Designing Community Education Programs to Promote Animal Welfare


In the past responsible pet ownership education has been performed by many groups interested in animal welfare. This was done in response to ad hoc requests from concerned teachers and interested group leaders. These schools and groups were often (generally) in the higher socioeconomic areas with low evidences of animal welfare and animal control problems. Such initiatives were 'preaching to the converted' and consequently made little impact on the growing number of animal welfare and animal control problems. A review of data concerning cruelty complaints directed to the RSPCA Inspector and animal control complaints reported to several local authorities revealed close correlation. Hence those regions in most need of urban animal management education were easily identified and targeted. A strategic plan emphasizing the need for a co-operative approach by those professionals and organizations involved in urban animal management was formulated. It aimed to educate the whole community about responsible pet ownership in a program tailored to address the particular needs and problems of that community. This paper draws from the experience of the RSPCA in community education over 10 years and gives practical guidelines for those wishing to achieve an improvement in animal control or animal welfare through education.


10.00am: A uniformed Animal Impounding Officer loads a cringing cattle dog into the Pound Truck to join six other dogs.

Meanwhile, back at City Hall, a weary animal control officer hands a pile of infringement notices to an already overworked Environmental Health Officer who is fighting his way through stacks of files relating to inspections concerning licensed premises, multiple dwellings and animal control matters.

11.00am: The local Alderman with a phone glued to his ear has, in the last few hours answered a series of emotional calls from constituents ranging from a sleepless resident complaining of his neighbor's noisy dogs, another bewailing the loss of a good pair of shoes soiled by dog feces, and still another angrily demanding the immediate return of his dog impounded while on its early morning neighborhood stroll.

11.30am: A Doctor in Casualty at the local hospital involuntarily shudders at the sight of a small child's face torn and bleeding after being savaged by a dog wandering in the local playground.

12.00 noon: An RSPCA Inspector called out to investigate a complaint about a neglected abused dog is appalled at the sight of the cowering emaciated animal chained to a post with no sign of food, water or shelter.

12.30pm: The RSPCA Ambulance Officer gently lifts yet another badly injured dog off the roadside and into his vehicle to rush to the University Veterinary Clinic.

1.00pm: One of the RSPCA Veterinary Officers removes her gloves and disposes of the syringe that has sent yet another healthy dog to its death.

6.00pm: A National Parks & Wildlife volunteer sadly picks up the tiny bloody body of a young ringtail possum attacked by someone's much loved pet dog.

3.00am: A frantic telephone call sends a local vet from his warm bed to the house of a regular client to treat a cat which has just been hit by a car.


These seemingly fragmented and unrelated scenes represent some of the consequences of current urban animal management policies throughout Australia. Systems, attitudes and actions relating to urban animal management are extremely varied ranging from low priority hit and miss schemes to highly organized efficient working modules which achieve remarkable results.

Urban animal management must no longer be synonymous with dog control methods. In fact the very definition of "urban animal" must now be expanded to include a wide range of domestic animals such as cats, birds, horses, guinea pigs, mice and fish as well as native fauna. Many of these animals are frequently kept as pets, yet most of them were originally introduced to Australia from overseas. This raises an important ecological concern if a healthy balanced environment is to be maintained and strengthens the need for an organized Australia-wide urban animal management policy. The recent emergence of a strong 'green' feeling in the community also highlights the need for controls on the keeping, movement and breeding of the animals to be enforced by all levels of government to prevent environmental imbalances. Urban animal management has suddenly become a very serious issue indeed.

Key organizations and personnel involved in urban animal management programs

The key players in any efficient urban animal management program have now emerged:

The federal government departments concerned with animal welfare and conservation/environment
The state government departments involved with animal welfare, the state Animals Protection Act and its enforcement
The state government department relating to national parks and wildlife and the environment
local government - aldermen and women, environmental health officers, animal control officers (ACOs), animals impounds and environmental officers
animal welfare groups - especially education officers, animal refuge staff and RSPCA Inspectors empowered to enforce the Animals Protection Act
conservation groups concerned with ensuring a balance between human development and environmental concerns
suppliers of pets and pet services
educational institutions.

The above mentioned personnel and the organizations they represent are all interested and concerned with varying aspects of animal welfare and animal control in the field of urban animal management. Any successful community education program in responsible pet ownership needs their ongoing cooperation, expertise and support.

In summary, all the above groups have similar goals, they want "happy animals" as a result of their endeavors and when animals are happy so are those humans who, through choice or otherwise, have to interact with those animals.

