Category Archives: animal welfare

Chopper’s case

Earlier this month, owner Helen Fraser was found not guilty of a single charge – owning a dog that caused serious injury. Now that the initial flurry of social and traditional media coverage has died down, I want to put my thoughts together about what this case means.

This post is entirely my opinion as a Fear Free certified professional; I am not a veterinarian but I work with dogs every day in my canine massage and rehabilitation practice. I specialise in in-home care and my caseload of clients with reactive dogs is steadily increasing. One reason for this is that I receive referrals from a reputable dog training business which recognises that some behaviours may be caused by pain and discomfort. Referrals from previous clients with reactive dogs are also common.

You can disagree with my opinion. If you do simply be kind, courteous and professional when making comments.

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A brief summary of the case

The charge under the Dog Control Act was laid by the Tauranga District Council after vet Dr Liza Schneider was bitten by Chopper on 14 October 2021 when he was brought to her clinic for de-sexing. Dr Schneider fractured her arm, requiring screws and a plate to fix it, and had consequent nerve and muscle damage.

Dr Schneider was injured badly and no one has disputed that (nor should they). I have great regard for Dr Schneider because she was an early adopter of integrative therapies (her practice is called Holistic Vets). She is the President of the Complementary Medicine branch of the NZ Veterinary Association. She is knowledgeable in her field and is well-respected by her colleagues.

After the incident, Chopper was seized by the Council and kept locked in the Tauranga Pound – all up he was kept there for 271 days.

The issue before the court was whether Ms Fraser had taken all reasonable steps to ensure Chopper did not hurt anyone. Judge David Cameron had to weigh up the evidence including statements from witnesses; these statements were conflicting including differing information from Dr Schneider and staff working at her practice about what instructions Ms Fraser had been given for when she arrived at the clinic.

In his decision, Judge Cameron felt that Ms Fraser’s account of the incident and the circumstances she, her son, and Chopper found themselves in was more believable. With the not guilty verdict, Chopper has been allowed to go back to his family.

Care of impounded dogs , the Animal Welfare Act, and the Save Chopper campaign

New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act is limited. So long as some form of shelter, food and water are provided to an animal, no other provisions must be made. This is despite the well-understood sentience of dogs and the fact that they have the cognitive abilities of a two-year old child.

Advocates for Chopper have sought, in my view rightfully so, to highlight the conditions Chopper was kept in. During his confinement, he was never allowed out to exercise and, having been labelled as an aggressive dog, he was kept in an enclosure measuring 4x4m, 2.5m high. The enclosure would be hosed out to clean it with him in it and it was reported that Chopper developed pressure sores from being kept in the enclosure with only a plastic bed for bedding. Ms Fraser was allowed to visit (many councils in New Zealand do not allow visitors) and so she witnessed him living in these conditions many times.

Anyone who has ever called the SPCA about a dog left outdoors in all weather conditions will know that the definition of what is shelter, food and water is so basic that dogs are frequently left in poor conditions around New Zealand on a regular basis with no one able to legally intervene on their behalf.

Since dogs are not allowed out on bail, like humans accused of crimes are, supporters of Ms Fraser and Chopper started the Save Chopper campaign to highlight Chopper’s situation.

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Highlights and Lowlights

It has been said that from this case there are No Winners because Dr Schneider has been hurt and suffers lasting damage, Chopper has likely been emotionally scarred from his time in captivity, and his owners have had to incur legal costs to defend themselves. These are the lowlights.

In my opinion, however, there are also some highlights:

#1 We now have some case law that looks at the merits of the circumstances leading up to a dog bite.

This is critically important for animal welfare advocates. If you are appalled by the conditions Chopper was kept in, please understand that this was allowed in large part because in New Zealand, it is assumed the dog will be destroyed at the end of the case with a guilty verdict. Judges rely on case law – the collective body of knowledge of all decisions made in the past, considered to be a powerful source of law. Previous cases have always resulted in a guilty verdict (that is, if the dog owner has even defended the charge in the first place); therefore having a case with a not guilty verdict is incredibly powerful.

