Archive for July 2012

The Politics of the Pet Industry (updated 2014

July 25, 2012

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

 

I have long been involved in the politics of the pet industry.  In the late 1980s I attended an important meeting in London when the Pet Trade Association and the Pet Industry Association first came together as one body.  Soon afterwards, Barry Huckle who was appointed its first secretary, invited me to join the board of the charity which was established as a result of the merger – the Pet Care Trust.  I even ran the Trust for a few months in 2004 and I have been honoured to be its chairman for the last two years.  For this reason and because, as the Director General’s deputy of Battersea Dogs Home, I was often asked to be the representative for Association of British Cats and Dogs Homes, I was drawn into many groups concerning the welfare of pet animals.

I became a member of a number of committees set up to advise and/or lobby government.  The most important was the Dangerous Dogs Reform Group, which did eventually force through some much-needed changes to the law, and the committee under Mary Fretwell which was instrumental in establishing pet passport legislation (although to be honest this was more, in the end, to do with European legislation than our government’s willingness to listen to Mary!).

At one time, the most important organisation in this area was the Pet Advisory Committee (PAC) which was then recognised as the main forum for pet animals in society.  Most of the major charities and institutions, including Dogs Trust (then the National Canine Defence League), Blue Cross, PDSA, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the National Institute of Animal Health, who were concerned about the welfare of animals in society were members.  I was instrumental in persuading the Committee to invite both the Kennel Club and the Pet Care Trust into membership.  There was a degree of suspicion from the RSPCA and others but it was soon recognised that they had the welfare of dogs and pets as their main objective.  That said, there were often major disagreements about how those objectives should be achieved.

The work of the Pet Advisory Committee

For many years PAC was funded by Pedigree Petfoods and its Chairman was an influential Environmental Services Officer called Lou Leather who was a major player in the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.  His position enabled him to persuade his colleagues and government to listen to our conclusions.  Lou and I had many battles but Ithink we always respected each other and became friends.  When he stepped down through ill-health and Pedigree decided they had better things to do with their money, things changed very quickly and, in my view, PAC now has much less influence – although I understand that it is becoming more active and is beginning to regain its former status under its new chairman Tracey Crouch MP and its Secretary, my friend, Miranda Luck.   Its remit is ‘to encourage the introduction of effective legislation by influencing Government and key opinion formers and to represent the most appropriate view on such matters (via its membership) in order to ensure its recommendations are pertinent, reasonable, comprehensive and enhance the welfare pet animals’.    These are worthy objectives and although PAC has often moved, in my view, much too far towards legislation and regulation its briefing and position papers are well worth looking at.  You can find them at http://www.pet advisory.org.uk./

Dismay

However, I have watched in some dismay as organisations have left PAC (the RSPCA did so because they disagreed with some policies although I have no idea why the Chartered Institute is no longer involved).  This is not just because PAC has gradually become less effective but another factor is, I believe, more important.  Almost all these organisations have become institutionalised and the interests of their staff and some of their committee members have gradually eroded their primary objectives so that they are now largely about creating enough income to keep the organisation solvent (although most of them have plenty of money if it was used properly!).  I discussed this very topic in a recent article (click here to access it) so I will not elaborate here.

Suffice to say that over the last few years many have become extraordinarily protectionist, focusing on narrow objectives and the promotion of their own particular agendas.  Some work together on specific issues but the idea of developing policies to which everyone can sign up to and promote appears to have died.  The one bright spot is the recent innovation by the Pet Foods Manufacturing Association to try to persuade the government to establish the responsible care of pets as an integral element of the National Curriculum.

The new focus

The focus of influence these days, where everyone comes together and which seems to have some influence on government, is the Associate Parliamentary Group for the Welfare of Animals (APGAW).  I have a lot of time for its current chairman, Neil Parish and I have met him on a number of occasions one of which was a particularly interesting lunch.  He comes from a farming family and has long had a concern and interest in animal welfare.  APGAW meets five or six times a year at Westminster.  The group is made up of parliamentarians who are primarily responsible for setting the agenda on the basis of current concerns.  But there are also about 100 associates (groups and individuals who pay £30 a year to attend meetings) who range from the Kennel Club through to representatives of what can only be described as extreme animal rights groups.  I attend on behalf of the Animal Care College and, occasionally, the Pet Care Trust.

Because Defra and the Home Office take note of the minutes of APGAW meetings, influential MPs are usually present and, occasionally, Ministers make an appearance.  This means that there may be an opportunity to gain the ear of parliamentarians because Associates take part in the discussion.  The Chairman and secretariat arranges for information on current concerns to be provided at the meeting by authorities on those subjects.  Recent discussions have included the welfare of animals in circuses, greyhounds and, of course, dangerous dogs and dog breeding.

