From my Dog World column ‘Crossing the headlines’ (2nd September 2015).

HAVE YOU ever noticed how sections of the media seem to become obsessed and fixate on certain subjects? We have the Daily Mail’s current obsession with migrants, the Daily Express’ bizarre obsession with Britain’s erratic weather and Channel Four and Five’s obsession with benefits.

They first gave us Benefit Busters, Benefits Britain and Benefit Street and these were quickly followed by a whole raft of similarly themed shows like Britain’s Benefit Tenants, Gypsies on Benefits and Proud, Too Fat to Work, Me and My 14 kids and now – and of course it was only a matter of time – Dogs on the Dole.

Welcome distraction

It was shown on Channel4 and billed as, ‘A documentary about the work of the charity, Dogs Trust, and dog ownership on Britain’s housing estates, where for some their dogs are a welcome distraction from the daily routine of life on the dole.’

Now I would usually steer well clear of any programme with ‘benefits’ in the title but I thought I would give this a viewing as I have some experience of life on either side of the ‘benefit’ fence. For a number of years I worked for the DWP and then, in the first wave of deep Government cuts… I was made redundant and had to go on the dole. Of course losing your job, especially in the depths of a recession, has a huge impact on your life and I had to leave my much loved home in a very nice area and move into cheaper rented accommodation in a not quite so salubrious place.

At that time I had two dogs; a Miniature Long Dachshund called Molly and a Standard Wire called Rosie. It was an upsetting and unsettling time for all of us as we viewed let after let and quickly discovered that dogs, especially two dogs, were most definitely ‘not welcome’. As the deadline approached for us to move out, things became increasingly desperate.

Again and again we came up against the brick wall of ‘pets not allowed’. At my lowest ebb I even considered putting my much loved dogs to sleep but then a house came up that would accept ‘one or two well behaved, small dogs’. I was overjoyed and didn’t care what kind of state it was in if it meant we could all live together. We went to view it. 

It was a tiny end of terraced house and it was absolutely filthy. There were gaps around the windows (enough to see outside) and everything was dirty but I snapped it up – I was that desperate. Then Rosie fell desperately ill with an abscess and I didn’t have more than £40 to my name. I was forced to phone a few ‘animal charities’ for help… only to be told that I didn’t qualify as I wasn’t on ‘the right kind of benefit’. Thankfully friends and family stepped in and helped me out and we got Rosie the treatment she needed.

I watched Dogs on the Dole to see if anything had changed over the ten years or so since I was in a similar situation and, if this programme is anything to go by, it does appear to have. 

We followed hard working Denise Kelly and her team from Dog’s Trust as they set up ‘pop up’ clinics across the North East. They offer a free health check, microchip, vaccinations, a neutering voucher, flea and worm treatment – a full package (worth £250 to you and I) and the clinics are very popular with queues down the road. 

In Middlesbrough we met a Staffordshire Bull terrier called Bowie, who was getting obese on a diet of Nutella on toast, tuna pasta bake with garlic sauce and treacle sponge and pink custard, all paid for from his owner’s £74 weekly sickness benefits.

Fortunately, Bowie won’t be fathering any unwanted litters, as on the advice of Dogs Trust, he was castrated but, sadly there were many, many others who saw there pets as a cash cow and a way of earning a fast buck.

As the narrator said, “Money is tight on estates across Britain – benefits are being cut and full time work is hard to come by. For many the only relief from the daily grind is their doggy best friend but the demand for certain breeds has led to a boom in amateur breeding, a chance to make a few quid. But when breeds fall out of fashion – estates get over-run with strays.”

We were then introduced to Mick and Keira (Mick’s been on the dole for four years) and their ‘pedigree Bulldog’ Boomer. Mick proudly showed off his dog’s pedigree and said, “He’s from good stock, all the reds (the first champions appeared in the GGG parents) mean he’s from champion breeds – so they’ve won at Crufts and stuff… look at his dad, he never even won a championship and he still sold for more than £10,000! I want at least one litter from him – puppies sell for £2,000 or more.”

He was then asked if it was a fashionable way of making money at the moment.

“Oh yeah, my mate has them Chihuahuas and sells ‘em for £900 to £1,000.”

Mick visited the Dogs Trust clinic to get a free vaccination and check-up and the vet picked up on Boomer’s quite obvious skin complaint and entropion.

She asked him, “So, are you still going to breed from him?”

Mick replied with a firm, ‘yes.’

 Quick cash

The vet shook her head in dismay and advised that it wouldn’t be a good thing to do. But Mick ignored the vet’s advice as he thought she had only seen Boomer’s ‘bad side’ and ‘who would turn down the chance of earning £2,000?’

We then met Mark (who hasn’t worked for 15 years) because of health problems. Mark was a huge mountain of a man and certainly presented a striking image as he drove his mobility scooter along the road with his little Chihuahua sitting in the basket on the front. Initially I quite warmed to him as he spoke of his fondness for little dogs and then he said, “You know, I used to breed Staffies, seven or eight years ago. I used to love doing it and then there just got too many of ‘em around. You couldn’t sell ‘em anymore – prices dropped. It became over-run with ‘em. So I got rid of ‘em all and started up with little dogs – they are much cheaper to keep.”

So it seems what we have witnessed happening to the poor Staffie is soon going to happen to the Chihuahua and this was further emphasised when we met Rachel (who is on sickness benefit). We met her and her horde of Chihuahuas, one of which has recently given birth. “I think every dog should have a litter,” she said.

Three weeks later she was shown visiting the Dogs Trust Clinic for a free check up for the puppies and confided that there had been ‘no takers for them.’

It seems ‘everyone is breeding them’ and the ‘dinky dog’ market has now reached saturation point.

And when that point is reached we start seeing what the programme, in my opinion, wrongly described as a ‘stray problem’ as ‘stray’ seems to imply the dog has wandered away from his home, when the majority of these dogs were clearly abandoned/unwanted. The estate’s dog warden, Luke, spoke of the amount of dogs being ‘chucked out’ and the number of people who hand in their own dogs pretending that they are strays. Luke said that he most commonly dealt with ‘Staffies and Jack Russells.’

“There’s a lot of ‘em around, people breed ‘em and because there are so many around the price is cheap, so more people have ‘em.”

And the danger of fashion dictating our choice of pet was starkly brought home by Denise from Dogs Trust who said she’s had people say to her, “we need to change our dog, we’re just sick of it, we fancy a change”.

All in all, as many of these documentaries are, this was quite a depressing watch. Years of ‘education’ has apparently achieved so little when 100,000 ‘strays’ are being picked up from our streets every year and when such attitudes to dog breeding are still rife. 

Surely the answer to all this is that every dog bred in this country has to be registered. If it made a difference I wouldn’t care who ran this separate registry whether it be the Dogs Trust or the KC, but it might just help promote responsible breeding if every breeder had to pay to register a puppy the way we currently do. 

Then and only then could we really see who is producing all these ‘problem’ dogs and as these purely ‘bred for profit’ dogs are the ones most likely to find themselves in rescue isn’t only fair to ask their producers to ‘put something back in the pot’ for a change and contribute to their care and upkeep?

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