#2 Ms Fraser was doing the right thing – it’s lost in the media, but let’s remember that she was taking Chopper to the vet to be neutered. This has now been done at another clinic since Chopper’s release. The spay/neuter message is critically important to managing the number of unwanted animals in NZ.

#3 The case is a wake-up call for animal professionals about the principles of working with potentially anxious and stressed dogs and the need to educate staff and clients so they can work as a team. It’s an endorsement of the Fear Free approach, too.

There are things we can do to reduce the stress of a clinic visit and that is well beyond the ‘muzzle the dog and keep them in the car’ evidence that was discussed in the court proceedings. Anxious dogs can be given a pre-med at home, for example, to help reduce their starting point before they even arrive at their vet’s clinic. This is called the Chill Protocol in some of the practices that I deal with, and it is something I often recommend to clients to talk with their vet about.

Fear Free veterinary professionals learn about the concept of Considered Approach, understanding a dog’s body language, being prepared to take your time, and also being willing for the owner and the professional to delay procedures while visits are undertaken to de-sensitise the dog to the fear of the clinic and unfamiliar people wearing masks. All of these things could have, in hindsight, been implemented to help with Chopper’s reactions on the day. (It should also be noted that owners have to be willing to fund the time it takes for professionals working with them using Fear Free principles, something that I have found is not always the case.)

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What happens next

Like it or not, Ms Fraser and her family have a lot resting on their shoulders. They need the right support to ensure that Chopper is able to recover from his ordeal, set him up to succeed through training and the gaining of good dog citizen/life skills, and to never-ever have another incident where Chopper bites or hurts another creature. If that happens, all the case law in the world will not save him and the animal welfare agenda in NZ will be set back for years to come.

From what I understand, the family has already sought assistance from a trainer and had Chopper fitted for a muzzle. Fingers crossed, they have started a long and effective journey together.

It is said that the Tauranga District Council is considering an appeal. I hope they do not and I hope that organisations like the NZ Veterinary Association do not push for an appeal with the goal of a guilty verdict so that Chopper can be destroyed.

Instead, it is my hope that these organisations will use the verdict as a learning opportunity – working together to help dog owners and animal professionals to understand their obligations and what they can and should do to set up all dogs for success and to keep humans safe.

Will my hopes be realised? Only time will tell.

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Cortisol in shelter dog hair shows signs of stress

In the Netherlands, thousands of dogs stay in a shelter every year. Despite the good care, a shelter can be a stressful environment for dogs. Researchers at Utrecht University investigated if the amount of the hormone cortisol in hair indicates the levels of stress that dogs experience before, during and after their stay in the shelter.

There is no difference between the cortisol levels of dogs when they enter the shelter and the control group of domestic dogs. After six weeks in the shelter, cortisol levels in the hair appear to have increased by one-third (on average from 16 pg/mg to 21.8 pg/mg). In measurements six weeks and six months after adoption, cortisol levels lowered, moving in the direction of the values at admission to the shelter. The results were published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports on 21 April 2022.

Cortisol in hair

The stress hormone cortisol accumulates in hair, in humans but also in animals. By measuring cortisol levels in hair, researchers can get an idea of the stress response and recovery over weeks or months – depending on the length of the hair examined. This technique has been used extensively in humans and other species, and some fifteen scientific studies have been carried out in dogs so far.

“In addition to the cortisol measurements in hair, we also measured cortisol values in the dogs’ urine. This gives a short-term picture while the hair measurements show the long term”, researcher Janneke van der Laan explains.

To the shelter every day

The researchers examined hair of 52 shelter dogs at four moments: just before admission, after six weeks in the shelter, six weeks after adoption and six months after adoption. They compared the cortisol values before admission with those of twenty domestic dogs, which were similar in terms of breed, age and sex. 

