travel too far, are ill or are not as well-heeled as they used to be.

How will new judges be appointed?  If a fraction of the ideas being put forward in Black Mirror are correct, it might be that judges will eventually be appointed in ways that at the moment we would consider extraordinary.  As I mentioned a few weeks back, the United Kennel Club in the States is allowing anyone to register as a non-specialist judge if they have a few years experience, have bred three champions and are prepared to fork out $20!

In the future, might exhibitors enter a show not knowing who the judge is:  one from their number being selected by lot.  Sounds bizarre?  It already happens if the judge doesn’t turn up!

And how about taking another idea from the X factor.  The judge goes over each dog and watches it move before announcing whether or not it is ‘sound’.  If it is, it stays in the competition: if it is not it leaves the ring.  When all the dogs have been seen, the spectators vote for the dog they want to win using their mobile phones to a series of assigned numbers The computerised programme automatically places them in order.

Might our criteria for judges have to be drastically revised?  It has become a truism that the easiest job at a championship show is selecting the best of the seven Group winners while every weekend dozens of inexperienced judges award prizes in variety classes and NSC without any problem.

Does it matter?  We see actors and actresses for major West End roles being chosen by votes from the general public, millionaires created by the National Lottery, parliamentarians (surely, people we should be able to trust) in jail for behaving fraudulently, top bankers and businessmen taking home huge salaries and bonuses not just when many of their employees who are providing the service (which creates their income) are earning close to the minimum wage but also when their shareholders make a loss and artists who can command hundreds of thousands of pounds by exhibiting their dirty underwear.

I think anything is possible!

A new brush on an old broom handle at the RSPCA

March 2, 2012

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

RTC Books – brilliant books: new publications including biograpahy, fiction and non-fiction

 

A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.’ Bishop Joseph Hall (1574 – 1656)

You have had to hand it to Gavin Grant.  I should like him.  He is a likeable, charming man with an easy-going personality and is something of a rebel too – but I am not comfortable because his ‘causes’ seem to me to come not from deeply held beliefs, but from whatever job is providing his income at the time.  And they are also causes selected to provide him with the high profile which I suspect he craves.

This does not stop him being successful – he is very successful.  He has been a public relations high flyer since the 1970s when he was Organising Secretary of the All-Party Joint Committee against Racism and since that time he has spun (the word is used advisedly) through more jobs than a successful and prolific stud dog has had bitches.

In an interview with PR Week almost exactly seven years ago, Grant explained that he grew up in a politicised household with a passion for sport and, I quote from the article, ‘he quickly learned how to manipulate the media’.

And how!  It was Grant who, when working for the RSPCA in 1989, came up with the idea of using a photograph of a pile of dead dog carcases on the RSPCA stand at Crufts as part of the Society’s campaign to introduce dog licences.   The Kennel Club was, quite rightly, furious and the RSPCA, were not allowed to have a stand for many years thereafter..

After three years at the RSPCA, Grant moved to The Body Shop and was responsible for the Ogoni Campaign, which forced Shell Oil into an out-of-court settlement as a result of allegations which accused the company of complicity in human rights abuses in Nigeria.  This was seriously embarrassing to Shell – which was one of Burston-Marsteller’s clients at that time.  Burston-Marsteller is a hugely successful company and not only has a reputation as the mouthpiece of big business but has become the agency to which corporations turn when they want to cover up misdeeds.  Gavin Grant quickly rose to become its chairman.   B-M has (usually) been very successful and has won many awards for protecting the interests of its clients  These included Phillip Morris (defending smoking), Union Carbide (the Bhophal disaster), AH Robbins (the Dalkon Shield IUD controversy), Google (smearing Facebook), Monsanto (genetically modified foods) and was one of the companies featured in the book ‘Toxic Sludge is Good for You – Lies, Damn Lies and the Public relations Industry’.

Despite his apparent public commitment to ‘liberal’ causes, Grant nevertheless had no problem in joining the Burston-Marsteller UK operation  in 1999!

He was in post when Greenpeace UK head, Lord Melchett, joined the firm causing considerable controversy.  Melchett was appointed to B-M’s Corporate Social Responsibility Unit and in making the announcement, B-M said it ‘expects Lord Melchett’s extensive experience of the NGO community, government and business to provide unique insight for Burston Marsteller clients’.  Not surprisingly, it was said that he (along with Des Wilson, the founder of the homeless charity, Shelter, and another Liberal with ideals who suddenly became a staunch defender of working closely with large corporations) had been head-hunted to boost B-M’s environmental credentials. Melchett was immediately and understandably forced off the board of Greenpeace International.

