It's years since the code of welfare for dogs was released, and I wonder how many of you are aware of it and its requirements of you as a dog owner? Its requirements (standards) have significant legal 'clout'. Most of us are responsible dog owners and we already meet all the requirements of the Code. Nevertheless, you might be interested to know some of the detail so that you can encourage others to raise their standards.

How thin is too thin?

The Code of Welfare for Dogs includes a chart describing how to quantify the body condition of dogs, based on scores ranging from 1 (emaciated) to 5 (grossly obese). The Code states that dogs are 'thin' at body condition score 2, where the ribs can all be seen or felt easily and the pelvic bones protrude. Because of breed differences in body type, it doesn't state that all dogs at BCS 2 are necessarily unacceptably thin. For a dog to be classed as 'too thin' it would have to have a body condition score of 2 or less and also show other signs of malnutrition such as lack of energy or poor coat condition. The owners of these dogs must take steps to improve their dogs' body condition, by feeding them more, exercising them less, or getting veterinary advice as appropriate.

At the other end of the scale, the Code says that if a dog is grossly obese, common sense steps must be taken to reduce its weight.

What are the requirements for shelter?

Your dog’s shelter and the living area must meet these needs

  • Your dog must be able to access its sheltered area at any time. It must be clean, dry, provide shade, and be ventilated but not draughty. It needs to protect them from the extremes of heat and cold.
  • It is big enough for them to stand up, turn around and lie down in a natural position.
  • They have constant access to water.
  • Their droppings and urine do not accumulate.

Too few farm dogs live in kennels that meet these requirements. Let's hope that the Code will result in more comfortable living for more of them.

Is early (pre-pubertal) de-sexing OK?

There are pros and cons to early desexing. There are no relevant standards relating to it, but the Code says that early de-sexing solves more problems than it solves, so it recommends de-sexing at 3 to 5 months of age, which is before the first heat (oestrus) in the case of females.

How much exercise must a dog have every day?

The Code states that dogs must have sufficient exercise every day to maintain their health and well-being, and it recommends at least 60 minutes a day off the lead or chain or out of the run, with the freedom to explore the environment. However, it says the ideal amount of exercise varies hugely depending on age, breed, and circumstances.

Is it OK to remove dew claws?

While not commonly done, there are restrictions on removing dogs’ dew claws.

It is an offence to remove a front limb dew claw, or an articulated hind limb dew claw, from a dog of any age. You could face a criminal conviction and a fine if you do so.

If your dog’s claws are injured, go to the veterinarian. Veterinarians will generally only amputate dew claws if there is injury or disease.

Is it OK to dock dogs' tails?

The routine docking, or banding, of dog’s tails, is prohibited. If you dock your dog’s tail or allow it to be docked, you could face a criminal conviction and fine.

If tail docking must be carried out due to injury or for another therapeutic purpose, it needs to be performed by a veterinarian with the use of pain relief.

As a vet I believe that tail docking shouldn't be carried out for several main reasons:

  • The tail is a necessary signaling device for dogs – helping to indicate pleasure, fear, and aggression.
  • The tail is used to help the dog balance, especially running downhill.
  • Tail docking may lead to phantom pains in some dogs.

Is it OK to use electric collars?

The Code says that electronic training devices such as electric dog collars must not be used in any way that causes unnecessary pain or distress. It recommends that they are not used on unsupervised dogs or on nervous dogs, or to deter barking (except perhaps as a last resort when all other avenues have been tried unsuccessfully).

My opinion is that the use of electric shock collars goes against the best dog training techniques - all of which are based on reward and not punishment. However, there may be an argument for their minimal and strategic use in tough and robust dogs that are on 'death row' for behavioural problems such as attacking stock.

Like to know more?

There is a lot more in the Code that is relevant and interesting for dog owners – you will find the full version and explanatory notes on the MPI website -

There are a series of Animal Welfare Codes, and they are powerful documents, used to enforce the Animal Welfare Act by Animal Welfare Inspectors in the SPCA and MPI (Ministry of Primary Industries, formerly MAF). Failure to meet minimum standards in the code may be used as evidence to support a prosecution for an offence under the Animal Welfare Act. While the recommendations in the code have no legal effect, they are included to encourage higher standards for animal welfare.

Some minimum standards are now enforced through the Animal Welfare (Care and Procedures) Regulations, and you can find out more about these on the website also.