Van der Laan: “We took daily measurements in the shelter for over a year. After adoption, the new owners – after clear instructions – cut the dogs hair and sent it to us. They were helpful and enthusiastic, and were very interested in what their dog had experienced before adoption.” 
 

For the cortisol measurements, hair from the same location on the body was used every time. The researchers shaved the area and allowed new hair to grow during the period in which they wanted to measure the stress hormones. This is called a ‘shave-reshave method’. 

More cortisol in small dogs

A surprising result is that smaller dogs generally have higher cortisol levels than larger dogs. “We have also seen this pattern in previous studies, for example in a study on the resting pattern of shelter dogs. We don’t have a clear hypothesis about why that is, but it is interesting and is an area of focus for future research.”

Well-being in shelter

All the examined shelter dogs were in the same shelter, the largest in the Netherlands. Of course there are significant differences between shelters, not only within the Netherlands but also internationally. In The Netherlands, dogs are usually kept individually, while in other countries they are often kept in groups. 

“We know that a shelter is not a stress-free environment for dogs, even though staff members do their best to achieve the highest possible welfare,” Van der Laan says. “Even if you organise a shelter in the best possible way, there are still stress factors, such as crowds of other dogs and not being able to go outside as often as usual. And most important: the dog is gone from their old, familiar environment.”

The shelter in this study has a pioneering role in improving the welfare of dogs: they use glass walls instead of bars to reduce noise pollution for the dogs, for example. “The fact that we measured an increased amount of cortisol even in this shelter, suggests that this will also be the case in other shelters,” Van Der Laan said.

Source: Utrecht University

Most dog breeds highly inbred

Dog breeds are often recognized for distinctive traits — the short legs of a dachshund, wrinkled face of a pug, spotted coat of a Dalmatian. Unfortunately, the genetics that give various breeds their particular attributes are often the result of inbreeding.

A study shows the majority of canine breeds are highly inbred, contributing to an increase in disease and health care costs throughout their lifespan. (Getty)

In a recent study published in Canine Medicine and Genetics, an international team of researchers led by University of California, Davis, veterinary geneticist Danika Bannasch show that the majority of canine breeds are highly inbred, contributing to an increase in disease and health care costs throughout their lifespan.

“It’s amazing how inbreeding seems to matter to health,” Bannasch said. “While previous studies have shown that small dogs live longer than large dogs, no one had previously reported on morbidity, or the presence of disease. This study revealed that if dogs are of smaller size and not inbred, they are much healthier than larger dogs with high inbreeding.”

Inbreeding affects health

The average inbreeding based on genetic analysis across 227 breeds was close to 25%, or the equivalent of sharing the same genetic material with a full sibling. These are levels considered well above what would be safe for either humans or wild animal populations. In humans, high levels of inbreeding (3-6%) have been associated with increased prevalence of complex diseases as well as other conditions.

“Data from other species, combined with strong breed predispositions to complex diseases like cancer and autoimmune diseases, highlight the relevance of high inbreeding in dogs to their health,” said Bannasch, who also serves as the Maxine Adler Endowed Chair in Genetics at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

The researchers partnered with Wisdom Health Genetics, a world leader in pet genetics, to obtain the largest sample size possible for analysis. Wisdom Health’s database is the largest dog DNA database in the world, helping researchers collect data from 49,378 dogs across 227 breeds — primarily from European sources.

Some breeds more inbred

So, what makes a dog breed more inbred than others? Bannasch explained that it’s often a combination of a small founding population followed by strong selection for particular traits in a breed — often based on looks rather than purpose. While she has always had an interest in the population structure of some of these breeds, she became particularly interested in the Danish-Swedish farmdog several years ago. She fell in love with their compact size, disposition and intelligence, and ended up importing one from Sweden.

Bannasch discovered that Danish-Swedish farmdogs have a low level of inbreeding based on their history of a relatively large founding population of 200, and being bred for function, rather than a strong artificial selection for looks. And according to the insurance health data on breeds collected from Agria Insurance Sweden and hosted online by the International Partnership for Dogs, the farmdog is one of the healthiest breeds.

