Canine Federations: Gathering Ideas and Creativity
- breed clubs
- good citizenship
Opposing such laws is a daunting task. Legal details are highly technical, consuming time and attention most people do not have. Still, dog owners can be more informed about the legal wrangling that takes place – often beyond the public eye – on animal-related laws. Legislative surprises can be avoided when organized groups advocate for reasonable animal-ownership policies, when people with legal knowledge and commitment follow legislative proposals from the earliest stages. With that kind of attention, laws can be quashed before going too far, or at least revised to represent dog owners' interests.
What is a Canine Federation?
Throughout the country, groups of dog owners join to form federations. Their work, often quiet, is vital for defending animal ownership.
Ann Lettis heads the Responsible Dog Owners Association of New York, which monitors new laws in her state and helps educate people about good dog ownership. For Lettis, a canine federation is rooted in the legal process, but goes beyond that, encouraging human connections. “A federation is an opportunity for people to get good information even if they aren't connected to a dog club. It also helps people learn the best ways to approach local politicians, or how to put together petition drives to fight legislation. They say 'You can't fight city hall,' but that's not true.”
Carole Creech directs the Indiana Purebred Dog Alliance, which formed in February 2009. One line describes her federation's purpose: “Our ultimate goal is to protect ourselves.”
Judythe Coffman is the president of the California Federation of Dog Clubs, formed in 1989 in response to a bill banning the use of dogs in hunting. After 20 years following dog legislation, this is how she sums up the role of canine federations: “We're responsible for making unfavorable legislation go away.”
Protection can come from fighting dangerous laws, and from supporting good laws. As Lettis explains, “It's not always 'us versus them.' Sometimes, politicians really don't know about dogs, and they're bombarded with emotional arguments. A federation helps legislators understand more about why a law isn't a good idea and won't work.”
Gail LaBerge is a leader of the Georgia Canine Coalition, which formed in 1987 and has become crucial in fighting bad legislation. It also plays a wider role. “We help people get to know legislators. We encourage people to give them a phone call, tell them you're in their district, that you're knowledgeable about dogs and would be happy to speak with them.”
When Lettis created her federation in 1988, it was almost by accident. She had been reading about laws proposing limits on ownership of specific breeds like American Staffordshire Terriers. “I just couldn't understand how anyone could think a dog breed was inherently dangerous. It really bothered me.”
The new laws were already close to final passage by the time Lettis learned about them. She began speaking out, writing to politicians, demanding information. To her surprise, she was asked to testify before the Department of Health, the agency responsible for the legislation. “I was shaking like a leaf,” she admits, “but I did a pretty good job arguing against it. In the end, the law didn't pass.”
Lettis' success got the attention of AKC leaders, who contacted her. “New York didn't have an organized group fighting legislation,” she explains. “They asked me if I'd like to start something like that. When I asked what it was about, they said, 'It's networking, getting people together.' I agreed to do it.”
Since then, Lettis has been on a mission to organize dog owners of all backgrounds to become aware of legislation and speak up about it.
A similar law provided the spark to motivate people in Georgia. “The way the law was originally written,” LaBerge says, “it would've been horrible for everybody. Dog owners started calling kennel clubs in our state saying we had to react.”
A loose network was cobbled together. They drafted a response to the Georgia law, already near approval in the legislature. The group met hastily, then sent two representatives to Atlanta to testify. Through an involved process, the group helped revise the law to be more favorable to dog owners.
For Creech and her Indiana cohorts, an animal cruelty law pushed people into action. “We're all for better animal cruelty laws, but they slipped in language classifying anyone with more than five puppies as a 'pet dealer,' so you'd be subject to warrant-less searches and seizures.”
The law had already passed the Indiana House, and was on its way to the state senate before Creech learned about it. In less than a week, she patched together a dog-club alliance. They pushed for a chance to speak in the capital.
“We got a seat at the table with the committee hearing the bill,” Creech says. “We worked with the senator and got the number raised from 5 to 20. And we got it so those numbers cannot be changed.”
