Current lockdown; a boon for hedgehogs, deer, whales and wolves!

Recently, the UK has sighted significantly more hedgehogs, deer and other wildlife due to fewer people and less traffic, giving them the confidence to come closer to our homes. Further afield, whales are also benefiting due to less stress being caused by the low frequency rumbles from shipping.

Furthermore, a lone wolf has been spotted in Normandy for the first time in a century! Wolves were hunted to extinction in France in the 1930s (and in the UK in the late 1700s). They started to reappear in the 1990s, having crossed the Alps from northern Italy, and a population of more than 500 is now concentrated in the south east and east of the country.

Wolf aficionados would like to see them reintroduced to the British Isles. Tony Haighway of Wolf Watch UK, Shaun Ellis of The Wolf and Dog Development Centre in Lostwithiel and Dr Isla Fishburn of Kachina Canine Wellness are amongst them. The Cairngorms National Park in the north east of Scotland seems the obvious place. Critics say, unsurprisingly, that their reintroduction would pose a danger to livestock, ramblers and upset the biosphere. There are humane methods around this problem as Ellis demonstrated whilst living in Poland and the United States. Tourism could actually be encouraged by way of wolf safaris though sightings may be rare as the wolf is generally shy and retiring!

An area of further study and we watch with interest.

In perfect unison – the wolf is truly a pack animal!
Photo by Richard Jarrold ©



The link between serotonin and dog behaviour in a low vs high protein diet.

Dogs are of the taxonomic order Carinvora but are not obligate carnivores and may be described as omnivores, indeed, being able to tolerate a diet high in carbohydrates. However, in March 2019, Dr Emma Bermingham et al of AgResearch at Massey University, New Zealand, conducted a study into dog nutrition. The researchers said: “Up until now science has looked at studies on nutrient digestion in humans, mice and rats and assumed the same to be true of dogs………………..much more needs to be done to understand the digestive system of dogs and the long-term health consequences of feeding different diets”. Dr Bermingham goes on to say: “We already know dogs have no nutritional need for [added] carbohydrates in their diet, so this study looked at the role different bacteria, and its production of serotonin, play in a dog’s digestive system to help us work toward a clearer picture of what is the optimum diet for dogs” (Bermingham, 2017).

Serotonin, an amino acid, is one of the constituent molecules of proteins, involved in sleep, memory, mood, depression, aggression, pain, anxiety, temperature regulation, eating behaviour and other neurological processes. It is manufactured in the brain and the intestines the majority of which, between 80-90%, can be found in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is also found in the blood platelets and the central nervous system (CNS) as a neurotransmitter – though is not classified as a hormone. It is synthesized from tryptophan (trp). Tryptophan in the body has to compete with large neutral amino acids (LNAAs) found in protein, too much of which can, therefore, be potentially  detrimental to a dog’s behaviour. However, using a two pronged approach the ratio of tryptophan to LNAAs can be increased in order to enhance good mood (and potentially behavioural issues in dogs). Firstly by increasing, in the diet, food rich in tryptophan such as turkey, chicken, salmon, certain red meats, oats, beans, lentils, pineapple and others. Secondly, whilst these foods alone will not boost serotonin levels and, indeed, may upset the balance causing a shortage of serotonin, the addition of certain carbohydrates in the diet will aid its absorption. These include brown rice, whole grain, fish, eggs, wheat flour, sweet potatoes, peas, carrots, beet pulp, chia seeds and oatmeal.

Nicholas Dodman, along with Drs. Richard and Elizabeth Wurtman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted studies in 2000, the results of which were published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The objective was to “evaluate the effect of high and low protein diets with or without tryptophan supplementation on behaviour of dogs with dominance aggression, territorial aggression and hyperactivity” (Dodman et al 2000). Given that the research is now 20 years old and only 33 dogs were tested it is most certainly not conclusive. The results were that dominance and territorial aggression scores were highest in dogs that were fed unsupplemented high-protein rations. Significantly lower results were obtained by feeding a low-protein tryptophan supplemented diet rather than low–protein diets without tryptophan supplements.