The study also revealed a significant difference in morbidity between brachycephalic (short skull and snout) and non-brachycephalic breeds. While that finding wasn’t unexpected, the researchers removed brachycephalic breeds from the final analysis on effects of inbreeding on health.

Preserving genetic diversity

In the end, Bannasch said she isn’t sure there is a way out of inbred breeds. People have recognized that creating matches based solely on pedigrees is misleading. The inbreeding calculators don’t go back far enough in a dog’s genetic line, and that method doesn’t improve overall high levels of population inbreeding.

There are other measures that can be taken to preserve the genetic diversity and health of a breed, she said. They include careful management of breeding populations to avoid additional loss of existing genetic diversity, through breeder education and monitoring of inbreeding levels enabled by direct genotyping technologies.

Outcrosses are being proposed or have already been carried out for some breeds and conditions as a measure to increase genetic diversity, but care must be taken to consider if these will effectively increase overall breed diversity and therefore reduce inbreeding, Bannasch said. In particular, in the few breeds with low inbreeding levels, every effort should be made to maintain the genetic diversity that is present.

Source: UC Davis

The latest review of NZ’s greyhound racing industry

Last week, a new review report into the greyhound racing industry in New Zealand was released. As most of you know, greyhound welfare is a topic near and dear to my heart because Izzy is an ex-racer.

This review, by the Hon Sir Bruce Robertson, is not the first review of the industry. It’s not even the second (but the second, known as the Hansen report was a whopping 93 pages. I discussed that earlier report in my blog post How many hounds needing a home?). The 2021 review is the third review of greyhound racing in this country.

So the report made some headlines last week in the news because the Minister of Racing, Grant Robertson, says he’s putting the industry ‘on notice.’ Frustratingly, none of the mainstream news sources provided a link to a copy of the actual report. Being the information geek that I am, I tracked down the report and read it thoroughly over the weekend – with highlighter pen in hand.

Before I go into some of the key findings, you should be aware that a major reason why this review was undertaken is that Greyhound Racing NZ (GRNZ) wrote to the Minister for Racing in June 2020 stating that all 20 recommendations stated in the Hansen review had been successfully implemented and so they would no longer be providing progress reports. The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee felt that the information provided was insufficient and, with more deaths and injuries of greyhounds on the track, this review was commissioned.

I like this review, for one reason because it is PITHY. 19 pages including the appendices, it gets straight to the heart of the matter.

Key points:

  1. Kennel audits were supposed to have been undertaken regularly; GRNZ reported that audits were done annually. This review says that comprehensive information on both the regularity of the audits and their outcomes is not available.
  2. The database on greyhounds was to have been updated to ensure it is easily accessible, and contains accurate information on every greyhound born in NZ or imported into New Zealand until it is de-registered. This review found that not only are the data difficult to access but even the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee cannot obtain even the simplest of information. “There does not appear to be any reason why information regarding the welfare of greyhounds should be outweighed by reasons of privacy, commercial confidentiality, or otherwise.”
  3. The first review of racing recommended that dogs privately re-homed (as in, not through an adoption agency), should be audited to verify their whereabouts. Yet, through submissions to this review, it was found that there is not sufficient information to give any true assurance about the welfare of these dogs.
  4. GRNZ has expanded re-homing efforts BUT it has not established any form of public reduction targets, population projections, or estimated the number of dogs needed for the industry each year. In other words, there is nothing to stop the unchecked breeding of greyhounds for the industry which expects others to take care of their dogs for their lifetimes once they are no longer deemed suitable for racing. The Hansen report clearly said that re-homing alone was not going to solve the industry’s problems.
  5. The negative impacts of racing on overall health often do not present until a dog is settled into a new home.
  6. “No reason given” is still the most common reason for euthanising a greyhound – and by a significant margin.
  7. It is unclear what education and experience standards are in place for individuals employed to assist with breeding and managing kennels.