There is a pattern in all these stories. The federation was formed in response to a legal process already well underway. Although the federations' voices were heard, this reactive stance is not the most effective way to work.
A Better Way?
Looking back, Creech says it is a small wonder they were able to change the legislative process. “We were totally blindsided. We scrambled to pull ourselves together. I used work vacation days to get organized. We were scared, which is a good motivator, but we could have acted much sooner.”
“We got more informed as time went on,” LaBerge says, “but you really don't want to come together this way.”
The number of legislative challenges across the country grows each year. Tracking laws is increasingly important. Since laws are different in each state, federations must be the responsibility of people in that state. Those who have been through the fire of forming canine federations under threat of imminently dangerous laws have a message for people in states without strong federations, or none at all: organize early, and keep your group together.
After becoming a leader in the Georgia Canine Coalition, LaBerge began looking more closely at legislation in every state. She sees a need for more action. “A lot of states don't have coalitions, and many have coalitions in name only. No one is actively following laws, so they aren't ready when something happens. When I meet people from dog clubs, I always ask if their state has an effective coalition. If they say no, I tell them, 'Start talking to all the clubs in your state.' Start organizing before something happens.”
A team can achieve goals that would be difficult, or even impossible, for individuals.
Instead of fighting legislation when it is already at stage two or three, a federation watching the process regularly allows dog owners to weigh in when a proposed law is in its infancy, or before it is discussed at all.
As director of club communications for the American Kennel Club, Lisa Peterson helps formulate a coordinated national structure of canine federations. She emphasizes the proactive benefits. “If you already have a grass-roots organization in place, and all your communications tools are sharpened, it's a lot easier to get your message out when an issue comes up, as opposed to always pulling your people together before you go forward.”
After forming her federation in an emergency, Creech says she has learned how much better it is to read about laws ahead of time. “We already know about bills coming up for debate in a couple of months,” she says, relieved and excited. “We'll get in there from the beginning and make sure no language is added that we're against. We'll ask our representatives to look out for certain wording.”
When a law threatens to negatively affect dog ownership, there are usually groups who organized in favor of that law. The longer it takes dog owners to unite, the more solidified the opposition becomes. Proactive attention changes the picture. “A coalition lets you monitor issues as they emerge,” LaBerge explains. “When something appears, you're not just catching up to animal-rights groups, who are already in the capital pushing their side.”
Having the luxury of time to prepare for legal debates allows federations to contribute to a wider awareness of issues with potential far beyond one locality or state. “Sometimes, our federation hears about something in one area,” Lettis says. “They pass that information onto us, and we pass it onto the AKC's national headquarters.”
In this way, national leaders can discern patterns among many local legal battles, then offer help if the same idea surfaces in other places. Having federations in regions across the country creates a beneficial multiplier effect.
Force in Numbers
Speaking as a representative of a collective group of vocal individuals carries much greater weight. “When you go to a legislator on behalf of all dog clubs in your state,” LaBerge says, “and you're there for thousands of people, they're much more likely to listen to you. They see you're united, not just piecing things together.”
Sometimes, volume itself is effective. “When the city council member walks into the room and sees a whole crowd on your side, that makes an impression,” Lettis says, only half joking. “It helps to have a lot of bodies representing your side!”
Deciphering the Fine Print
A new law may appear to have one purpose, but closer inspection shows it actually does, or has the potential to do, something much more serious.
“A bill can seem innocuous and no big deal,” Coffman explains. “But once certain language gets inserted, it's easy to go way beyond that. These are what I call 'foot-in-the-door' bills.'”
The only way to realize this is to read the text closely, which requires time and attention, something much more feasible when a team of people works together to interpret a bill.
Coffman cites a recent bill in California to put a 50-dog limit on owners. “The average person would say that's fine, since they have no intention of owning anywhere near that many dogs. Even many dog breeders were fine with it. But when we looked at the wording, we saw there was nothing to prevent the number from changing next year to 10, 5, or less.”
