Becky Bristow, Executive Director of Dogs Trust Ireland, offers her expert insights into the crucial link between the COVID-19 pandemic and the welfare of dogs as more have been adopted to happy homes but others are the victims of illegal puppy farming and trading.
Dogs have provided companionship to so many people cut off from their loved ones since the onset of the pandemic. However, the unprecedented demand for dogs as the pandemic progressed was a double-edged sword for Dogs Trust. On the one hand, we were able to rehome a record number of our long-term dogs who we affectionately call ‘the underdogs’; on the other hand, unscrupulous puppy farming thrived as puppy prices and demand soared, especially for curly ‘designer crossbreeds’, often Poodle or Bichon Frise crosses which are given names such as ‘Cockapoos’ or ‘Cavachons’. Dogs suddenly became big business and a hidden cash one at that.
Reacting to a Pandemic
The onset of the pandemic was a true test of survival time for us, and the words ‘global pandemic’, certainly weren’t in our risk register! Sending our ‘office’ staff home to work was the easier part for us. The tougher call was how to continue operations effectively and safely in our rehoming centre. The ‘dog’ team chose to stay at work and be on our front line.
We closed to the public visiting us but worked out how to keep taking in dogs and rehoming them, all the while keeping our team and the potential adopters safe. As we are, unfortunately, used to dealing with potentially fatal canine viruses, we actually had an advantage because we know how to control the spread of disease, so we extended our existing procedures to incorporate our staff and, where applicable, members of the public.
During 2020, we fundamentally changed how we operated as a charity. By the end of the year, our rehoming process had evolved from a Dublin-based, centralised operation working out of our centre in Finglas, to a national network of fosterers and local kennels and we rehomed over 1,100 dogs in 2020. We moved many of our fundraising and all our education, campaigning and training activities online, including dog training classes.
It turns out that it is as effective to train the owner to train their dog than it is to bring the dog to a real-life class!
The Role of Dogs Trust Ireland
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dogs Trust Ireland, we rescue and rehome dogs all around the country, from a variety of sources, including Local Authority Dog Pounds and puppy farms. We opened the doors of our purpose-built rehoming centre in Finglas, Dublin, in 2009. Since then, we have rehomed over 20,000 dogs and now employ 80 members of staff along with a fantastic team of volunteers.
Rehoming dogs is only half of what we do, we put as much effort into prevention work, including workshops in schools, publicity campaigns to promote awareness of responsible dog acquisition and responsible ownership. We also work with like-minded animal welfare charities to advocate for better legislation and enforcement.
In Dogs Trust we work in an atypical charitable business, our beneficiaries can’t talk, so the first interview question for every staff member and volunteer is, ‘Why Dogs Trust?’ Obviously, you must love dogs, however, another question is arguably more important; we have to assess if you can also empathise with dog owners, especially if they are unable to care for dogs as much as we want them to. We reach our beneficiaries through the people responsible for them, so our team are a very carefully selected group who can combine deep empathy for dogs and people, yet find emotional boundaries within themselves for this work, as we often see very upsetting cruelty cases. Despite this, we also see the very best of people; our donors and the incredible support they give us to do our work.
Role of Governance and Advocacy
Although Dogs Trust is a charity, we are subject to all the same regulations as a commercial business, as well as specific charities regulation and oversight, so we need to operate as a business. As all our funding comes from members of the public, we must be exceptionally transparent about everything that we do. Therefore, as well as giving the best care to dogs, we strive for excellence in all areas of finance and governance and, as a result, have been shortlisted for awards for our Annual Reports.
Specifically, in terms of our ‘puppy farming’ campaign, we were so concerned about the welfare of dogs who were - and are still - being bred in abhorrent conditions, that we created an animated TV advertisement to highlight their plight and asked the public to research carefully where they are buying their puppy from. The accompanying campaign resulted in over 50,000 individuals signing our petition, which resulted in me being invited to speak in front of an Oireachtas Committee about the illegal sale of dogs in Ireland.
This year alone we have cared for 130 victims of illegal puppy farming, which is, sadly, just the tip of a very big iceberg. Many people are still being duped into thinking their puppy has come from a home environment rather than the harsh reality of being intensively bred, with little or no concern for their welfare. We launched our #EndPuppyFarming campaign in early November this year. We are appealing for dog lovers to add their name to our online petition to create a different type of demand – a demand to eradicate puppy farming in Ireland.
We have so much we want to achieve and recently completed our new 10-year strategy which, in true Dogs Trust culture, started with the question: ‘If dogs could talk, what would they ask of us?’
Becky Bristow joined Dogs Trust in September 2019 from Chartered Accountants Ireland where she was Director of Member Services, Operations & Development. She is a qualified Accountant, Tax Consultant and Executive Coach with over 25 years’ international experience in leading multi-jurisdiction teams in complex organisational structures.
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