SINGAPORE, Jan 14 — A new set of guidelines to standardise the process of rehoming dogs was launched today, with the aim of promoting greater transparency between prospective dog adopters and welfare groups.
The guidelines also recommend science-based methods to train dogs, which include avoiding practices and tools that may cause pain and distress to the animals.
Animal welfare groups that TODAY reached out to, however, stated that establishing these guidelines is a positive but insufficient step. This is because these organisations are already practising what is contained in the guidelines.
Instead, the groups would have preferred for these practices to be enshrined in law so that those who do not abide by them will face consequences.
At a briefing during the launch of the guidelines, Dr Chang Siow Foong, group director (professional and scientific services) at Animal & Veterinary Service (AVS), a cluster under National Parks Board (NParks), stressed that the recommendations are “not meant to be prescriptive”.
“This is really to provide a set of comprehensive recommendations of best practices. And these practices were actually discussed quite comprehensively by the working group.”
The said guidelines were developed by the Rehoming and Adoption Workgroup (RAWG), led by Minister of State for National Development Tan Kiat How and comprising stakeholders which include veterinarians, dog trainers and members of animal welfare groups.
Supported by AVS, it was formed in October 2020 on the heels of a high-profile case involving a dog that was adopted from a shelter and later on euthanised by its new owners.
The male dog, Loki, was adopted from animal welfare group Exclusively Mongrels in December 2017. It later developed aggressive behaviours that led to several biting incidents, including those involving a child.
Loki’s aggression persisted despite the owner’s various attempts to improve its behaviour, including sending it for training sessions for four months and giving it medication to soothe its anxiety.
The dog was euthanised in April 2020 without Exclusively Mongrels being informed beforehand. This led to public backlash along with a lawsuit by the group against the owners, for what it called an “outrageous” breach of the adoption agreement that required the owner to consult the group before taking any action.
The legal suit was dropped in November the same year after both parties reached a settlement.
Greater clarity of responsibilities
At the launch of the guidelines on Friday, AVS explained that the objectives of the guidelines were to clarify roles and responsibilities of stakeholders involved, as well as to develop community-based guidelines on rehoming and adoption practices and the rehabilitation of dogs.
This followed a series of focus group discussions as well as public consultation involving almost 4,000 respondents, 90 per cent of whom were dog owners.
The guidelines, which can be found here, list guiding principles that should be followed for the adoption and rehoming of dogs. These include:
· The animal welfare groups assessing individual dogs for their suitability to be rehomed
· Transparency regarding the dogs’ behavioural conditions, medical history and any special needs before adoption
· A robust screening process of potential adopters
Key clauses of adoption agreements should also be made transparent to prospective adopters, it says, adding that each animal welfare group should develop its own policies based on the guiding principles.
The guidelines also delineate the specific roles and responsibilities for various parties throughout the pre- and post-adoption process. These parties include the animal welfare groups or shelters, adopters, fosterers, vets and dog trainers.
Least intrusive, minimally invasive training approach
Guidelines on canine training and behaviour rehabilitation emphasise the need to assess all underlying behavioural and medical needs prior to developing any training programme.
Dr Timothy Chua, president of the Singapore Veterinary Association, explains that this helps in improving the dog’s demeanour as it would rule out any otherwise unnoticed underlying causes for unsavoury behaviour.
“On top of that, there are also medical interventions that are possible for behaviour issues as well,” he added.
RAWG’s guidelines stipulate that techniques used for training should be science-based, and should avoid causing excessive pain, fear or anxiety.
Instead, they recommend the internationally supported “least intrusive, minimally aversive” approach in training the animal, guided by a process that begins with an assessment of health, nutritional and physical factors that may affect a dog’s behaviour and removing triggers that may cause undesired ones.
The guide also provides tips to help owners identify a qualified dog trainer.
Animal welfare groups wish for more ‘bite’
While acknowledging these guidelines as a positive first step, animal welfare groups TODAY spoke to agreed that they are insufficient, saying that the recommendations stipulated have long been carried out.
Ms Magdalene Eng, head of outreach and fundraising at SOSD Singapore, a volunteer-run organisation dedicated to the welfare of street dogs here, said: “SOSD wants to see these guidelines made into law and that there is proper enforcement to make sure these guidelines truly have ‘bite’ and are not merely ‘words’. SOSD would like to see the inclusion of the enforcement of these guidelines.”
Oasis Second Chance Animal Shelter said that it has already practised the recommendations, with a strong emphasis on meetings and home visits to ensure the best match for the dogs.
Its rehoming committee said: “Adoption of guidelines may not be implemented across the board as rehomers have a choice to selectively (use) only certain parts of the guidelines purely to suit their own needs.”
Ms Aarthi Sankar, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), said the guide provides more clarity as to where specific responsibilities lie, especially in unwanted cases where an adopter decides to resurrender a dog after adopting it.
While SPCA already has a “robust” process when it comes to adoption, Ms Aarthi said: “I think animal welfare groups have very different challenges, and very extenuating circumstances sometimes in how they get their animals adopted.”
She said that she has seen complaints by adopters who claim that they were not informed of certain conditions before bringing home the dog, and added that this is where guidelines may be useful.
While SPCA hopes for legislation and enforcement to deal with “recalcitrant people”, she acknowledges that this process would take time.
Meanwhile, Mr Kevin Neo, director of Exclusively Mongrels which had rehomed Loki, questioned: “Where is the legal bite for all of these?”
Referring to the euthanisation of Loki, Mr Neo added: “(It) made us realise that the NParks has no legal bite to rehoming and any follow-up actions which the animal welfare groups might need in terms of assistance because they told us it’s a civil case between Exclusively Mongrels and the adopter, and that they will not get involved.
“So as much as animal welfare groups practise all of the proposed guidelines, what happens if an errant adopter decides not to, years after adoption? Where is the recourse for the animal welfare group?” — TODAY