Digging deeper, it seemed the bill was intentionally written with an absurdly high number, so the average dog owner would pay less attention. Only a close reading revealed the true story; only an organized group following the law could spread the word about what was going on. This is a perfect illustration of the power and necessity of canine federations.
Politics can be even more indecipherable, and bills can be introduced almost invisibly. “You might be expecting a dog-related law in an agricultural bill, but somehow it ends up in an environmental bill,” Peterson explains. “Nobody's looking at environmental bills, since they don't expect dog issues there.”
With a federation analyzing bills more closely – wherever the bill is introduced, and however it is worded – the truth can be detected, deciphered, and acted upon.
Getting to Know Legislators
Radical groups often get the ears of leaders. This is not because political leaders like the radical groups more. It is more because those groups are often organized enough to regularly present their messages. But once a canine federation gets an audience with legislators, it can quickly become the preferred advisory group, for the senator or representative, and the lawmaker's entire staff. “The staff can be even more important than the legislator!” explains Coffman. “It's a long-term effort. When you get comfortable with the legislator's office, you make much more headway speaking with them.”
Legislators are the ones who vote for unfavorable laws, and may appear opposed to dog owners. But mostly, they are looking for allies, a reliable partner when debates heat up. With this in mind, a canine federation can forming effective, lasting connections that aid political leaders, who in turn aid dog owners. “They can't research all information on issues,” LaBerge says. “You can become their reliable source of information.”
When this happens, lawmakers become increasingly likely to listen to federations instead of groups opposed to dog ownership. “They trust you,” Creech explains. “They start respecting what you say and see you as the knowledgeable ones when canine issues come up. They realize they are better off with you than radical groups. You become the voice of reason.”
A federation must communicate calmly and professionally, even if a proposed law makes dog owners livid. “You're building a relationship with your legislator and their staff,” LaBerge emphasizes. “Don't go to the state house with your fists up in the air.”
Just one year after forming a federation, Creech sees the advantages of presenting a competent group of dog experts, and the extent to which familiarity allows federations to be more effective, and makes their job easier. “Our senator now tells us ahead of time if something comes up in a bill that he thinks we wouldn't like. We have someone who knows us and listens to us.”
Presenting Powerful, Organized Messages
All members of a federation, as they speak with their legislators at different times, should convey similar messages. This sounds easy, but even people sharing the same goals can unintentionally contradict each other, especially when members of the group are passionate about the issues. Coffman puts it bluntly: “When anti-pet legislation threatens dog people, they tend to go off in six different directions.” This is in contrast to anti-pet groups, who stay on message more effectively. “A federation can help people come together when they're threatened.”
“Fanciers do a lot of great work with dogs,” Creech explains, “but we're not good at explaining why we're valuable. We don't toot our own horns, and often we don't show up when laws are proposed. With a federation, fanciers coordinate better.”
A federation can help people coalesce as a team, so all your messages combine for greatest effect. PowerPoint, or even old-fashioned poster boards, can help. “We get all our key people together,” LaBerge says, “and everyone contributes to a set bullet points we present whenever one of us speaks about pending legislation.”
Communicating Urgency to Regular Pet Owners
Including dog breeders in a federation may be obvious. But for wider political success, it is vital to attract support from regular dog owners. “We have to find ways to communicate with the general public about why we worry about laws,” LaBerge says, “and why they should worry also.”
But most regular dog owners are either not aware of legislation, or do not understand the need to get involved. One job of an effective federation is to educate the general dog-owning public about the real meaning of the fine print. For example, Peterson cites proposed laws to allow people to sue their veterinarians for malpractice, as in human medicine. “That might sound good, but a federation can help explain that this law would cause veterinarians to seek expensive insurance, which would increase the cost of veterinary care. All dog owners need to think about issues like this.”
