I have just been listening to a section on BBC Radio 2 about dogs, breeding and the idea that many people are simply acquiring dogs that, to be honest, are wholly unsuitable to their lifestyle and, by extension, to the dog’s innate drives. This can, and often does, result in a doubly disappointing situation: a dog who is frustrated, and may end up displaying symptoms of that frustration, such as destructive behaviours (eg furniture chewing), and may end up being abandoned or rehomed; and owners who are equally frustrated, and end up with mixed emotions, including possible feelings of resentment towards their dog, or guilt that they can’t seem to satisfy their dog’s exercise or behavioural needs, and who may feel that they are left with few choices over what to do. The facts are that rescue and rehoming centres are seeing record numbers of dogs being admitted, reflecting a depressing state in which too many dogs are being given up by owners, for a multitude of reasons. However, on the flip side, as a vet I regularly see lots and lots of new puppies, purchased from breeders, often for hundreds of pounds, and in many cases perhaps questionable in terms of their suitability for that particular family or owner.
Why are dogs being given up?
There are many reasons why someone might feel they have to make the decision to rehome their dog, and it is important to point out that in the vast majority of cases such a decision will not have been reached lightly and will represent a heartbreaking and traumatic event for both the owner and the dog. The owners that I speak to in this position feel that there is simply no other choice and it is emotionally devastating to those clients, most of whom will have already explored all the other potential options for their dog (eg rehoming with a family member, seeking behavioural therapy, and more). The main reasons that I encounter for dogs being given up for rehoming are:
- Lifestyle factors – the breed of dog that was originally purchased as an adorable bundle of 8 week fluff has actually grown into a super-athletic, busy, intelligent animal who needs to be continuously stimulated and requires regular and long periods of exercise in order to stay both mentally and physically fit and stable. The classic example here is a Border Collie, which is traditionally a working dog used for herding. I have a friend who trains for and runs ultra-marathons. He takes his Collie out with him on runs and whereas he is ruined by the time he gets back in, his dog will have spent the entire run darting ahead and back, and generally not stopping, covering, in all likelihood, about five times the distance. And not even be tired! How can the average family, or even someone living in an urban environment or with a busy job, possibly be expected to cater to such a dog’s apparently insatiable exercise needs? We then act all shocked and upset when the same dog starts turning on our sofa to burn off some of their nervous energy. Who was on hand to advise that new owner about whether such a breed was actually a good lifestyle fit for them? Whose responsibility is it? Vets? Breeders? The Kennel Club? The Government? The owner’s themselves?
- Change of circumstances – many people will purchase, or otherwise take on, a dog as a family, or perhaps with a partner and all is rosy and joyful at the time of acquiring said pooch. Life, however, has a way of serving up curveballs and some of those relationships may hit the ropes and, sadly, break up. What happens to the dog in those situations? Who is responsible for them? What was agreed at the time of getting them about what would happen in such an unthinkable scenario? Oh, nothing was discussed? This is a situation that unfortunately does seem to occur all too often and the dog ends up being in limbo between owners who either don’t want them or haven’t got the means or set-up to continue caring for them. The result is that said dog finds itself in a rehoming centre. Sad all round. Now, some may be baulking at the idea of a ‘puppy pre-nup’ but I think the idea has merit. We are used to thinking about our options and possible worst-case scenarios in many other aspects of our lives, including marriages, so why not take the time to really discuss and agree what would happen to Freckles the Labrador should he find himself in the middle of a messy break-up? It may be that the result of this discussion is that you both decide to get a different breed, which would be more suitable to a potentially different situation, or even, dare I say it, to opt for a cat instead, although that’s a whole other discussion. The point is that taking on a dog means to accept the responsibility for another life, much as you do when bringing a child into the world, and so you owe it to that dog to be sure about what will happen to it in the future. Unfortunately, too many people seem to just rush into the whole ‘get a puppy’ thing, caught up in the giddy excitement of the experience, without thinking long-term.
