Working dogs, industries and issues

Two weeks ago the Working Dog Alliance held its inaugural conference. I really wish I could have gone – it sounded utterly fascinating, not to mention having a guest speaker from police work (cool!) and the Karen Pryor academy (her animal/people training book “Don’t Shoot the Dog” is one of my most prized texts). Instead I kept a firm eye on the #workdogs13 Twitter hashtag as well as @WorkDogAlliance and scientist-tweeters @DoYouBelieveInDog for the two days of the conference. That opened my eyes to just how many ways we do use and could use working dogs in this country, and the issues that follow on from that.

The Working Dog Alliance says on its homepage that one of its goals is collaboration – sharing expert knowledge between the diverse working dog industry sectors. Looking through the programme, I can certainly see “diverse”. There are the sporting dogs such as greyhounds. There are farm dogs that herd sheep, muster cattle and chase away foxes. There are guide dogs for people with sensory disabilities and companion dogs who assist with therapy. There are police, military and security dogs who do search and rescue, quarantine check, patrol work and property protection. A new area being explored with initial success is medical alert dogs for hypoglycaemia/diabetes. And, the one which really caught my imagination (and many other people’s as well) – the Otways Conservation Dogs, a group of locals and their dogs trained by Canidae Development on behalf of Conservation Ecology Centre researchers to hunt for tiger quoll poo in order to track quoll populations (video here).

The issues that follow on from all the ways we use working dogs are widespread. I found this statement from the Working Dog Alliance  particularly telling and important:

The Working Dog Alliance is committed to optimising the wellbeing and performance of all working and sporting dogs in Australia.

Why? Because across the working and sporting dog industries, a 50-70% fail rate is normal… and it doesn’t have to be. The welfare of these dogs is intimately linked to their working performance.

The Working Dog Alliance is working with industry, government, animal advocacy and scientific research groups to review current practices. We aim to provide opportunities for communication, sharing and collaboration across this diverse industry. We’re here to improve the lives of our working dogs and as a result, get more from our canine counterparts.

A 50-70% fail rate? That sounds… as expected, because I can’t imagine that every dog has the right combination of qualities to do this job or that, but when put into one large percentage like that it also sounds rather unreasonable and like we seriously could be doing better. If you read my posts with any regularity, or even just rarely, you’ll have probably noticed I have this distinct bias towards science. In particular, using science to develop understanding and inform our processes/systems so that we do things better when we do them. I’m keen on the work the Working Dog Alliance is doing because it’s about getting the expert knowledge we have in different sectors or places and sharing it to improve results all over the place, and about getting more science-based expert knowledge to do this sharing with. It’s being driven by science as well as by the love of our dogs.

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