As an educationalist I believe that it is important to discuss several of the key issues of responsible pet ownership and animal control prior to detailed discussion of education strategies.
Responsible pet ownership


The term "responsible pet ownership" has been bandied around so much by various organizations that it has become an almost meaningless cliche. However, since the RSPCA Education Program is based largely on disseminating the principles of responsible pet ownership to the community in order to ensure the on-going welfare and compassionate treatment of companion animals, it is essential to examine firstly the meaning of the word "responsible" and secondly the principles involved in responsible pet ownership.

The meanings for "responsibility" and "responsible" are defined below according to the Macquarie Dictionary:

"Responsibility" n, pl,
1. the state or fact of being responsible
4. something for which one is responsible: a child is a responsibility to its parents

"responsible" adj,
1. answerable, chargeable or accountable, as for something within one's power, control or management
4. having a capacity for moral decisions and therefore accountable: capable of rational thought or action

Thus when the term "responsible" is applied to pet owners as in "responsible pet owner" the owner has to be accountable and chargeable for the on-going care, actions and welfare of any animal under the owner's management and control.

An owner must:

1. Comply with the Queensland Government laws under the Animals Protection Act by:

providing sufficient suitable food, water, shelter and appropriate exercise to keep the animal well and happy
ensuring suitable treatment is given to an animal that is sick or injured
not abandoning any animal or failing to provide for an animal's proper care in the owner's absence.

2. Comply with relevant animal control by-laws of the appropriate local authority - in the case of dogs this usually requires:

the owner to register their dog annually after 3 months of age
the owner to confine their dog to their property
the owner to keep their dog leashed when walking in public places.


The principles of responsible pet ownership include:

planning for a suitable pet to suit the owner's budget and lifestyle
understanding and meeting the needs and habits of that particular pet and providing a lifestyle which satisfies and enriches the pet's life
complying with legal requirements at state and local level
undertaking correct husbandry practices relating to diet, shelter, exercise and grooming
following a regular preventative health care program
ensuring appropriate treatment for a pet in case of sickness or accident
providing for responsible care in owner's absence
desexing of male and/or female animals where these animals are not part of accepted responsible breeding and placement programs
exerting controls on movements of pets to preserve native fauna
training and guidance to ensure the development of appropriate behavior.

Responsible pet ownership may also be considered at several levels with each being a particular stage to be reached within the community as part of any education strategy.


For practical purposes the principles of responsible pet ownership are divided into three stages by the RSPCA in Queensland. The stages are listed in Table 1. Each is part of the RSPCA Strategic Plan for education to address problems in animal welfare in the target area.

In designing any education program, the first task is to ensure the minimum care message is received and understood by the audience and progressively, as community attitudes or understanding improves, stages 2 and 3 can be implemented. In most cases stages 1 and 2 can be dealt with at the same time.

Table 1. Levels of Responsibility.


care as dictated by the Animals Protection Act or similar legislation and thus a level of care which satisfies the legal requirements of pet ownership
provision of most elementary needs, generally the need for food, water, shelter and treatment for disease and injury


care of a higher level which will cater for the basic needs to make an animal content and healthy
care at the level of the Code of Practice for the species
provision for preventative health care needs, higher levels of treatment for disease or injury, some elements of control and behavioral satisfaction


care of the best level, resulting in happy contented pets that cause no risk to neighborhood amenity
catering for all of the above but especially environmental enrichment, solutions to problem behaviors and a high level of training, guidance and control.

Animal control

It is difficult to find a universally accepted definition of the term "animal control" although the Bureau of Municipal Research Toronto (1976), produced one which may be acceptable. This paper defined "animal control" as that vast array of services and programs that are intended both to protect people and their environment from damage or harassment by animals and to protect animals from cruelty by people.

So in the Toronto example, animal control and animal welfare are intimately blended.

It is interesting to note that once a local authority simplifies and enforces its animal control laws in a community, not only is there a better quality of life for the human inhabitants but there is also a corresponding improvement in the welfare of animals in the district.

It is obvious to animal welfare groups when local authorities don't practice effective animal control, for it is the animal welfare groups that drown under the flood of unwanted, mistreated or injured animals.

The RSPCA believes that by-laws are only effective when they are properly enforced and calls upon local authorities to commit far greater efforts into policing the existing by-laws.

For example, compulsory registration of dogs, when properly enforced, is a useful identification system. But it also makes owners legally accountable for their actions and the welfare of their animal.