Our Dogs reports very fully on APGAWs latest interim report on dog breeding elsewhere in this current issue. You may like to know that Lord Taylor, currently the Minister responsible for these matters, said at an APGAW meeting in April that he was ‘prepared to consider any proposals which would improve the welfare of dogs and breeding establishments as long as it does not place a disproportionate burden on those running such establishment.’  He went on to say that he will be most interested in suggestions which were ‘not based on legislation’ and I made a point in support of his statement that more legislation is not what is required: what is needed enforcement of those laws already in place and the education of all young people in schools about the responsibilities of pet ownership.

I feel that APGAW is an important forum but there is no doubt, as demonstrated by this latest report, that these matters are much more complicated than suggested by the simplistic myriad of solutions which are so often bandied about and that huge areas of concern, such as the sensible training dogs as I discussed recently (click here to access) being an excellent example, are virtually ignored.

 

Defra joins the fray

In an attempt to bring some order to this unsatisfactory state of affairs, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has created its own ‘official’ advisory board which has as its objective the assessment of the various and often conflicting reports, ideas and recommendations which lobby groups and charities throw at officials.  Called the Animal Health and Welfare Board  for England it was formed in 2012 and Defra describes it as ‘the principal source of departmental advice to Defra ministers on all strategic health and welfare matters relating to all kept animals in England.  Its role is to ‘set the strategic policy framework using it as the basis for day-to-day advice ministers and operational day-to-day actions’.  Defra ministers are expected to accept the advice agreed by the board and if in exceptional circumstances they decide not to accept it they must make public the reasons for the rejection.

Unfortunately there is a glaring absence of representation in one sector.  It it is quite clear from recent meetings that canine, feline and other pet related matters have taken a backseat and that farming has been at the forefront.  This is not likely to change.

To feed into the new Board a new lobby has been set up.  This consists of all the canine and feline organisation which have’ the financial resources to change the health and welfare of dogs’.  The Canine and Feline Sector Group is chaired by the Chairman of the Kennel Club, Steve Dean MRCVS, himself recently retired as a veterinary adviser to Defra.  Its remit is to advise the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England on the key issues affecting dogs and cats and it is hoped it will help to form strategies, solutions and the delivery of formal regulations and informal initiatives.  Of course it is just one of many lobby groups such as the British Association of Dogs Homes, the other charities, the Dog Breeding Advisory group the Dog breeding Reform Group among the many others referred to above.

Will these new initiatives be effective.  We must hope that they are – and that does not mean more regulation:   more understanding between the various competing organisations should be the first step.

Unsensible Dog Training

July 25, 2012

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for pets

It is an excellent rule to be observed in all disputes, that men should give soft words and hard arguments; that they should not so much strive to vex as to convince each other.  John Wilkins English clergyman 1614-1672

I have expressed the view on many occasions that the current ‘touchy-feely’ approach to dogs is not in their best interests or ours.  Dogs are unique within the animal kingdom, partly as a result of their extraordinarily flexible genetic base and partly as a result of the way which we have used and exploited those abilities for our own purposes.  The changes which have been wrought via this astonishingly rapid development encouraged by human induced alterations in their DNA has not just affected their physical characteristics but their temperament too.

Our dependence on the love and affection we receive from our dogs has led some to believe that their  intelligence has kept pace with the enhancement and development of their amazing instinctive abilities.  There is no doubt that the evolution of the dog will continue and who knows what the future might bring but, for the moment, dogs are very much creatures caught between the world of the wild and the world of humans.  Much research into primates, dolphins and horses shows that intelligence is evolving in other animals but the dog remains different and, to us, special.  This very distinctiveness has led to significant problems within society through the development of an interdependence which at the extreme means that they are often treated more like children than animals.  We sometimes ‘trust’ our dogs in the way we would ‘trust’ the word or action of human: this is not a safe or sensible attitude.

The ‘new’ approaches to training

Those who 30 years ago began to question the harsh and traditional training regimes then accepted – people like John Fisher and John Rogerson to name but two, -have seen their ideas which were designed to encourage positive reinforcement of ‘good’ behaviour, being distorted out of all recognition by ‘modern’, academic animal behaviourists in whose interests it is to provide complicated (and sometimes inaccurate) answers to questions of behaviour based on research which ignores the wide range of complex domestic situations within which dogs find themselves.  They have exploited our natural desire not to hurt animals to the extent that even techniques preventing them harming themselves or others are seen as cruel.

