204 Nation of Dog Lovers

by   David Hancock

 How on earth did the United Kingdom get a reputation as a nation of dog lovers ? Only 40,000 stray dogs are humanely destroyed by local authorities each year, one dog lover pointed out to me recently, as though there was something admirable in the statistic. Only 15,000 dogs a year are received by Battersea Dogs Home, ventured another, pointing out that 28% of all British households now possess a dog. Another stressed to me that the regrettable increase in cruelty to dog cases was entirely due to the corresponding increase in the pet dog population, which surely pre-supposes a set percentage of cruel owners. Could a nation of dog lovers tolerate such thinking ?

 Really cruel dog owners are often prosecuted; not often enough some would say. But what about indirect unthinking cruelty which can also cause suffering ? Unless human beings think deeply about their dogs' welfare and well-being are we ever truly going to be a nation of dog lovers ? Let me give you some minor but significant examples to start with. The scene is the 1994 Game Fair held on a sweltering day in July, an event to which far too many spectators take their dogs. The entry system was so badly organised that it took me two and a half hours to complete the last ten miles to the show ground. Every other car seemed to have at least one dog in it and not many had sunroofs. We saw distressed dogs all around us, but only a tiny proportion of their owners did anything about it.

 Once inside we saw no water bowls. There was a fine-looking golden retriever puppy, only about five months old, straining its tired young legs to keep up with its oblivious owners. In another area we saw a brace of spinone in some distress from the heat, almost entirely because their stupid owner was inflicting these trendy muzzle-leads on them -- so tightly that the wretched animals couldn't open their mouths wide enough to pant freely. I have never seen so many overweight Labradors in one location -- and this is supposed to be a show for enlightened countrymen. Yes, there were the usual calls for car and dog owners to attend to suffering dogs left in the distant carparks too.

 Moving away from the absence of brains in dog owners, let's have a look at how some of those with brains actually use them. I run a country estate which also houses a rare breeds farm. We work with the admirable Rare Breeds Survival Trust to ensure that valuable genes are saved for future breeding programmes and certain bloodlines promoted. Lambing time is therefore especially important for us. There is a public bridleway running past the farm, along which local dog owners exercise their pets. One morning seeing two lively young Dobermanns prancing around in great spirits, I asked their owner if she would mind keeping them under closer control going past the lambing field or the more sensitive ewes might abhort. Her reply was brief:" I've a perfect right to have my dogs off the lead here and I will." Are we surprised that farmers shoot dogs every spring?

 But if actually engaging the brain poses difficulty for some dog owners, whatever happened to compassion? Consider these three cases: firstly the case of the unwanted elderly dog. A colleague of mine was sitting in his vet's waiting room when a couple came in with a charming old white-muzzled, still spritely golden retriever. The dog gazed lovingly at his owners and never stopped waving his tail, as so often the case in this lovely breed. My colleague commented on how fit the dog looked for his age and asked if he was in for treatment. This brought, quite shamelessly and lacking any shred of remorse, the reply that the dog was to be put down because "our daughter wants one of those Dulux dogs you see on TV". Perhaps one day their daughter will see more appealing parents on TV and help the spread of humanity in these difficult years by calling in a 'hitman' to deal with her parents and ideally herself as well!

 Thankfully this old chap was "rescued" and merely had to overcome confusion, new surroundings and a new routine after thirteen years of faithful companionship. Unlike the German shepherd dog bitch in our second case. A nine-year old really handsome long-haired specimen was taken in for destruction at a local surgery recently because the normal-looking, quietly-spoken, well-heeled owners had "grown tired of her". And, as if that was not bad enough, they then refused to allow the dog to be rehoused despite repeated requests. What kind of people are they? Do they sleep well after such a shameful act? Should they  not be worried that one of them might in the course of time "grow tired of the other", with terrifying consequences!