Mount Isa City Council (Moore & Brennan, 1991) has clearly demonstrated the many benefits associated with enforcing basic by-laws relating to animal (dog) control, including dog registration:

noticeable decrease in number of cruelty complaints directed to the RSPCA Inspector
marked improvement in animal health
sizeable improvement in dogs both male and female, desexed at owner's expense
few dogs are killed or injured on roads
a notable decrease in the number of dogs ending their days at animal welfare refuges
a decrease in number of backyard breeders with a concerted council campaign to address this issue
a pleasing decrease in the number of dog attacks on people and other animals (including native fauna)
a newfound community acceptance and support for a higher quality of life for pet owners and pets that uniform enforcement of council by-laws brings.

To promote responsible pet ownership, there should also be a marked difference, at least 75%, in registration fees for those that have their dogs desexed or for other positive owner actions such as obedience training or the provision of dog proof fencing.

It seems appropriate at this stage to mention that to any local authority a stray dog or dog at large is any dog outside its owner's property and not under control of its owner on a leash. The public perception of the term stray is quite different and this causes confusion and anger.

Local authorities need to be aware that the public has a totally different perception of the term "stray". Many other terms that are in common use in animal control circles are certainly not in the vocabulary of the man in the street.

The difficulty the public has in understanding the language of local authorities is further compounded when the problems of literacy and aliteracy are examined. Illiteracy refers to those who are unable to read or write, aliteracy refers to those who can read and write but choose not to because they lack time, energy or inclination. This concept is dealt with later in the paper in more detail.
Promoting the legal aspects of pet ownership


No matter how much positive education the community is exposed to, there will always be an element of our society that is unresponsive to community pressures and that fails to conform to conventional and respected codes of behavior when it comes to animal treatment and management.

In a previous paper on education published by the RSPCA (Day, 1989) the term "education by prosecution" was coined. For those who don't respond to community norms, prosecution is often effective in changing attitudes.

However it seems that the laws relating to animal protection and animal control are neither widely known nor clearly understood. This is especially so in those regions identified by both the RSPCA Inspector and local authorities as having biggest problems in animal welfare and animal control. These regions are generally low socioeconomic areas where there is often a large non-English speaking ethnic community and widespread difficulties with basic literacy skills.


It could also be argued that the basic animal protection laws outlined previously are really a matter of common sense, conscience and moral responsibility. Realistically though, it must be acknowledged and accepted that some people operate outside the parameters of conscience and morality; others have different cultural attitudes to animals or simply give animal welfare matters a low priority. Frequently these inherent attitudes are associated with a "disposable attitude" towards companion animals.

In Australia RSPCA Inspectors are empowered by government to enforce the legislation that protects animals from mistreatment while local authorities are empowered to enforce their animal control by-laws or ordinances. None of these laws have effect with those that cannot read or those that cannot understand English.

Therefore there is a very real need for the basic animal protection laws in each state to be widely promoted in simple graphic multi-lingual terms (e.g. posters, television and radio ads). Such posters should be prominently displayed in such places as schools, veterinary surgeries, pet shops and animal refuges. Radio and where possible, television, advertisements on popular media outlets would further reinforce these important issues.

However in addition to simply worded printed matter, more detailed information should be available on specific problem issues (e.g. solutions to the barking problem) for those needing information relevant to the second and third levels of responsibility as detailed in Table 1. Information sheets relating to common pet problems are available from RSPCA Queensland.


Dogs, dog owners and local authorities

Local authorities must also adopt a similar approach to promoting their animal control by-laws in the community. Brisbane City Council has moved away from the traditional brochures outlining animal control by-laws. These were usually only available in such places as the Town Hall, ward offices and council libraries. The Council has produced an innovative flyer on the subject of owning a dog (Appendix A), in which the key aspects of responsible dog ownership are outlined clearly and simply.

This resource has been well received in the community and is used by ACOs, many veterinarians, pet shops and the RSPCA Refuge to educate not only prospective dog owners but current ones as well.

Cats, cat owners and local authorities

Cats seem to generate extremes of emotions in the community and most attempts by local authorities to address the problems of irresponsible cat ownership and to control the movements of domestic cats have been relegated to the too hard basket.