Some members of the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council (PETbc) an organisation which brings together  people with immense experience and expertise in training dogs and modifying their behaviour, believe that one of the foremost exponents of this approach is Professor John Bradshaw late of Southampton and Bristol Universities.  They think that he is someone who has used his academic position to promote his ideas into the national consciousness through various training, lobby and charity groups and they have just published a research paper which claims to prove it.  They refer to studies done in the past under his auspices and point out that they arrived at and promoted conclusions which are not justified by the research on which they are based.  They also say that this research has not been submitted for peer review because, as their paper makes clear, it would inevitably have been severely criticised.  However, this review by experts working in the field shows many of his recommendations to be fundamentally flawed.

On his retirement Professor Bradshaw published a book titled ‘In Defence of Dogs: Why Dogs Need Our Understanding’.  This is a book which was reviewed with enthusiasm in the national press, mostly by those who know little about the practice of the training and behaviour modification of dogs.  One or two of the more responsible Nationals published reviews by recognised practitioners but all concentrated on readability and ‘interest’ and it was noticeable that virtually none made any comment on the accuracy of the examples or the viability of his conclusions.

New analysis and critique

The book has now been thoroughly analysed by two highly qualified very experienced dog trainers and behaviourists (Dr David Sands and Sarah Muncke).  You can read the full paper under the Education Article on their website (www.petbc.org.uk).  David is a human-companion animal practitioner who specialises in the treatment of behavioural problems displayed by dogs, cats, birds, horses and even exotic species. He is an internationally established animal-related author and photographer having also researched human psychology and zoology. David gained his doctorate in ethology (the science of animal behaviour) at the Faculty of Science, Liverpool University.  Sarah has over 30 years experience in animal rescue work and the management and care of dogs. For the past 15 years Sara has been the manager of an independent canine welfare home. During her career Sara has assessed over 16,000 dogs on behalf of the Chiltern Dog Rescue Society.

Their critique is a devastating analysis of the liberties they say that Professor Bradshaw has taken with the facts. Embedded in its pages are, according to them,  regurgitated acres of distorted scientific argument – some of which has been the subject of previous Speakers Corners* (I thoroughly recommend Bad Science by Ben Goldacre for an analysis of ‘bad science’ techniques of which this book is now said to be an excellent example). A key criticism is contained in an early paragraph of the analysis: ‘One of the strongest arguments against Bradshaw is the way he dumps all dog trainers/practitioners into a single negative group save only those he has an affinity/association with. If anyone published a book declaring all other biologists to be wrong – to be misled by research, mistaken about experiments and modeling and declared they are all using inconclusive methodologies – they would be challenged.’

Apparently Professor Bradshaw makes no attempt to understand or take into account the skills or experience of many dog trainers and behaviourists working effectively in this country and champions techniques which, in the view of many practitioners (much more experienced than me, I should add) has actually led to an increase in biting incidents (again see previous Speakers’ Corners*).  And if Professor Bradshaw has ever treated or trained a dog professionally we appear to be given no evidence that this is the case.

Strong stuff you may say – but you do not have to take my word for it.

Roger Mugford’s assessment

Having read the critique, Roger Mugford wrote the following which I quote with his permission: ‘The man-dog relationship should be a fascinating field for scientific study, but sadly it has attracted the least able academics who have confined their research to exploring the most anodyne topics. A recent analysis by Liverpool University (and sponsored by DEFRA) into the scientific worth of all recent published papers on dog behaviour concluded that only three out of thousands were properly conducted and produced robust data (see more details in previous Speakers Corners*).  None of John Bradshaw’s numerous publications passed the Liverpool test.  Bradshaw’s working ‘method’ whilst at Southampton University, then later at Bristol, was to pick a populist topic likely to excite Daily Mail readers (such as the defecatory habits of dogs), set unpaid students onto a tiny pool of pets and owners, then run fancy statistical analyses on dubiously scored behavioural data. This ‘rubbish in/rubbish out’, technique is used to outrageous effect in Bradshaw’s latest book. ‘In Defence of Dogs’, which contains a litany of untested theories that were probably only promulgated to milk the academic grant system and never meant to seriously contribute to development of our dog  culture. Unfortunately, this pretentious book is likely to have damaging consequences if it is taken seriously.  Imagining that dogs are the only species on the planet that do not develop social order by competitively determined dominance-subordinance systems, is a narrow interpretation of the ethological consensus.  Dr Bradshaw has done well ‘working’ the university and commercial grant system: he has worked in an uncritical world that rewards apparent effectiveness, numbers of post graduate students and of course, papers published.’

I am afraid Dr Sand’s paper refuting much of what is contained in Professor Bradshaw’s book will not be given the prominence and publicity which surrounded the launch of the book it criticises but I least we can hope that those serious about training dogs and modifying their behaviour will have access to the facts