A READER contacted me because she believes her neighbour is being cruel to his dog. "She's a five year old Collie, and he never takes her out for a walk. She stays locked up in the yard all day long. She must be miserable. What can I do to help her?"
In the past, it would have been difficult to do anything. Under Irish legislation, it was illegal to be cruel to animals, but there was no specific legislation forcing owners to look after animals well. People could not deliberately hurt dogs, but they didn't need to give them regular walks. Thankfully for animals, this has now changed.
Ireland's new Animal Health and Welfare Act, passed into law in March 2014, has introduced new obligations for pet owners that deserve to be repeated here in full: "Having regard to the animal’s nature, type, species, breed, development, adaptation, domestication, physiological and behavioural needs and environment, and in accordance with established experience and scientific knowledge, (an owner shall) take all necessary steps to ensure that the animal is kept and treated in a manner that safeguards the health and welfare of the animal"
To translate this to the neighbour's Collie, her owner has a legal obligation to safeguard the dog's health and welfare, taking into account her physiological and behavioural needs. If he does not do this, he is liable to be prosecuted.
To some extent, this comes down to a legal argument which will have to take place in the courts: how much exercise is necessary to satisfy a dog's behavioural needs? I can imagine an articulate defence lawyer coming up with all sorts of possible reasons why a dog might not need to be walked, but the court should surely strive to find the closest approximation to the objective truth.
To find this truth, it makes sense to consult with behavioural experts who have dedicated their lives to the study of animals: their general conclusion is that an "average" dog needs around half an hour of exercise twice daily. Some dogs need less (such as small toy dogs, or elderly animals that are slowing up) and some animals need more (some large, fit breeds would happily run for over an hour twice daily). I am certain that there would be a strong argument that a Collie who was never allowed out of a small yard is not having her "health and welfare" safeguarded.
Every morning, I witness the value of exercise to a dog's welfare when my own dogs go for their regular walk. We take them to local fields, where the two animals each have their own exercise style.
Kiko, the small terrier, is happy just sniffing around. She walks close beside us, her little feet trotting rapidly to keep up. She sometimes darts into woodland, snuffling through undergrowth before running back to be close to us again. She rarely gets out of breath, but I know that if I monitored her heart rate, it'd be significantly higher than at rest. Kiko's favoured exercise is the equivalent of a person going out for a brisk walk every morning.
Finzi, our cross-bred lurcher, has completely different needs to Kiko. Finzi loves to chase a ball, thrown for her with a sling-like launcher. As soon as we reach open fields, Finzi begins to pace backwards and fowards at my feet, waiting for the ball to be hurled fifty or sixty yards away. She'll then chase it at full sprint, trying desperately to grab it as rapidly as possible. She especially loves to seize the ball in mid-air, when it's just bounced up from the ground. You can tell from her demeanour that when she catches it in flight, she gets huge satisfaction, like a rugby player receiving a good pass and scoring a try. She holds her head high, with a glint in her eye, as if she's saying " Did you see that?"
Finzi will happily chase the ball for twenty or thirty throws on one walk, eventually flopping down in the grass, exhausted. When she gets home, she clambers into her basket to snooze for the rest of the morning.
“An ‘ average’ dog needs around half an hour of exercise twice daily”
If I took Finzi's heart rate when she was engaged in full-on ball chasing, it'd be right up there at two hundred beats per minute, like a human sprinter crossing the finishing line. Finzi exercises like a person who loves running; her ball-chasing dashes are the equivalent of a series of sprints by a super-fit athlete.
Each of my dogs has exercise needs that derive from their genetic background. Kiko, as a small terrier, is a sniffer and a digger, designed to seek out rodents and small prey in undergrowth. Finzi is more like a greyhound, bred to chase faster running prey in open fields. In their incarnation as modern pets, it's important that both dogs are allowed to carry out daily physical activities that mimic these activities.
Whatever type of dog you own, under the law, you need to assess what type of exercise your pet needs, and you need to ensure that they are given the opportunity to do this. If you just keep them penned up, with no chance to exercise, it's difficult to argue that you are "treating them in a manner that safeguards their welfare taking into account their behavioural needs". And as you are breaking the law, you are liable to prosecution.
Now, reader, cut out this article and pop it into your neighbour's letter box. I hope this helps that unfortunate neglected Collie.
Finzi lying down after she’s brought the ball back in her mouth