Conclusions

It has become clear that no matter the outcome of this report, or any reports henceforth, the social license of the industry will continue to be challenged for the foreseeable future. If GRNZ wishes to secure a future for the industry it governs, then it must set out to demonstrate the decency of the greyhound racing industry at every possible opportunity.

GRNZ has made its job harder by unnecessarily obfuscating information and pushing back against those with an interest. All information should be recorded, and it should be available. Arguably GRNZ has data to support its stances on the issues raisedin this report but is seen as unwilling to share this.

For those of you who have an interest, I encourage you to read the report in its entirety and share it with others. The current NZ Government says the industry is on notice and must report by the end of 2022 on its actions in response.

My view is that greyhound racing has been banned in many countries because of the animal welfare considerations. New Zealanders must ask themselves why those animal welfare issues don’t exist here. Because clearly this review has found that they do.

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

The pledge

With every New Year, I read about how people make resolutions – many of which despite the good intentions don’t last much longer than February. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the lifelong commitment we make to a dog, and of course the number of cases we see each year when people don’t fulfill that commitment.

If we could change the rules of pet ownership, I’d definitely support the case for licensing owners rather than the dogs.

If I could change one thing about my practice, it would be that I would see more dogs for canine fitness and well-being and less for rehabilitation. Rehab means that the dog has been injured in some way, and often when I do the health history as part of my intake process, I can see where the dog was probably going to have a problem and that the early warning signs were missed or ignored.

So here’s my best effort for the Dog Parent’s Pledge for 2021.

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Training methods based on punishment compromise dog welfare, study finds

Dogs trained using aversive stimuli, which involve punishments for incorrect behavior, show evidence of higher stress levels compared to dogs trained with reward-based methods, according to a study published on December 16 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ana Catarina Vieira de Castro from the Universidade do Porto, Portugal, and colleagues.

The researchers observed the behavior of 92 companion dogs from 7 dog training schools in Portugal that use either aversive methods (which use mainly aversive stimuli), reward methods (which focus on rewarding desired behaviours), and mixed methods (which combine the use of both rewards and aversive stimuli). They filmed training sessions and tested saliva samples for the stress-related hormone cortisol. Dogs trained using aversive and mixed methods displayed more stress-related behaviors, such as crouching and yelping, and showed greater increases in cortisol levels after training than dogs trained with rewards.

The cognitive bias test

The authors also conducted a cognitive bias test in an unfamiliar location outside of the dog’s usual training environment with 79 of the dogs, to measure their underlying emotional state. They found that dogs from schools using aversive methods responded more pessimistically to ambiguous situations compared with dogs receiving mixed- or reward-based training.

Previous survey-based studies and anecdotal evidence has suggested that punishment-based training techniques may reduce animal welfare, but the authors state that this study is the first systematic investigation of how different training methods influence welfare both during training and in other contexts. They say that these results suggest that aversive training techniques may compromise animal welfare, especially when used at high frequency.

The authors add: “This is the first large scale study of companion dogs in a real training setting, using the types of training methods typically applied in dog training schools and data collected by the research team. The results suggest that the use of aversive training methods, especially in high proportions, should be avoided because of their negative impact on dog welfare.”

Source: Science Daily

Journal reference: Ana Catarina Vieira de Castro, Danielle Fuchs, Gabriela Munhoz Morello, Stefania Pastur, Liliana de Sousa, I. Anna S. Olsson. Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. PLOS ONE, 2020; 15 (12): e0225023 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0225023


The first re-homing of laboratory beagles in Finland

The paper’s abstract begins “The fate of experimental animals represents an ethical dilemma and a public concern.” I would say that this is an understatement. But, researchers in Finland decided to re-home their laboratory Beagles once their work was completed and documented the process of helping the dogs to adjust to pet life.


The re-homing of laboratory dogs was the first of its kind in Finland. The re-homing process was started with months of practising basic pet dog skills with the dogs and by familiarising them with the world outside the laboratory.  

The practice period lasted from four to six months, depending on the dog.