Dr Victor Menrath, a noted feline specialist practicing in Brisbane assisted me in the development of a draft proposal for a responsible cat ownership flyer similar to the Brisbane City Council's guide to owning a dog. A brief overview of the on-going responsibilities of owning a cat as a pet was given in this brochure. The brochure focused on the need for action being the onus of the owner and by targeting the loving bond that exists between cat and owner and by appealing to their social conscience to preserve wildlife, it was hoped that favorable voluntary action would result. The brochure (Appendix B) can be copied and used freely by any group who have a need.

How to assist in planning for a pet

It is clear that any successful community education program in responsible pet ownership must focus on owner onus and accountability. In simple terms this means that potential pet owners and current pet owners alike must understand that pet ownership is a privilege not a right. At this point it should be emphasized that the type of community education program discussed in this paper is not aimed at those responsible people who love their pets. Rather, this program aims to protect the welfare of animals, owned by those who have very different attitudes to owning a pet and who often fail to comply with the basic requirements of the State Animals Protection Act and animal control by-laws.

Acquiring a pet should not be the result of a spontaneous or unplanned action. It must be the result of careful planning and a clear understanding of all the legal and other responsibilities involved. A pet is chosen which is suitable to the owner's budget and lifestyle. The animal is happy and contented because such an owner has considered its natural behavior and habits and his ability to meet those needs before actually taking the creature home.

Using the simple analogy of responsible motor vehicle ownership with that of responsible pet ownership is very useful and can be understood by very young children.

Most people approach the purchase of a motor vehicle carefully, taking into consideration their budget, lifestyle, transport needs together with the capabilities, design and practicalities of various models. Motor vehicle owners also realize that they will have to outlay money on a regular basis for service charges to keep the vehicle roadworthy as well as keeping in mind the possibility of having to meet repairs in the case of accident or mechanical breakdown. Motorists usually have a relationship with a particular mechanic who attends to these specialist requirements for which the owner pays. Few motor vehicle owners would dream of asking such organizations as St Vincent de Paul or The Salvation Army for financial assistance to pay for mechanical services or repairs.

The responsibilities associated with pet ownership are very similar. The pet owner should pay the professional - the veterinarian for regular "service" checks such as vaccinations, worm treatments and desexing as well as for treatment of injuries or disease. Vets and vet nurses are generally pleased to offer advice about diet, exercise, behavior needs and training of the pet to their clients. When designing an animal welfare education program, 0analogies such as this are very useful.

Programs should also concentrate on the following:

selection of a species of animal that best suits the family (e.g. dog, cat, horse, mouse, fish, bird)
selection of most suitable breed within the species selected (e.g. Dachshund or Shepherd, Burmese or Persian)
considering the facilities needed to care for the pet contemplated
considering the ongoing care and expense involved.

The simple equation, the bigger the pet the more expensive it is to look after, is quite correct and cannot be too highly stressed. In planning for a pet, prospective owners should receive proper guidance in one form or another.

Resources on pet care (e.g. books and brochures) currently available in the community generally assume a high level of literacy skills and while quite appropriate for most of the community, they may not be totally appropriate for many in the target areas. For this reason, the language used in written communications needs to be carefully selected.

In addition, existing and prospective pet owners should be pointed towards those with proper knowledge that may be able to help with selection and ongoing care of a pet. Such people include:

veterinarians and veterinary nurses
animal welfare groups such as the RSPCA
pet shop employees
pet breeders
animal interest groups and club members.

Knowledge and understanding of a pet's origins, natural behavior and habits together with the owner's ability to satisfy those needs has been an aspect of pet ownership which has been sadly neglected to date, often with disastrous results. It is a very important aspect of planning for a pet.

When selecting dogs, those breeds that are working dogs, those that are large or those breeds which have a history of aggression and those with long or dense coats need an extra measure of responsibility to ensure they adapt correctly to suburban life and that their ongoing care is not going to be too onerous.

Hart (1985) discusses the behavioral traits of dog breeds with respect to their genetic tendencies towards reactivity, aggressiveness and trainability. His principles make selection of suitable dog breeds for specific purposes more scientific.

Dogs with high reactivity, high aggressiveness and low trainability can be problem pets because they are likely to over-react aggressively to stimuli and are difficult to train to prevent such reactions. Examples are Bull Terriers and Cattle Dogs and Chihuahuas. Such dogs need owners with a higher level of responsibility and knowledge.

Dogs with high aggressiveness and high trainability can be a problem if no training is given but can be good dogs with training. They make good guard or protection dogs. Examples are German Shepherds, Dobermans and Rottweilers. Owners need to be aware of the training requirements for such dogs.

