by Tim Bonner

The sad litany of local press stories covering attacks by dogs on livestock, especially sheep, is a year-round occurrence and such incidents can be particularly damaging to welfare and farm businesses at lambing time. 

The understandable response of the police and rural organisations is to urge walkers to keep their dogs on leads, especially in the vicinity of livestock, but in reality, such campaigns are addressing only a small part of the problem. The evidence is that around 70% of livestock worrying incidents are carried out by dogs whose owners are not present. Research from five police force areas reported figures as high as 89% of attacks in North Wales and 79% in North Yorkshire resulting from dogs that had escaped or been allowed to roam.

Clearly even a successful campaign to encourage dog walkers to keep their charges on leads is only going to have a marginal impact on livestock worrying. The problem seems to be much more about society’s fundamental attitude towards dog ownership and care than simply about using a lead.

Last year there were a spate of stories about a surge in demand for puppies under lockdown and prices surged leading to an increase in theft and fraud in the short term, and in the longer term undoubtedly more inappropriate dog breeding and puppy farming.

This sudden peak of demand for puppies came as no surprise to those of us who have been following the work that the RSPCA and other organisations have done to understand the motivation of people who buy dogs. For instance, a study carried out by the RSPCA found that almost a third of owners spent less than a day researching the breed prior to purchasing a puppy, two-thirds bought a puppy from the first litter they viewed, and less than half even viewed the mother. Unsurprisingly this resulted in 20% of those who had bought a puppy in the previous two years having already got rid of it. 

Increasingly, puppies are an impulse buy, no different to purchasing a dress, a hat or a pair of shoes. It looks sweet, makes great social media content and is the latest fashionable breed, so buy it. It is this instant demand that drives both puppy production - often at the expense of dog welfare - and fills rescue kennels as cute puppies become demanding and often disobedient adult dogs. It seems, and often is, worse when working breeds are involved. The cuteness of a working spaniel or HPR puppy may be overwhelming, but so will the challenges of managing their hunting instincts when they are no longer a little ball of skin and fur. Of course, those puppies bought on a whim are also more likely to end up roaming the countryside and potentially attacking farm animals as the responsibility of exercising and caring for an adult dog proves more demanding than taking a selfie with an eight-week-old pup.

If the problem is clear, the answer is less so, because it is difficult to create any regulatory or legal framework which could address the problem of impulse buying and a lack of understanding of the full responsibilities of dog ownership without impacting on those who are responsible owners. There are sensible proposals, like prohibiting the sale of puppies without their mothers being present, which will help. Fundamentally, however, solving this problem will require a shift in societal attitudes towards the responsibility of dog ownership and that is not going to happen overnight.


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