The results for hyperactivity appear less conclusive. In a report by Dr Karen Becker at, she points out that hyperactivity and/or ADHD is rare amongst canines and that often, reported cases are misunderstood and may be age or breed related (Becker, 2017). The report also points out that low-protein diets for young and growing dogs should only be given under strict medical supervision.

In conclusion, protein, a macronutrient and source of slow release energy, should ideally not exceed 25% of total diet. Nicholas Dodman et al have concluded that there is a correlation between high protein diets and fear based territorial and dominance aggression. Conversely, the behaviourist and author, William E Campbell, found, in another study, that feeding more protein and fewer carbohydrates improved learning and reduced hyperactivity.

A well balanced diet, therefore, is essential for our dogs, containing, I would suggest, primarily high quality meat based protein, including organs – heart, kidney, liver – for optimum ‘performance’ whether this be dry, wet or ‘natural’ home cooked or raw food. As a treat, oily fish and cooked eggs are an excellent source of fatty acids and protein respectively along with green vegetables, certain fruits and cereals which may help boost serotonin levels (as discussed). Dogs (and cats) will sometimes forage for grass, even berries, possibly as a form of ‘self medication’. Commercial pet food manufacturers have an obligation to domesticated animals, but alas also have an obligation to their share holders and the ‘bottom line’. Learning to read the label is important as cheap meat derivatives, water, vegetable and cereal ‘fillers’ are invariably included. It is clear the ‘jury is still out’ regarding a dog’s ideal diet!

You’ve drawn the short straw this time!


Does your dog ‘hump’?

There are several reasons why a dog may hump. This can occur from early puppyhood, through to adolescence and adulthood. A playful pup, either male or female, may become over excited when playing and cannot decide between two choices – for example to run away or chase – so in the heat of the moment will decide to mount in sheer frustration. This may be any object; cushions are a good example, but usually another dog or the leg of a convenient human! The answer here would be to offer the dog a distraction – anything other than food as this may be interpreted as a reward – and calm him/her down before this escalates into nipping and biting. Alternatively, a firm ‘leave’ may be appropriate, depending on the level of training acquired and the dog’s understanding of this cue, but this must not be allowed to escalate to outright confrontation and the ‘fight-or-flight’ response kicking in. However, the dog has self taught a pleasurable experience which may soon become a pleasurable habit if not resolved at an early stage.

In the case of an adolescent dog or a bitch in heat this behaviour may be more to do with hormones and/or the onset of puberty. Veterinary advice should be sought and neutering may resolve this. If the habitual cycle has onset then further training, as described above, is necessary. Exceptionally this may the onset of Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) sometimes known as Canine-compulsive disorder (CCD).

Is dominance at play here? Dr Becky Trisko, recently of the University of Michigan (Datta, 2017), states that dog on dog and dog on human relationships are far more complex and nuanced than simple dominance, though this appears to play a part when playing or fighting. Recent studies have shown that dogs are capable of complex social emotions such as love, loneliness and jealousy and benefit from forming close friendships and the subsequent release of Oxytocin – “…..they worry about things not essential to their survival” (Campbell, 1999).  She studied three forms of agonistic behaviour – dominance, submission and aggression. These communicate status and are unidirectional. A dominant dog will have an upright, stiff posture and may hump the head or lick the muzzle of a submissive dog. If humping has been left to escalate and the dog is dominating, or become overly attached to the owner, then expert help may be needed!

As dogs are clearly not pack animals (as discussed in a previous blog) it is unlikely that the behaviour is dominance related per se. (A study of wolves would suggest otherwise). Furthermore, the fact that a dog may attempt to hump the head of another dog is, put in its simplest terms, a perverse act that he simply enjoys – dominance lead, sexual or otherwise!

Puppy play?


Dog breeders need to pay more attention to behaviour and health traits; not simply looks!

As a canine behaviourist I was not entirely surprised to read this article from The Guardian. However, what is surprising is the HUGE proportion – more than 70% – of dogs with behavioural problems (in this particular study). I wonder if this translates to the HUMAN population at large? It is a known fact that a stable environment and society breed stable dogs. As an aside, the US has the highest proportion of dogs with behavioural issues. Perhaps the carrying of guns encourages aggression which, in turn, translates to aggressive dogs!