Dogs with low reactivity, low aggression and high trainability make good family dogs. Examples are the Golden Retriever and German Shorthaired Pointers. Owners often find these dogs the easiest to control. Analyzing breeds with respect to these three criteria often helps in the selection process and also help to focus on the behavioral and training needs of some of the problem breeds.

Suggested practical methods of implementing responsible pet ownership community education

For those intending to implement a responsible pet ownership community program the following steps are suggested to achieve maximum effect.

For maximum efficiency of effort, it is sensible to target an educational program to the area of most need. Areas to be targeted for an intensive community education program can be identified using the following sources:

animal control statistics from local authorities relating to number and type of complaints on a suburb or area basis
animal cruelty complaints from RSPCA Inspector relating to number or type of complaints on a suburb or area basis
The Australian Bureau of Statistics publication, Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas. This document usually provides more detailed information relating to areas in question. The indices produced give an indication of the wealth of an area. As stated, RSPCA has determined that most welfare and animal control problems occur in areas of lower socioeconomic standing. The document is available from the Bureau in Brisbane for $15.


Determine the nature of animal control or animal mistreatment complaints in the area and use these to provide a theme and focus for the content of the presentations.


Having achieved the above a 'tailor made' program to create a change in the attitudes of the target population can be created more easily. For best effect, a saturation campaign in responsible pet ownership principles for the whole community should be formulated involving both community and school education elements to target both adults and children. The elements to be achieved if possible are:

state government animal protection laws and local government by laws should be actively promoted and enforced. All levels of Local Authority staff involved in aspects of animal control (aldermen, environmental health officers, ACOs and animal impounders) should be committed to the promotion and enforcement of council animal control by-laws. Concentration of field staff in target areas to conduct blitzes would initially achieve results via infringement notices. When examined, it has been found that such blitzes are revenue positive through penalties and especially registration fees for unregistered dogs. It appears that the level of registration of dogs in target areas is generally lower than 50%.
All forms of media outlets should be used as discussed earlier.
Printed material for distribution should be produced in the correct language style.
For school talks, consider that lesson times in schools are usually 35-40 minutes each for a special topic such as responsible pet ownership. It could be expected that two lessons would be the maximum time allowed for the subject so the contact time for students could be limited although some other activities such as drama or art may supplement the time available but this is dependent on teachers' priorities. For this reason, when presenting a talk to schools, the effects will be optimized if printed lesson plans are submitted to teachers prior to the talk so that general concepts of responsible animal care can be introduced. After the talk, follow up activities or competitions will reinforce the general themes and concepts of the presentations.
To support school or community talks, consider using others in the community whom are willing to give presentations. Local vets, vet nurses and other qualified personnel should be considered.
As part of a targeted approach, educational displays can be conducted in shopping centers and in association with community pet promotions such as Pet Week.
When Pet Pep is introduced in schools increased opportunities for presentations to schools will arise.


Once the program has been implemented, its effectiveness needs to be assessed. The assessment could include:

analysis of number of post-campaign infringements, complaints and repeat dog registrations
analysis of changes in overall registration levels
analysis of changes in reports of animal mistreatment
assessing community attitudes by surveying population through:
- telephone surveys
- attitudinal surveys in competitions
- surveys during a door-to-door animal control campaign.

Development of appropriate resources to enhance education programs must be a top priority. The principles of care and social responsibility that underlie responsible animal care education programs and are also important in human relationship education currently being taught in schools. It may be possible for funding to be achieved through a literacy grant from the state government.


Education is certainly one of the important tools in achieving effective urban animal management programs in the community. It is also one of the most potent weapons the RSPCA and various government organizations associated with animal welfare and animal control have to address problems in these areas.

But the concept of 'education' must go beyond instruction given in schools by teachers or education officers to knowledge, training and skills in a particular field given to the community at large by every available practical means. Not only does this mean using simple posters, flyers and the media but it also embraces the precept that effective education often occurs through the process of prosecution.

In these times urban animal management has become a very serious business. Urban animal management policies, or lack of them, affect the whole community in a positive or negative way. Urban animal management is more than stray dog control dealing with dangerous dogs or even dog feces. Serious urban animal management policies require a committed co-operative approach from all levels of government and "animal people" to ultimately achieve a high quality of life for people and animals.

In the words of Herbert Spencer, "The great aim of Education is not knowledge but action". We must all strive to impart the necessary knowledge to pet owners to ensure responsible action ... resulting in their pets being maintained in optimum fashion.