Dr Karen Dawson
Sentient Veterinary Member
To say Karen is passionate about greyhound welfare is an understatement. Almost 25 years ago, and many veterinarians will relate to this, a shy, female greyhound was walked into the anatomy class and euthanased soon after. “They were never considered as pets as they are today and it was at that moment that I vowed to do something to stop the carnage; a moment several of my colleagues remember well.”
She has been involved in finding greyhounds a home for a safe and happy retirement since 2008 and has undertaken behavioural assessments for the purpose of rehoming or muzzling exemption for hundreds of greyhounds. Karen continues to find homes for greyhounds in conjunction with the Veterinary Specialist Centre, where she is currently practices as a veterinary behaviour consultant.
She has been involved in the recent and ongoing amendments to compulsory muzzling law requirements for pet greyhounds in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and is the primary presenter for the Greyhound Racing New South Wales Greyhounds program for the purpose of muzzling exemption – Identify and Respond to Animal Behaviour – Greyhound.
Karen has long been passionate about improving welfare within the greyhound racing industry, through education and cultural change. She is a former Animal Welfare Manager at Racing Queensland and prior to that was employed by the Queensland Government Racing Science Centre. Collectively, these roles offered a unique insiders perspective of the myriad of welfare issues that continue to plague the industry today and how they contribute to wastage and low rehoming rates.
“With regards to the industry funded Greyhound Adoption Program (GAP), we were expected to perform miracles on a budget. But the biggest shock to me, from a behavioural perspective, was the widespread anxiety and abnormal levels of predatory aggression towards other dogs, a condition often described in behaviour texts as relatively rare. Either way, both behaviours made rehoming difficult and presented a welfare issue for both the greyhounds and not infrequently, other people’s pets. I had to find out why this was happening. To me, understanding the problem was the only way to hope to address it. This had never been done before.”
As a direct result of her involvement in GAP, Karen developed a special interest in behaviour, particularly its impact on welfare, performance and retirement for racing greyhounds. As such, she was requested to provide evidence on how current rearing practices impact on performance and contribute to wastage to the select committee of the NSW parliamentary inquiry into greyhound racing, and more recently to the Queensland Greyhound Racing Industry Commission of Inquiry. In doing so, she put the endemic lack of socialisation for greyhounds on the agenda. A huge issue, which was up until this point, neither understood nor acknowledged. Subsequently, a review of best practice with regards to rearing and socialisation was amongst key recommendations. Karen was a contributing researcher to the recent Working Dog Alliance publication, Review and assessment of best practice rearing, socialisation, education and training methods for greyhounds in a racing context. Finally, the truth behind wastage was being exposed and examined. The focus was beginning to shift from how many dogs to why so many dogs are euthanased.
However, for her like many others, a line in the sand was drawn on the 16 February, 2015, when the ABC’s Four Corners program aired footage of live animals such as piglets, rabbits and possums being used for the illegal and barbaric practice of live baiting of greyhounds. This raised valid concerns regarding animal welfare and widespread cheating which has resonated across every State in Australia. In response, several states initiated inquiries with the report from the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry culminating in the Premier announcing the closure of the industry by mid-2017.
Karen was an expert witness at this inquiry, providing evidence regarding the significant impacts on both racing and rehoming that arise from the chronic and endemic lack of socialisation. Karen highlighted to the Commission that the practice of paddock rearing not only leads to widespread fear, anxiety and neophobia, but that it is likely to be inextricably linked to the practice of live-baiting in attempt to get fearful dogs chasing. Her evidence featured prominently in the final report.
“This journey has been personally and at times, professionally difficult. But I knew it was the right path to take. Although there are many welfare concerns within the racing industry, a lack of appropriate early socialisation remains the often unaddressed and misunderstood core from which arguably all other problems, including live baiting, originate. Collectively, these issues have a dramatic influence on the future fate of greyhounds.”
Given this, providing further funding for greyhound adoption programs as a panacea for wastage will be nothing more than a futile exercise in marketing. Although many greyhounds make wonderful pets, under the status quo, the sad reality is that the majority will continue to struggle with the transition to pet life.
Being tasked with assessing for rehoming many greyhounds from these rearing properties makes this fact painfully obvious.
“Greyhounds can and do make wonderful pets and they deserve so much more than this.”
Karen is photographed here with two of her three greyhounds, Chloe and Frankie.