The following is a study by Prof Hannes Lohi et al, of the University of Helsinki:

Dog breeders need to take action to improve canine mental health, the study reports, after research found almost three-quarters of pet dogs have highly problematic anxiety-related behaviour.

While physical problems such as breathing difficulties and other health concerns relating to, for example, squashed-nosed breeds have become a hot topic, the study suggests breeders also need to focus on dogs’ behaviour. “Behavioural problems are the leading cause for the relinquishment or euthanasia of the dogs,” said Prof Lohi, a co-author of the study.

The study, published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’, is based on a survey of owners of more than 13,700 pet dogs in Finland, spanning 264 breeds and ranging from young pups to elderly hounds. It examined the frequency of eight anxiety-related traits (see chart below), including noise sensitivity, fear, aggression, separation problems and compulsive behaviour, as well as sub-traits within these categories, such as tail-chasing. 

It found that 72% of dogs had highly problematic behaviour in at least one of the eight categories and many had multiple problems. Almost a third of dogs showed high sensitivity to noise, with fireworks a particular problem. 29% of dogs were said to be highly fearful and 14% showed highly problematic aggression. “We observed some differences such as male dogs being more often aggressive and impulsive, while female dogs were more fearful,” said Lohi.

There were also differences by age: for example, high noise sensitivity was more common among older dogs, while destructive behaviour when alone – classed as a type of separation issue – was more common in young dogs.

The team also looked at particular breeds, finding that while dogs of any breed could have any of the anxiety problems, particular traits were more common in certain types of dog. “As a result, selective breeding focusing on behaviour may reduce the prevalence of canine anxieties,” the authors said. Miniature schnauzers, for example, had high levels of aggression both towards strangers and family members, and a fear of strangers, while nearly 10% of Staffordshire bull terriers chased their tail.

Perhaps surprisingly, the team found that mixed breeds were more likely to show many of the various traits than purebred dogs – although the researchers say that may be because many of the former were probably rescue animals that potentially had had a difficult start in life and a lack of socialisation.

The study has limitations: it is not clear if the trends would hold in other countries, and the team only looked at the frequency of behaviours and not their severity. It may also be that owners of dogs with behaviour problems may have been more likely to complete the questionnaire, although the researchers say their study was advertised to all owners and the findings chime with other research.

Dr Rowena Packer, an expert in animal behaviour and welfare from the Royal Veterinary College, said a dog’s genetics and their environment each contributed to the way they act. “The way that both breeders and owners interact with dogs is hugely important in raising mentally healthy dogs,” she said. “This includes appropriate socialisation to people and other animals and habituation to day-to-day experiences as puppies, and positive, force-free training throughout life.”

Packer noted that when it comes to heritable traits, too often the emphasis is on looks over behaviour. She said that because genetics and early environment set up dogs for the rest of their lives, breeders must do more to produce behaviourally healthy dogs.

“Some of the behavioural problems highlighted in this study can lead to a lifetime of misery for affected dogs and an emotional and financial burden on their owners,” she said. “Tackling these problems through selection of behaviourally sound breeding stock, along with educating owners on appropriate interactions, environment and training for dogs, should be a high priority for all dog lovers.”

Chart shows the eight anxiety-related traits with sub-traits below:


Cognitive Dissonance: Are we consistent with our dog training?

Sometimes the dog/human relationship can become fraught with tension and anxiety. As far as the human is concerned he/she is doing nothing wrong; they love the dog profoundly and meet their every need. In fact this may be EXACTLY the problem; who is training whom? Many owners, especially in a multi person household, may be inconsistent with their training – for example the primary carer allowing the dog onto the bed whilst their partner shoos the dog off. In the mind of the dog what must he do – go on the bed or stay off? Bring a small child into the equation and we add a third dimension! The child may unwittingly reward the dog for being on the bed one minute and on the floor the next. Before long we have a confused dog, leading to stress and anxiety and potentially causing him/her to come between the carers and appearing to act in a ‘jealous’, sometimes aggressive, way. Orla Doherty states, “Many dogs reacting aggressively to their owners also show concurrent signs of anxiety and fear. This is a contradiction to the traditional attitude that most dominant dogs were confident dogs, regarding themselves as alpha dog in the pack…………..In recent years this theory has been challenged” (Doherty, 2012).

Disney is famous for his anthropomorphism of animals. For a good story, the producers of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin endowed their characters with the cognition of humans to the point of recognising fairness, sharing and ‘talking’. We must allow our dogs to be dogs and learn to ‘think dog’ by offering consistent training, understanding that dogs are essentially selfish, asking, “What’s in it for me?”, being firm but fair and offering adequate physical and mental exercise. On the face of it simple enough, but cognitive dissonance (a useful idea from social psychology (Stewart, 2006) – the inability to hold two opposing beliefs at the same time – does, I believe, play a huge part here. For example, “I like my dog on the bed but I don’t want to encourage bad habits”. This causes, for the owner, psychological conflict, so he/she may simply choose to stop thinking about it, or overlook or reverse one side of the equation!

Is there also a health risk?


Do shelter dogs and cats benefit from scent enriching?

This is not a new theory and the following is a precis of a blog by Zazie Todd, PhD, written in April, 2018.

Research by John Binks and Dr Tamara Montrose of Hartpury University Centre, Gloucestershire, investigated the effects of enrichment using certain compounds. The authors state:

“In our study we found that shelter dogs showed reduced vocalisations and movement when exposed to cloths scented with coconut, vanilla, ginger and valerian. In addition, we found that dogs exposed to coconut and ginger slept more. Since excessive vocalisations and activity may indicate stress in kennelled dogs, as well as behaviours that can be found undesirable by potential adopters, our study suggests that these odours may have application in rescue shelters to reduce stress and enhance adoption”

The 2006 Animal Welfare Act states (apart from the obvious) that animals must be allowed to engage in species-specific behaviour – as one of five basic rights. This is one aspect of enrichment meaning adding things to the animal’s environment that are designed to improve welfare. Additionally, encouraging use of the environment generally, getting exercise, encouraging learning and decreasing boredom and abnormal behaviour. Since shelter dogs spend a large part of their day in kennels, enrichment is important to improve their welfare.

Dogs have impressive noses (and vomeronasal organs) and, as we all know, they spend a lot of time smelling things. The scientists say enrichment works best if it targets an animal’s primary sense, so it is surprising there isn’t more research into scent enrichment for shelter dogs.

The experiment used the smells of coconut, vanilla, ginger and valerian because they are safe for dogs, easily available, and have been found to be beneficial for other animals, such as wombats, sea-lions, Javan gibbons, cats and rats.

The dogs were presented with scent on a cloth put in their kennel for a few hours per day. There were two control conditions: an unscented cloth (to provide a comparison for the different smells), and no cloth (to control for the effects of the presence of a new item). The unscented cloth control condition took place before the presentations of smells, and the no cloth condition took place after.

Each condition took place over three days, with a two day gap between them.

Cloths were prepared an hour in advance by adding a few drops of essential oils or fragrance oils, and then kept in a ziplock bag until they were used. The experimenter wore gloves to ensure they did not accidentally transfer any other scents to the cloths. Dogs were given half an hour to get used to the item, and then observed for a two-hour period, the latter half of which was during the shelter’s opening hours for visitors. This was in the middle of the day when feeding and exercise did not happen, so the dogs’ behaviour would not be affected by waiting for the next meal.

When the scented cloths were present, dogs vocalized less. Since barking, whining etc. can be signs of stress, this suggests they were less stressed. Dogs also spent more time resting and less time moving when the scents were present. For the ginger and coconut scents, dogs spent more time sleeping.

These results suggest the scent enrichment helped the dogs be less stressed.

There was also an effect of time of day, in that when the shelter was open to visitors, dogs vocalized more, stood more, and spent less time resting. They were also at the front of their kennel more.

The scents were always presented in the same order. This was so that other dogs taking part would not have their scent contaminated by one of the other smells wafting in to the kennel. This means there is potential for an order effect. However, because the dogs were presented with the controls before and after the different scent conditions, it does seem that the results are due to the scents.

The scent enrichment used in this study would be easy to use at a shelter, although more research is needed with a larger number of dogs. The results are very promising, and suggest the use of these scents can help shelter dogs to be less stressed.

A similar study on 100 cats was conducted by Dr Sebastiaan Bol on 2017. The scents used were silver vine, valerian, Taterian honeysuckle and catnip. Similar conclusions were reached though Dr Bol admits that more study on many more cats would be necessary before a definitive conclusion can be made.

Estimates vary hugely about dogs’ sensitivity to smells from between 100 to 1 billion times greater than that of humans. 


When is a dog not a dog?

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The wolfdog (not to be confused with the wolfhound – originally used for hunting wolves) is a wolf-dog hybrid though now far removed from a wolf. It is partly the legacy of the Dutchman, Leendert Saarloos (died 1969). He was an avid fan of the German shepherd dog (GSD) but wanted to enhance its robustness and give immunity to canine distemper, so, in 1932, decided to breed a male GSD (Canis lupus familiaris), Gerhard von Fransenum, to a female Eurasian wolf, Fleur (Canis lupus lupus, or common wolf). His aims appear to be successful insofar as today’s dog is strong with wolf like characteristics, but the first generation puppies did succumb to the disease. The Dutch Kennel Club recognised the breed in 1975 and, in recognition to its creator, named it the Saarloos wolfdog. The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) recognises the Czechoslovakian wolfdog and Saarloos wolfdog. According to a UK breeder of the Saarloos they are – I quote – “Super intelligent. By nature they tend to be wary of new people. I have never seen an aggressive Saarloos – even if cornered they will just shy away and are not reactive.” To recap – their trainability is high, reactivity low and aggression very low.

HOWEVER, as a primitive breed, albeit with the wolf being genetically introduced comparatively recently, the wolfdog needs to be handled with respect and sensitivity, along with lashings of guidance, leadership and stability. Only then will trust and respect be reciprocated otherwise he/she will make his/her own decisions becoming more reactive, responsive and alert to changes in their environment with potentially unwanted behaviours. So, not a dog for the novice! Bred originally as companion dogs they are now of the pastoral group and, like the GSD, also used for herding, guarding, guide dogs and search and rescue dogs.

Such hybridization has been found throughout Europe, North Africa and North America. However, the population in Holland and Europe generally is tiny when compared with the US. Here the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1998 estimated a population of some 500,000 animals. Cross breeding in the wild has also been detected though biologist have difficulty identifying the genes because of dilution due to inter-breeding between grey wolves, Eastern wolves, red wolves and coyotes. In the north-eastern corner of the US coydogs and coywolves are found causing further confusion! Because of this difficulty, phenotyping is also used to help identify hybrids. However, spitz type wolfdogs are, unsurprisingly, less lupine in appearance. In the Ethiopian Highlands wild wolfdogs are present as the result of cross breeding between the Ethiopian wolf (C. simensis) and feral dogs. Inter-breeding in the wild has caused severe depletion of some wolf species placing them on the endangered list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). For example, Oxford University is currently heading an Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme.

A dog or a wolf?

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Pulling on lead and conditioned punishers.


In the Dog Training group recently two members offered their videos on the subject of dogs pulling in lead. My blog is not intended as a step by step guide on solving this but rather to take a look at the big picture and discuss some of the terminology.

Theo made the point that very often we approach the problem from the wrong angle; that is say we aim to teach the dog not to pull rather than what we want the dog to actually do. In other words we are teaching a negative rather than a positive, leading potentially to nagging and a relationship breakdown with our dog.

An owner applying a leash correction, or painful jerk, to stop a dog pulling is applying the principle of negative reinforcement. The dog finds it reinforcing to remove the pain by offering the desired behaviour (in theory). However, the pain is added in the first place by the owner to reduce the behaviour of pulling; positive punishment has been applied initially. If a neutral word, such as ‘heel’ or ‘tsch’, is added simultaneously with the correction, the dog over time learns to associate the two; ‘heel’ or ‘tsch’ has become a conditioned punisher and the physical correction is eventually removed. The dog has been dominated by force.

However, the dog may become habituated to the pain and simply learns to cope. This highlights where it could all go wrong, with the need for escalating punishment and an ensuing ‘battle of wills’, and why positive reinforcement is invariably the better option – the dog walking in the desired position because he has been trained correctly and ultimately chooses to. The derisory “heel” may be substituted with “good boy” or “come on” along with lashings of reassurance!  How often do we see owners blithely walking along taking no notice of their charge? Chatting, singing or dancing along with our dog, in other words, generally COMMUNICATING with him/her is paramount. An enhanced relationship also helps with a reliable recall; a double blessing!

Not only is this undesirable behaviour but imagine the physical damage to the dog’s neck and throat area!


An odd paradox that we talk about canine fear and aggression in the same sentence!

It’s a curious anomaly that we talk about fear and aggression in the same sentence! If a dog is fearful why would he be aggressive? This is known as ambivalent presentation – the dog does not know whether to attack or retreat. Arguably, all he has to do is run away – unless, of course, his escape route has been blocked. Teaching the dog it’s OK to walk (or run) away rather than ‘face his demons’ will surely have a lasting and profound effect on his state of mind and well being long into the future.

Firstly we need to establish the reason/s for his fear and secondly what exactly he is fearful of.

The reasons are potentially many-fold including a naturally timid dog, learned helplessness from the dam by fear imprinting, poor breeder socialisation with other unknown puppies, dogs and people, incorrect veterinary advice to keep the dog closeted until fully vaccinated and lack of ongoing socialisation into adulthood including noisy traffic, children, men (in funny hats and uniforms) and other outlandish and unusual scenarios. The list is potentially infinite! As with any type of habituation a degree of stress will be inevitable and is indeed desirable to help the dog overcome his fears by understanding the boundaries. If the reason is genetic this may not be treatable in a worst case scenario, but potentially MANAGEABLE!

Alexandra Semyonova talks about finding a good therapist (Semyonova, 2009). It is more usual to talk about behaviourists and a good behaviourist needs to know what the fear aggression issue actually is in order to offer a solution. Most dogs will alert an owner to a visitor at the front door. “Thank you Fido” should suffice; the dog’s job is done. Another dog, however, may be fearful of a stranger entering the front door. How do we deal with this? Allowing an escape route along with desensitisation and counter conditioning, to teach an alternative behaviour, play a huge role here.

Here is a hypothetical scenario: Do I want Fido to be friendly towards a visitor or to ignore him? My visitor does not want to be met by a boisterous, least of all, aggressive dog. I know Fido will remain non-aggressive providing my visitor, John, does not appear a threat and ignores the dog at my request. John rings the door bell; Fido has previously been taught that this is a cue to sit and stay using positive reinforcement – ideally on an anchor mat. All internal doors are open leaving an escape route for Fido. I open the door and hug my friend, leaving pheromone scent marks on his clothing, ask him to sit down next to me and offer him some refreshment. There is much talking and laughter still ignoring the dog. Through allelomimetic behaviour (copying) the dog will learn that John is not a threat and will do one of two things, either walk away in disinterest or approach him with curiosity wanting some of the action. Either way I offer much positive reinforcement telling Fido how well he has behaved. If Fido approaches I would ask John to continue ignoring him at this stage; desensitising Fido to the previously assumed threat. This happens every day for 7 days. On day eight Fido’s curiosity will almost certainly beat him, approaching John who STILL ignores him. I throw Fido a tasty treat; now commences counter conditioning as Fido learns that good things happen when he approaches John. By day 14 John will now make eye contact with Fido. On day 15 he will say “hello” to Fido then look away at my request. On day 16 he will throw Fido a similar tasty treat. John should not offer food too early in this process to avoid rewarding any fear or, indeed, reverse conditioning; that is to say the dog becoming aggressive when food in NOT offered. Not long until John and Fido are the best of friends and Fido is literally eating out of John’s hand!

We should not assume that Fido has been desensitised to ALL people or, indeed, groups of people. Once he is desensitised to 20 or so people it MAY be safe to say that Fido is now confident with most, if not all, people.