Now, after a 20 year gap, Grant has returned to the RSPCA as its Chief Executive and has lost no time in stamping his inimitable public relations style on the organisation and focusing its energies and considerable financial resources, not on the improvement of the quality of care on puppy farms or funding research to improve soundness and/or temperament in dogs, but on another attempt to reinstate the dog licence.  The grounds for this reinstatement is that it will ‘foster responsible dog ownership, promote neutering, challenge impulse buying and provide resources to enforce the law and promote dog welfare’.

To this end, Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and her Minister of State, Lord Taylor, were invited to (read: ‘took part in a public relations exercise’) the Society’s Harmsworth hospital in East London so that they, in Gavin Grant’s words, could come ‘face to face with the realities of irresponsible dog ownership and the daily reality of horrific cases of dog fighting, attacks on other pets and wildlife, and the sheer neglect of mankind’s best friend’.

Grant says: ‘we are close to righting a wrong that has been a stain on a nation of so called animal lovers for 25 years’.

Now I am happy to be corrected but as I remember, the Dog Licence in its former existence made not a scrap of difference to the welfare of dogs in society, to the number of dog biting incidents or to identifying dogs with their owners.  And I venture to suggest that its return or for that matter, insistence on micro chipping, will not make any more difference now than it did then.  It is true that there have been many technological advances over the past few years and this (as Grant points out) has enabled the police to much more quickly and effectively track down those whose cars are not taxed, insured or MOT’d.   But Local Authorities and the police have neither the money nor the inclination to follow through on any matters unless there are enough incidents to make it worthwhile.

Despite what appear to be terrible figures, biting incidents are not that common and particularly in days of economic austerity government and local authorities, understandably have to see statistics in context.  55 children were killed on our roads in 2010 compared to one killed by a dog.  Any such incident is tragic but I am afraid that the in assessing the ‘level of risk’ to the population in general and children in particular, it is not high enough to make the enforcement of compulsory micro chipping, licensing or registering worth any government’s while.  This does not mean that legislation or regulation will not be put in place – that part is inexpensive  -but the likelihood of councils enforcing it is increasingly remote.  The concern of local authorities as far as dogs are concerned is fouling, barking and dogs running about out of control and they already have more than enough power to deal with such canine generated nuisances.

The latest estimates of the number of dogs in the community is well over 8 million, an increase of almost 15% on 20 years ago, and yet dogs are much less of a problem to society than they once were.  There are certainly many in rescue, and charities may be under pressure but the number of dogs without owners is a fraction of what it once was.  The reason for rescue centre overcrowding today is nothing to do with packs of dogs roaming the streets but because owners, sometimes for good reason, are unable to keep their dog for its natural lifespan.  This means that many dogs of perfectly sound temperament are ‘in transit’ and consequently are kept by the rescue organisations for much longer than they once were.  They are, quite rightly, reluctant to put healthy and temperamentally sound dogs to sleep but compared to 20 years ago, the number of healthy dogs killed today is very much smaller.

All this is nothing to do with licensing but is instead as a result of a series of Environmental Protection Acts and Clean Neighbourhood Acts and the subsequent amendments and Orders made under them.  Whether or not you are happy with the restrictions that these Acts have placed upon dog owners, there is no doubt that they have ensured better care of dogs in the community and the appointment of dog wardens and outside contractors has, in these instances, been very positive.  However, it seems clear that one of the cost-cutting measures being put in place by local authorities is to cut back on services such as dog wardens so the implementation of further measures does not give me any confidence that they will be effective.

It is worrying that the announcement by Lord Taylor of Holbeach about the ‘package of measures to tackle irresponsible dog owners’ came precisely at the time he and Caroline Spelman made their visit to the RSPCA hospital.  It seems to me that the two events indicate that the government and the charity are working closely together – but that is what you would expect of Gavin Grant, who has had many high-profile contacts with the Liberal Democrats over the years and, indeed, once stood for election to the House of Commons.

Grant says that not putting in place a ‘real system of dog registration is a stain on a nation of so-called dog lovers’.  What nonsense!

The role of government is to regulate society for there will always be those amongst us who will at the least ‘push the envelope’ and at most behave in a way that is unacceptable and criminal.  But my experience is that the vast majority of people genuinely care for their dogs and look after them well.   Although the figures relating to dogs which are in rescue or not cared for properly sound alarming, they are an extraordinarily small proportion of eight million.  It would be wonderful if that proportion was zero percent but if we are realistic we know that is not going to happen whatever regulations are brought in – and that the costs of implementing and monitoring a registration system is out of all proportion to the problem.