 But the third case illustrates another side of human callousness, direct intentional cruelty justified in the perpetrator's twisted thinking. Some years ago a well-known bullmastiff breeder agreed to sell a young winning dog to another, just as well known. It was agreed that the dog would be handed over at the next big dog show where they were each exhibiting. It later transpired that at the end of the show the newly-purchased young bullmastiff dog was put in the back of its new owner's van with three other bullmastiffs (a dog and two bitches) for the journey to its new home to "see what it was made of"! At the end of this horrifying journey, the new purchase was pulled out of the van moaning pitifully and half-dead.

 What kind of perverted thinking allows any person to do such a dreadful thing? What was he thinking about as he drove along the highway listening to the one-sided slaughter in the back? Did he feel more manly, more "rambo-esque" ? I have spent most of my working life with some of the toughest men in the world. An act like that would have been unthinkable for any of them. Yet the cowardly culprit is still exhibiting bullmastiffs. My mind goes back to the time in the Malayan jungle when one of our tracker dogs, a strapping yellow Labrador, was overcome by sheer exhaustion in mangrove swamp. We could so easily have put a bullet in his head, but he had served us well -- and we too knew what such exhaustion was like. The sick dog was carried on an 'Everest' carrier by each member of the patrol in turn, no easy task in those conditions, without grumbles. But then, they were real men.

 Indirect cruelty manifests itself in breeder behaviour too. A few years ago an acquaintance of mine paid a great deal of money for a pedigree basset hound from a quite well known kennel. Before it was any age at all, the wretched animal had been diagnosed as having: glaucoma, arthritis in its front legs and feet, slipped discs and three different ear diseases. It is long overdue for a dog-breeder to be sued under the Sale of Goods Act and the Trades Descriptions Act. We now hear of a very famous breeder of one of the giant breeds having glaucoma in her line for 15 years and reportly "not being aware of it". I do wish small animal vets would press for such a distressing inheritable disease to be made "notifiable" so that such negligence, and its accompanying suffering to dogs, can be countered.

 But how many breed clubs are acting vigorously to reduce inheritable diseases in their dogs? Again we come back to the essential difference between dog owners and dog lovers. The Dobermann Pinscher Club of America has pioneered a unique programme based on a Genetic Health Certificate (GHC). To obtain GHC clearance, a dog must have hips, eyes and thyroid cleared and be declared clear of vWD. Now turn to the breed notes in "Our Dogs" for bullmastiffs and read Lynn Pratt's words: "...The bullmastiff has a very high incidence of lymphosarcoma. We are also having problems with bone cancer, ruptured cruciate ligaments, bitches whelping early and losing most if not all of their puppies. Add to this the fact that many dogs being shown are limping and you will see why I want the breed council to do something about the well-being of dogs themselves, rather than merely deciding who shall, or shall not, judge them." No breed enthusiast should ever have to write such words.

 Are you one of the silent majority who prefer an easy life to a clear conscience ? Then you are a dog owner rather than a dog lover, there can be no doubt about that. Dog lovers speak up, risk unpopularity even abuse. But they sleep well at night and die happy; they give back some of the loyalty, trust and devotion which their dogs give them. They earn respect and draw affection, but are they themselves a "dying breed" ? In times when victims of crime seem to get less sympathy than the criminals, the domestic dog has become the victim, receiving less support than is truly required. Dog lovers must now become the dominant breed -- by their own individual efforts.

 Hiding behind a "committee decision", keeping quiet when you should be speaking up, going along with a bad majority verdict or overlooking malpractice is simply shameful. Strong-minded individuals change the world not committees or clubs. Dogs are subject creatures reliant on our goodwill. Their best interests will never hold sway unless human beings behave with honour. Now there's a quaint old-fashioned word! Dog lovers bring a higher motive into their lives and behave honourably. For dog owners there is no struggle for the high moral ground, just a desire to possess, to exploit, to accept the status quo without a qualm. Look in the mirror! Do you like what you see ? Why not? Try bringing honour back in vogue -- you'll like what you see in the mirror; and so will your dog!