“However, we found out that the socialisation time was not quite sufficient for all dogs; owners reported that some dogs continued to be timid and suffer from separation anxiety. The laboratory dog re-homing process would be smoother if in the future laboratory dog facilities separated out the defecation and rest areas, gave dogs access to an outside area and walked them outside on a leash,” says Docent Marianna Norring from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Helsinki.

The dogs had been living in packs of eight dogs for two to eight years in the University’s laboratory animal facilities, from where they had daily access to an enclosed outside space. They spent the nights in smaller groups of dogs.

At the University, the dogs had participated in both animal cognition and veterinary medical studies. The cognition research provided basic information on canine minds, and a new tranquilising agent suitable for dogs was developed in the veterinary medical study. The University of Helsinki does not currently have laboratory dogs.

The re-homing of laboratory dogs was implemented as a collaboration between SEY Animal Welfare Finland and the University of Helsinki. A large group of individuals participated in socialising the dogs and acquainting them with life outside the facility: animal caretakers, researchers, animal-rights campaigners and dog trainers. The aim was to take into account the individual characteristics of each dog when searching for a new home for them. Whenever possible, dogs were re-homed in pairs. Generally speaking, the new owners have been extremely happy about their new pets.

For the study, the dog re-homing process was monitored at the University for four years by interviewing the participants and collecting information from the new owners.  

Article:

Laura Hänninen and Marianna Norring, 2020, The First Rehoming of Laboratory Beagles in Finland: The Complete Process from Socialisation Training to Follow-up, Alternatives to Laboratory Animals (ATLA), Vol 48, Issue 3, 2020.

Source: University of Helsinki

The Dogs of Democracy

“Humans would do well to study the character of dogs” – Diogenes

This quotation is the opening slide of the documentary Dogs of Democracy, by Mary Zournazi, which was released in 2016. I’ve just watched the film on Doc Play, the app where it is available in New Zealand.

The film portrays the many stray dogs who live in Athens and the people who take care of them. It’s set at a time when citizens of Greece had been protesting against years of austerity measures that depressed the economy and its people.

One dog, Loukanikos, participated in many of the anti-austerity marches and his story is told posthumously by the people who knew him best. I particularly liked when Loukanikos is described a symbol of revolt and purity.

If you like dogs, you’ll like this 57-minute film. And if you follow news about economies and world economics as well as being a dog lover, you’ll have an even better appreciation for the timing and subject matter of the film.

For me, well – I’d like to go to Athens when this pandemic is over and give every one of those strays a good massage while visiting the birthplace of democracy.

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Izzy’s Words of the Day

Izzy is my greyhound and Poster Dog for The Balanced Dog, my practice in Christchurch, NZ.

During our lockdown (quarantine) for Covid-19, Izzy hosted Word of the Day on my Facebook page. Each word was selected for their relevance to canine health, fitness and welfare. I hope you enjoy this compilation.

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Misplaced priorities (why does Giving Tuesday come last)?

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving Day was always the start of the holiday season.  In fact, Santa Claus would enter Macy’s Department Store at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade to officially open Christmas shopping season.

The retail industry has changed a lot since then.

The 2019 holiday shopping season has officially begun with reports of traffic around every shopping mall in the area – shoppers taking advantage of Black Friday sales.  And it wasn’t just on Friday, of course.  These retail sales last the entire weekend through Monday.

Then someone came up with the idea of Small Business Saturday, contrived to help small business make some sales while customers may still have some money left to spend.

Then Cyber Monday.  Another date created by retailers to encourage people to shop online.

And at the end of the line – Giving Tuesday – a day designed to be the international day of charitable giving.  Animal shelters and re-homing agencies always need your donations and hopefully, you will have some left over.

Giving Tuesday

Giving Tuesday banner from the Michigan Humane Society

It seems to me that the priorities are backwards.  I’d rather see the Friday after Thanksgiving be the day of giving.  Give thanks and then give to others who are more in need…

(All of this focus on buying stuff does my head in)

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand