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Dog Behaviourist We have a dog welfare crisis in Ireland that we can no longer ignore

Suzi Walsh tackles the reality behind the ‘cute puppy’ trends and asks those looking for dogs to adopt, not shop.

IT IS 2023 and we have a dog crisis in Ireland. The most recent statistics indicate that we have over 495,000 dogs in Ireland with approximately one in four households caring for at least one dog.

Although the Irish are known for our hospitality around the world, unfortunately, we do not have a good reputation when it comes to our pets. Ireland has repeatedly been dubbed as the “puppy farm capital of Europe” and we are known for our disregard for the needs of the animals in our care.

All across the country dog shelters are full to capacity, they cannot keep up with the number of stray, surrendered, abandoned and mistreated dogs that require safety. In addition to the dogs currently in their care, they have long lists of dogs waiting to be signed over who are looking for a home. We have upwards of 30 council dog shelters and over 100 volunteer-run rescues in the Republic of Ireland and they are all full. This is shameful considering other countries such as Sweden have the need for only one government-funded shelter. But why is it that Ireland has such a problem looking after and caring for dogs?

How difficult is it to purchase or adopt a dog?

In most cases, it’s incredibly easy to get a dog in Ireland. Madra dog rescue in Galway calculates that there are over 3,200 dogs in shelters nationally at the time of writing this article while over 1,500 dogs are available for purchase on a very accessible website. Many rescues require home checks for potential adopters however most dogs for purchase on public websites require nothing more than the available cash.

Is there a right dog for every home?

Finding the right dog for your home is so important and it’s one of the main reasons why many families have to surrender or rehome their dog. While most people think that they are active and require an active breed, what they don’t realise is that an active dog requires a lot more physical activity than an active person.

For example, a border collie may need 2-3 hours of vigorous exercise and mental stimulation daily and so few people have the time or the energy to fulfil that requirement.

Dogs like sighthounds need lots of space to run at high speed and beagles need plenty of opportunities to sniff and explore.

Despite living in a society with access to so much information and professional help many people still believe that they can pick any breed of dog, raised under any conditions and just expect that they will make a lovely pet.

Isn’t breeding regulated in Ireland?

Regulating the breeding of dogs is essential when it comes to decreasing the numbers of dogs in Ireland. There is legislation in place to protect the welfare of breeding dogs but unfortunately, there is limited evidence of its enforcement.

Many people do not realise that poor breeding is not just an overpopulation problem. It leads to many of the problems that see record numbers of dogs being given up in shelters all over Ireland. The law states that the operator of a breeding establishment must “provide an environment that allows all dogs to express normal behaviour and in particular to provide adequate social interaction (with humans and dogs), enrichment and exercise for all dogs” but this is not happening.

It is not acceptable that just anyone can breed a litter of puppies for sale without the care or knowledge needed to raise a sound dog. Breeders should require a licence based on demonstrated competence in order to be permitted to breed their dogs.

Someone who has multiple breeds or breeding females with litters cannot possibly adequately socialise and handle those puppies. Puppies need to be handled from a very young age, they need to be safely introduced to noises, smells, surfaces, people, other animals and objects in order to develop into confident, calm and content dogs.

The best way to achieve this is to raise the puppies in a home environment and not in a kennel or a shed. Puppies need so much time and attention that when you have several litters at one time it’s really not possible to ensure that they are going to be suitable for family life. This socialisation has to start when the puppy is in the care of the breeder because the window of opportunity to achieve this can be as short as up to 12 weeks old.

Another major concern is that so many dogs are bred without the relevant health checks making them much more likely to pass on hereditary conditions to their offspring.

A 2020 study led by Professor Mills of Lincoln University, found that 82% of aggression cases are due to undiagnosed pain and discomfort and much of this pain was caused by inherited conditions such as hip and elbow dysplasia, that can be easily identified in the parents of a dog prior to breeding.

In short, healthy dogs, raised correctly, do not bite. Well reared puppies do not end up in shelters. You will not find dogs from good breeders looking for a new home or surrendered to a shelter because responsible educated breeders ensure that only suitable families purchase their pups and they take back their pups if something goes wrong. However many would argue that because of the current overpopulation crisis in Ireland no one should be breeding dogs at all.

If you are unsure if you purchased your dog from an ethical breeder ask yourself if they kept in contact with you once you took your puppy home. If not you can be sure that they really didn’t care about your dog and it was all about the money.

What is a restricted breed and why is it important?