Getting your message out to the general public may seem like a daunting task. Where do you start? Lettis raises issues with any dog owner she meets, in any venue. “When I see people walking their dogs, I give them my contact information and add their names to my networking lists.” When Lettis' federation puts together petition drives, she can go to this expanding list for support. Many people on that list are not dog breeders, never attend dog shows, and may not even own pure breeds.
AKC-sponsored Responsible Dog Ownership days are golden opportunities to spread a federation's point of view. “We're always involved in the RDO days,” LaBerge says. “People come to our classes asking questions about kennel clubs and dog shows.” When a federation is prepared, these conversations are natural lead-ins to discussions about legislation, quickly generating interest and passion from the audience. “You're talking to people who love their dogs,” LaBerge explains. “They don't go to shows, but they understand why regulations harm their right to access the breeds they want.”
Beyond specific events, a federation creates a sustained effort to reach the public with dog-friendly messages. “We're always trying to appeal to the pet-owning public,” says Carole Raschella, a director at the California Federation of Dog Clubs. “We created a set of storybooks for elementary schools to help young people hear our positions. By the time they're teens, they are involved in our cause.”
Raschella travels anywhere receptive pet owners can be found. “If a pet store is doing a training class, we go there to meet with people. With a federation, we can get out more often to speak about issues.”
Appealing to people's sense of ownership works well. “A family with a Labrador Retriever may not know what's going on with legislation,” Creech says, “but they love their dog and want to keep having one. They need to know there are groups trying to take their rights away.”
Coffman says she is direct when speaking to people about this. “Pet owners are receptive to the idea that their rights are being threatened. If we state it as constitutional, property rights issues, more pet owners get involved.”
When people hear from a federation, their minds open up to another point of view. “Most people are interested in joining with us once they know the issues,” Raschella says. “But someone needs to first help them recognize the problems with proposed laws. That's the whole point.”
A Push in the Right Direction
A Friendly Circle
Not all states have canine federations, and many have inactive federations. For kennel clubs in states that wish to create a federation, but who are unsure about the first steps, there are lots of people willing to help.
The AKC's Web site serves as a hub of information on legislative issues. It contains several publications with advice and instructions on forming a federation. “We track hundreds of bills annually,” Peterson says. “We work with lawmakers drafting model legislation, and we work with all state federations.”
This allows the AKC to see multi-state trends. “Sometimes, one state serves as a precedent for others,” Peterson explains. “The language is identical from one state to another. We can help each federation keep abreast of what's going on everywhere else.”
Beyond the AKC, active federations are willing to help each other. Although issues vary among states, even among localities, there are general principles no matter where you live.
Mindful of the scramble to put together the Georgia Canine Coalition, LaBerge is sympathetic to anyone doing the same thing. “We helped a new federation in Mississippi by sharing our bylaws and constitution. We learned a lot from others when we formed, so we're always happy to share with others what what works and what doesn't work for us.”
LaBerge's group is ready with materials they developed. “We have publications. We created a logo that says, 'When you think of your dog, think of us.' We're happy let other organizations use that in their publications. Just mention us! The whole idea is to work together.”
With each state focusing on its own issues, and the AKC as the nerve center, someday it may be possible to coordinate a national network of everyone active in dog-friendly legislation. This dream network would mean that anyone working on legislative issues anywhere in the country can immediately tie into issues occurring anywhere else. The accumulated expertise of any federation would be helpful to all other federations.
Coffman imagines how such coordination would function. “Maybe a network where anyone can put out a plea for help when they're opposing or supporting something in their state? Then any federation within the network can offer help. That would allow us to get in front of politicians with our messages and our views and make an impact all over the country.”
“What it would take is for all states to have a system for sharing their knowledge,” Raschella suggests. “They would tell everyone else whenever they learn something new. We need that, because whatever affects one state will affect everyone eventually.”
Creech enthusiastically supports this idea – a sort of federation or federations. “I see bills popping up all over the country with similar details. So yes, we need to get our act together on a national level. It's scary how fast bad laws get adopted if you don't respond! Let's all start monitoring legislation, then come together and speak up. It's everybody's fight.”