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Dr Carri Westgarth from the University of Liverpool’s School of Veterinary Sciences provided her expertise on canine behaviour to the researchers behind Channel Four’s ‘Rescue Dog to Super Dog’.
“Britain’s pet lovers are excited about a new TV show. It follows rescue dogs on their journey to ‘superdogs’, assisting their disabled new owners. I too am excited to be watching this show, as I consulted for the production company in the development.
I am the first person to want to celebrate the powerful effects our dogs can have on our health and wellbeing. Dog owners are over 50% more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than people who don’t own a dog. My research shows how important a strong dog-owner bond is for promoting this health-enhancing physical activity through dog walking.
My most recent findings suggest that the specific impact dog ownership has on our mental health and happiness is even more important to us than the added exercise. I also spent my pre-academic career working in both animal rescue and then as an Assistance Dog trainer. So, as you can imagine, the premise for this programme really grabbed my attention!
Because of my expertise in this area, however, I am acutely aware of the complexities of this field and raised a number of concerns. My advice to the production company focused on four main areas. Firstly, people struggling to live with disabilities, and hoping that a dog will miraculously improve their life, are vulnerable, as are the dogs selected from rescue to partner with.
My primary concern was for everyone’s welfare, in particular as the show wanted to include mental health issues. There is a myth that we currently do not have ‘psychological’ Assistance Dogs in the UK because of stigma against mental health. In fact it is because no respectable charity that trains Assistance Dogs feels that they currently have the capacity to offer the intense support framework required for these complex needs. This needed to be done sensitively, and with long-term aftercare.
I was also keen to illustrate that the dog trainers selected must be reward-based. There are too many examples of bad dog trainers on television and I was over the moon when Nando and Jo-Rosie, who vehemently promote training with treats and clickers, not force, were selected.
Now the public are being educated on just how much can be achieved with kind, motivating methods. You simply cannot scare a dog into helping you. As episode one demonstrated, it is impossible to have control over a dog when you are in a catatonic state. The dog must be there because it WANTS to be.
Another important issue to cover was that dog selection would be absolutely crucial. What many people do not realise is how stressful it is to work as an Assistance Dog. In the UK a person with a disability has a right to have their needs reasonably accommodated for, which is what allows trained Assistance Dogs to be taken to places that other dogs are not.
They are carefully bred and selected for the job and in the UK given specialist training by accredited charities. Learning the tasks is the easy bit – they are essentially just tricks. Being able to cope with the stresses of the daily job, such as public access work, or an owner that behaves unpredictably, is much more demanding.
Thankfully Jo-Rosie and Nando have been clear that they were extremely fussy and scoured the country to find dogs that were ‘bomb-proof’ enough for the challenge. People need to understand that no matter how wonderful our pet dogs are, a dog of this calibre is a rare find. Many charities do train rescue dogs though, and it is beautiful to watch the journeys of these dogs from unwanted to life-saving.
And lastly, these dogs are not Assistance Dogs, they are ‘Pets With Benefits’. Nando and Jo-Rosie do not, and should not, claim to be Assistance Dog trainers. They have clearly demonstrated to us that the journeys of these people and their new dogs has been extremely challenging, with considerable careful thought required throughout about what is best for themselves and the dog.
The dogs in the show have not been trained in public access work, quite rightly so. It would be unethical to make dogs suffer for our benefit. Unfortunately I believe that the show has not made it clear to the public regarding this issue. It consistently refers to the dogs as ‘support dogs’ which is the name of a registered Assistance Dog charity that has nothing to do with the programme. I know that there are thousands of desperate people wanting a similar dog trained for them and this show will only increase those hopes.
It is also unethical for a dog trainer to take money from a (vulnerable) client and ‘certify’ as an Assistance Dog. This is the reason why all registered Assistance Dogs in the UK are trained by charities. The handler does not pay for the dog, and if the dog is not coping/not suitable it can be pulled and retired to a far easier life because there is less conflict of interest.
The show often makes comparisons to ‘similar schemes in the US’, which we know are rife with both human and animal welfare issues. For those people who desperately want an Assistance Dog, it must be terribly frustrating that there isn’t the capacity to meet demand. However, paying a trainer to either provide a dog or help you train your own dog isn’t the answer in my view.
I do hope that programmes like this will spur improvements to the current system though. Regarding this particular show, the clients were carefully selected and have not paid for it so there is low conflict of interest.
In all, the show is a fabulous example of what rescue dogs can achieve with the right support and training. Jo-Rosie and Nando are doing an excellent job of promoting positive training methods and helping us to bring out the ‘super’ in our dogs.
There won’t be many dry eyes as we follow the journeys of these wonderful dogs and their new partners as we see their lives transformed and benefits of dog ownership reaped.
The final episode airs tonight, Weds 22nd June at 8pm on Channel 4.”
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