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The Big Picture
Use working dogs well or not at all


Attitudes towards the use of dogs in racing or in the military or police may be starting to change, as Josh Loeb reports

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The sustainability of using dogs in these contexts is going to completely depend on us being able to assure the public that these animals’ welfare is good

Treat them well or lose them. That is the message for greyhound racing industry groups and others from an expert in human-animal interactions who has researched public perceptions of working dogs’ welfare.

Mia Cobb, part of the Anthrozoology Research Group at Monash University, Australia, has warned that issues such as the ‘wastage’ rate for dogs in the greyhound racing industry could ultimately lead to this sector ‘losing its social licence to operate’.

Use of dogs in other contexts, such as in the police and military, could also fall from favour if the animals aren’t treated well and – as importantly – aren’t ‘seen to be being’ treated well.

Cobb gave a presentation at the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare symposium earlier this month, which highlighted online comments by animal rights campaigners expressing concern that working dogs ‘hadn’t consented’ to work, and drawing comparisons with slavery.

‘This may be a small proportion of the population who believe this is an issue, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to grow in future,’ she said. ‘If we see these trends that we’re seeing in society grow, then the sustainability of using dogs in these contexts is going to completely depend on us being able to assure the public that these animals’ welfare is good.’

Cobb referred to Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) figures showing that hundreds of retired racing greyhounds were euthanased last year – for reasons including the high cost of medical treatment and the absence of a ‘viable option away from the racecourse’.

The GBGB acknowledges that these deaths were ‘avoidable and unnecessary’. It wants to see the number of such dogs euthanased brought down to zero.

However, Cobb said ‘wastage’ arose partly from the industry ‘breeding way more dogs than it needs’.

‘We refer to this inefficiency as “wastage”,’ she said. ‘A proportion of the dogs bred and raised to be working dogs don’t end up being successful.

‘In some cases you become someone’s pet and you have a good life – hopefully. But in other contexts the consequences of not being successful are quite dire.’

Until recently in Australia, all Royal Australian Air Force dogs used for security were routinely killed at the end of their service, she added. ‘Once the handlers decided they were too old to work, they were euthanased.’

Cobb also showed pictures of dogs in government kennels in Australia which were bare. ‘It’s a very sterile kennel environment,’ she said. ‘It’s built to be easily cleaned and to house dogs individually.’

Cobb, who stressed that the standard of working dog welfare in the UK was generally high, is now helping the Australian authorities improve the kennelling environment.

As a consequence, she believes improvements could be achieved through closer working between the relevant industry groups and canine welfare academics.

‘I’m not at all saying that the welfare of every working dog is terrible,’ she said. ‘I’m just trying to highlight the fact that we need to be able to assure the public that the welfare of these dogs is looked after throughout their full lifecycle or we’re not going to have working dogs in future – they will be phased out just like exotic animals in circuses have been phased out.’ •

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