- Cost – it was interesting to note that the Radio 2 discussion did not, at any point, mention cost as a factor. This was surprising as I would argue that for many people who end up giving up their pets, not just dogs, the cost, or rather unexpected costs, of keeping that pet represents a major factor. Owning and caring properly for a dog over the course of it’s lifetime, which on average seems to be about 12 years, costs a lot of money. That’s a fact. The figures naturally vary but some estimates place the total cost at anything up to £15k! These costs include insurance cover, food, kenneling, and of course healthcare. This is the point that I am sure I should be getting ready to become all defensive about vets and what we cost, and answer the inevitable charges of us all being “ridiculously expensive.” I can, and probably will, write a separate lengthy post on this subject, but the facts remain that providing a dog with good, lifelong healthcare is expensive. Failing to provide such care, or attempting to do it “on a budget” is often a false economy. It does always amaze, sadden and usually anger me that many people will gladly fork out hundreds of pounds on a new puppy from a breeder yet baulk at the idea of spending the same amount, or usually less, on a trip to the vets and a course of treatment. I cannot get my head around the logic. The main point, however, is that for some the costs of owning a dog become too great and they feel there are no options other than to rehome that animal, which is desperately sad.
What’s the answer?
I wish I knew as it would be a dream come true to be able to fix the problem and instantly empty the rehoming centres, with all dogs happy and secure in a suitable and loving home. I do, however, have some thoughts…
- Breeders – I agree with the gentleman interviewed on the segment about dog breeding best being done by responsible hobbyists, who are in a better position in many cases, to properly socialise their puppies and who are able to advise and cater to potential new dog owners on a local level. Socialisation is one of the key factors in any dog’s long-term health and mental stability, and of course it’s going to be difficult to do a great job at an early age in a large commercial breeding set-up. There may be exceptions, and there often are to both sides, but I think generally small scale, local breeders represent a better opportunity to get it right. In any case, the aim should be for the breeder to really discuss and educate the potential new owner on the actual suitability of their breed for that owner, as I believe they have a responsibility to both the dog they have bred and the new owner to maximise the chances of that relationship being a long and successful one. On the point of ‘local’ there is one word of warning I would offer, and that is to really question how local your breeder actually is. I personally have seen puppies who have been presented by their excited new owners for second vaccinations, and enquired as to where said cute puppy has been bred. The answer in both cases was that they were bred by a local breeder. I then looked at the accompanying vaccination card and saw that the first jabs had been given in, in these cases, Wales. Now, I do not imagine for a second that the ‘breeder’ in question was taking all of their new puppies on a four hour journey for their vaccinations, which suggests that the same puppy that the owner had assumed was bred locally has in actual fact simply been supplied by a middle-man, a dealer if you will. Is it the responsibility of the supplier to make it clear the origin of the puppy, or is up to the owner to ask the question and feel confident about exactly where their new puppy has come from? That’s difficult to know the answer to.
- Vets – we are, at the end of the day, charged with a duty of care for our patients and to ensure the safeguarding of their welfare. Should we, therefore, as a profession be doing more to educate and advise potential dog owners on choosing a dog? How do we do this, especially given that most of us only get to meet new dog owners after the event of them having actually acquired the dog? Will we be accused of meddling and sticking our noses in where and when it isn’t wanted? All valid questions and ones worth considering answers to.
- Professional bodies – there are lots of groups catering to the doggy sector, from individual breed associations to the one we probably all know, The Kennel Club. What duties do these groups have to advise and educate new dog owners over what type of breed they should consider, or even whether they should be considering a dog at all? They are in a great position to influence owner choices but the main problem at present is that many are failing to sing from the same hymn sheet, resulting in fragmented and confusing advice and information for potential new owners, who may then decide to just buy their new puppy based on cuteness after all.
Dogs are so different and it is vital to really spend time and effort in really researching options when it comes to choosing a new dog. Maybe if we all thought longer and harder before diving into the exciting and, ultimately for most, richly rewarding experience of owning a dog then there would be fewer sad cases of abandonment and more empty rehoming centres. We can and do dream.