Sarah Todd: Dogs in the countryside are well-trained – it’s the owners who are not

Calls are growing for a  new campaign of responsible dog ownership.

Calls are growing for a new campaign of responsible dog ownership.

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NEWS this week of record incidents of dog worrying among livestock is no surprise.

Just as Britain has more than its fair share of badly behaved children, we are also a nation overrun with dogs that have been shown no discipline.

So many parents struggle to teach their child who is boss and the same can be said of pet dogs. Instead of them being at the bottom of the pecking order – where children should also reside – they have been elevated to the top of the family tree. They have their own wardrobes full of outfits, their own special toys (whatever happened to an old tennis ball?) and have their every whim indulged.

Just like children, many dogs never hear the word “no” and the fear of a bit of whining puts people off having some time without them.

“Put dogs on leads” seems to be the overwhelming response to the news that the estimated cost of livestock worrying to farmers nationally reached £1.4m last year. With half-term upon us and then Easter holidays just around the corner, this is – as always – a sensible message for the agricultural industry to get out.

But underneath the shocking figures, which included an estimated £54,471 cost to Yorkshire farmers, there is surely a more fundamental problem.

Put simply, too many dogs are allowed to do whatever they want. This, coupled with owners who think all farmland is theirs to roam over, often proves to be a fatal combination.

Time and time again dog owners have defended their pets not being on a lead by saying their four-legged friend doesn’t like it. So many parallels to those pathetic parents who make excuses for their children. More than get your dog on a lead, the message surely has to be stop blurring the lines and treating them like humans.

Smugness is a terrible thing. This correspondent is no dog expert and has had many an embarrassing episode giving chase (usually in unflattering nightwear) after some canine escapee or other.

A new pup recently arrived and just the other day, as he casually climbed onto the table as if he owned it, the penny dropped that he was going from being cute to being spoilt. It’s a very fine line. The past few days have been a tough learning curve as we try and knock him back a bit. Simple things like making sure he gets fed last – even after the cat – will hopefully put him back in his place. Namely, right at the very bottom of our pack.

Over the last 20 years, the great British mindset seems to have changed. Instead of walking a footpath over a farmer’s land being a privilege, it has become taken for granted.

This is the Countryfile and Escape to the Country generation who have been told the great outdoors is theirs to get out and enjoy. Actually, a lot of it is privately-owned. There is no huge right to roam. People are so lucky to be able to cross land on this country’s wonderful network of paths.

As a girl, you’d get the odd walker – many with a single dog on a lead for company – and they’d stop and pass the time of day as they went by the farmyard. Now, group walking and multiple dog ownership seem to be the order of the day. Yes, it’s a sweeping generalisation, but you can count on one hand in a year the number of “mornings” or even nods of heads you get.

It’s awkward. Many walkers give off a vibe that they don’t want to be interrupted. Likewise, farmers can get the tone wrong – their work doesn’t require them to go on communication courses – and end up upsetting the walkers before they’ve even uttered a word. If he got into conversation, a farmer would doubtless mention his ewes were about to lamb and drop the hint about the dogs. It’s all so difficult. Two cultures colliding.

To have your dog walking in the countryside on a lead now seems to be the exception rather than the norm. The message that people of my age and older had drummed into them in the classroom (the Countryside Code) seems to be extinct these days.

People think their dog would never be a killer. Pet advice columns in the newspapers are full of cat owners horrified that their feline friend has killed a bird. Get real. It’s called instinct. Even if a dog doesn’t actually sink its teeth into a sheep, giving chase – “what a naughty boy” – can be enough to cause costly and distressing abortions.

Talking of cost, these latest figures from NFU Mutual, the insurance arm of the National Farmers’ Union, show the cost of livestock worrying for the region’s farmers has more than doubled by 57 per cent over the last two years.

Unless we, as a nation, tackle the attitudes of owners and the behaviour of dogs it can only get worse.

Remember Barbara Woodhouse? Apart from “sit” and “walkies” she also used to say there is no such thing as bad dogs. Just inexperienced owners...

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.

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