Sunday, 3 April 2016

The UK's Animal Welfare Law has a Depressingly Well-hidden Gem

It's common to hear dog trainers complain that their profession is completely unregulated; that their practice isn't subject to any legislation whatsoever. Trainers assume that the government must just not have any interest in the welfare of dogs, beyond basic animal cruelty laws. But what if I told you that the United Kingdom had some of the most progressive legislation on dog behavior in the world? The problem is, it's hidden so well and implemented so poorly that it might as well not exist at all. Let me explain: 

The 2006 Animal Welfare Act made owners and keepers of animals responsible for both the prevention of harm to, and the promotion of welfare of their animals. According to the text of the Act, promoting welfare includes meeting the need:
  • for a suitable environment (place to live)
  • for a suitable diet
  • to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • to be housed with or apart from other animals (if applicable)
  • to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
Failing to meet these needs is a criminal offence. What counts as appropriate provision for these needs, however, is much too specific to be included in the text of the law, so a set of Codes of Practice were developed to give more detailed guidance on how to implement the Act. 
[Codes of practice] provide owners and keepers with information on how to meet the welfare needs of their animals, as required under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. They can also be used in courts as evidence in cases brought before them relating to poor welfare. - Defra Animal Welfare Legislation: Protecting Pets
The code of practice for dog owners is comprehensive, detailed, and specifically mentions the need for positive reinforcement in training, the importance of being well-socialized and able to live free from fear:
Training a dog is important to help it learn to behave appropriately and to make it easier to keep under control. Puppies need to get used to the many noises, objects and activities in their environment, some of which are frightening when first experienced. Good training can enhance a dog's quality of life, but punishing a dog can cause it pain and suffering....
All dogs should be trained to behave well, ideally from a very young age. Only use positive reward- based training. Avoid harsh, potentially painful or frightening training methods.
Someone in the government has taken modern, science-based training advice and turned it into real policy. But have you ever heard of this code of practice? My guess is no. Has anyone ever been prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act for training a dog cruelly, and not behaving in accordance with the code? Not that I can find.  

Work has been done and money spent - something that might surprise those people whose default assumption is that the government has no interest in doing anything at all - but it's clear that this approach isn't adequate as a system of regulation for dog trainers. 

All legislation is retrospective by nature. It relies on people noticing and reporting training that is cruel. This means dogs have to suffer before anything is done, and crucially, the public has to know that this kind of suffering is not appropriate within dog training. The public is subjected to a lot of misinformation about the right way to train a dog. After watching a TV show where dogs are routinely kicked by someone who is claimed to be an authority in animal behavior, it's unfair to expect them to recognize inhumane training when they see it. If the public don't know that the code of practice exists, or that dogs don't need to be trained with physical coercion, how can the code of practice be useful at all? 

Finally, for all that advocates in the "training wars" focus on whether it's practically or ethically justifiable to use e-collars, prongs, or any other tool to inflict punishments on a dog, the most serious welfare issue runs far deeper than mechanics. Trainers who subscribe to outmoded ideology about needing to be the, pack leader, tend to set up situations that directly contravene the welfare needs stated in the Animal Welfare Act. They deliberately set dogs up to fail so they can be punished. In pursuit of  proving you're the alpha, dogs are routinely denied access to affection and enrichment, worked too hard, prevented from social interactions and ignored - all supposedly for their own good. This treatment goes on long after the trainer leaves, often for the whole life of the dog, and to my mind this is much more of a welfare issue than even the most unpleasant training session.

We need to make sure the information trainers give lays a foundation for the dog to live a happy life, as well as not do whatever the owner hired the trainer to help stop happening. Only licensing can do this because it's prospective, not retrospective. It can screen out trainers who don't help provide for dogs, welfare needs, without placing an impossible burden of knowledge on average dog owners. Licensing would mean that the documents like the UK Government's code of practice for dog owners could be more than a hidden gem.