Positive punishment will certainly not work in this scenario – in fact it will make matters worse with Fido reacting to my punishment setting off a chain of events and a battle of wills. “Remember that two things benefit a nervous dog; distance and time” (Bradshaw, 2011). John and I must remain positive and calm at all times teaching Fido that good manners and no fear or aggression does indeed have a great outcome!

Scared or aggressive?


Crufts: The Greatest Show on Earth or animal exploitation?

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The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 imposes upon the owner of an animal a ‘duty of care’ and states that an animal has a right to five basic welfare needs, one of which is the right to behave naturally for their species. As humans we have a moral obligation to regard and treat animals appropriately and ethically.

The domesticated dog, with a common ancestor to the grey wolf, has the greatest body conformation varieties of any species due to selective breeding by humans. There are over 400 breeds worldwide with 218 recognised breeds in the UK yet they are all of the same species – canis familiaris.

Crufts is the world’s biggest dog show. Held in Birmingham’s NEC it lasts for four days in early March each year. Normally it attracts around 160,000 visitors and an estimated 4.5 million TV viewers.

Today, popular competitions at Crufts include: agility, obedience, flyball, freestyle and heelwork to music. At heart though, Crufts is a conformation show. Pedigree dogs from the Kennel Club’s 218 recognised breeds are judged according to how well they conform to the breed standard. Each breed winner then competes with the other winners in their group; there being seven groups overall. The group winners then go through to the final.

The KC lists ‘correct’ characteristics: appearance, temperament, fur colour with breeders being rewarded if they match this ideal standard. A pomeranian, for example should be ‘extroverted’, with ‘intelligent’ eyes, a ‘foxy’ head and nose and a ‘buoyant’ gait, its fur free from black and white shadings. It all becomes somewhat anthropomorphic and open to interpretation. What exactly does a ‘buoyant’ gait mean and who determines what ‘intelligent’ eyes look like. It’s all subjective; do we compare these traits with, say, another dog, a human or perhaps a gorilla?

“So what?” you may ask, the animals are not treated cruelly – or are they? Concerns have been raised about dogs being bred for the ring to look a specific way, some with exaggerated characteristics such as flat faces, short legs, wrinkly skin and severe deformities. For example, the King Charles spaniel potentially suffers from syringomyelia, an agonising condition caused by a dogs brain being too big for its skull; pugs and French bulldogs with breathing problems; and bull dogs that are unable to mate, or give birth unassisted. These and other problems were highlighted in a 2008 BBC documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, and accused the KC of allowing breeding, particularly inbreeding, according to breed standards with little or no regard to the dogs’ long term health and welfare. The then RSPCAs chief vet stated, “When I watch Crufts what I see in front of me is a parade of mutants”. The BBC later dropped Crufts as a result, as did a number of sponsors, including the RSPCA, The Dogs Trust and Pedigree Petfoods.

There is now a much greater awareness of the dangers of inbreeding and selecting for extremes. The KC reviewed its breed standards after the documentary, changing at least 70, and has raised awareness of health conditions linked to inbreeding and ‘exaggerated conformation’. It banned first-degree-relative matings: i.e.father-daughter, or sibling to sibling; surprisingly, it had not done so until then. It has also invested in scientific studies and genetic tests. There now appears to be a swing towards moderation in some of the worst breeds but we, humans, have a lot to answer for and these ‘deformed’ breeds are still in proliferation. For example inbreeding is still rife. The KC still allows grandfather-granddaughter and cousin-cousin matings but, ironically, does not recognise crossbreeds such as labradoodles! Where once the breed standard demanded that bulldogs have a ‘massive’ head, today they are still meant to be ‘relatively’ large. Crufts still, at times, seems tolerant of health defects: in 2016, Tori, a German shepherd with a back so sloped that it impeded her leg movement, won best in breed. Breeding for the ring still raises serious animal welfare and moral issues.

Is being paraded in a ring on a short leash, in an alien environment, a natural behaviour for our pet dogs? We can only search our conscience!

An example of animal treatment in the UK in 2020!