There are additional rules when keeping certain breeds of dogs in Ireland. There is a Restricted Breeds List in Ireland of dogs that must be kept on a short lead, can only be walked by someone over the age of 16 and must wear a muzzle at all times in public spaces. Restricted breeds are not permitted in off-lead dog areas.

These breeds and their crosses include the American Pit Bull Terrier, English Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Bull Mastiff, Dobermann Pinscher, German Shepherd, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Rottweiler, Japanese Akita, Japanese Tosa and Bandog. There are also similar restrictions in place for Greyhounds.

Some people welcome the restrictions as a sensible precaution however many industry professionals point to the lack of clear evidence in Ireland or elsewhere to support the restrictions, and note the detrimental effect of the restrictions on both pet owners and the dogs themselves.

When dogs on the restricted breeds list end up in a shelter they are very undesirable for the general public to adopt.

Many people now have the assumption that these breeds of dogs are more dangerous than others which is not necessarily true when compared to other dog breeds of similar size. Additionally there is the added challenge of exercising a restricted dog breed in public places within the law. This means that there are so many of these gorgeous dogs abandoned or left in shelters indefinitely.

The restrictions also create problems within these breeds over time because they cannot be adequately socialised as pups leading to adult dogs who have poor social skills and increased anxiety in certain environments. This problem also presents in Greyhounds who spend many of their formative years in a kennel environment and are then expected to adapt to a pet home which can cause complications.

The main problem with having a restricted breeds list is that all the restrictions are placed on the knowledge and understanding of the dog’s caregiver and there are no regulations around the breeding of these dogs.

They can be bred and sold without any restrictions at all, no compulsory temperament or health checks and no consideration required as to where or to whom they are selling. Being on a restricted breed list can even make them more desirable to irresponsible people. You should not put restrictions on certain breeds without also putting restrictions on breeding those breeds.

Why are so many dogs looking for a home?

The major concern is that there has been a 95% increase of stray dogs entering dog pounds, from 2,592 in 2021 to 5,045 in 2022 and it is set to be even higher for 2023 with many county dog shelters so full that they are unable to accept surrenders from the general public.

But why?

Apart from changes in family circumstances or illness dogs are given up for a variety of reasons. Mostly dogs are given up because it is too easy to purchase a dog and many families rush the decision, opting for a dog with more needs than they can meet.

They may have bought a dog from a rural environment and then expected the dog to acclimatise to an urban area past their socialisation period.

They may have bought a dog who is too big, too high energy or a different breed entirely from what the breeder promised them. They may have underestimated the time and financial commitment of having a dog. They may have bought two pups from the same litter and then had to rehome one realising that no good breeder should sell littermates because it creates a whole host of problems. Their dog may have behavioural problems stemming from fear or an undiagnosed medical problem which has become too difficult to live with or they haven’t had the necessary support from professionals to allow them to resolve those issues.

Dogs with no formal training or those who have been given the wrong training are also prevalent in Irish shelters. Currently, dog training and behaviour is unregulated in Ireland meaning anyone can operate as a dog training specialist with little or no professional qualifications.

Covid has also had a huge impact on how dogs behave with many displaying extreme behaviours in the home such as extreme excitement or fear when guests visit or poor exposure to noises like traffic or the inability to be alone.

Unfortunately, many families do not think about the physical and enrichment needs of a dog but instead, think that a cute-looking puppy will fit into their home life with ease. While this may be the case for some, for others it could not be further from the truth. A dog is a combination of genetics and experiences, for some dogs require a lot more than a pet home can provide and they have innate desires that city life cannot fulfil.

So what can you do about it?

Think before you get a dog, seek qualified professional help before making a 15-year commitment. Refuse to buy a dog from an unethical breeder whether that is a commercial premises or a friendly farmer with a litter of pups.

Contact your local shelter and see what support you can provide them with. Maybe you can’t adopt a dog but maybe you can help in other ways such as fundraising or transportation. Perhaps you have an idea about how we can become known as a nation of dog lovers instead of a country where animals are a disposable part of society.

Caring for a pet is a privilege, not a right, they do not choose their home – you do, take responsibility for their needs and their welfare and do the right thing.

Suzi Walsh is an expert dog behaviourist and dog trainer. She has an honours degree in Zoology and a Masters in Applied Animal Welfare and Behaviour from the Royal Dick School of Veterinary. She has worked as a behaviourist on both TV, radio and has also worked training dogs in the film industry.  

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