Mia Cobb has always felt like she has a lot to make up for with animals. Perhaps it stems back to when she was three, and her new kitten was run over by a car. Not wanting to upset her, Miaâs mother told her the kitten had run away. In that egocentric way kids have of understanding the world, Mia spent her childhood years wondering what she had done to make the kitten want to leave. Did she not care enough?
Then, when she was nine, her eight month old puppy was also hit by a car. A succession of pets then made their way through Miaâs family home: rabbits, mice, fish, budgies, goats, sheep, a pony. She felt they needed her to care for them, and she was determined to do it right.
Today, Mia has found her niche as the co-founder of the Australian Working Dog Alliance. Here as one of five directors, she is working to improve regulation in an industry that considers a 50-70 per cent fail rate as normal. This means more than half of all dogs earmarked for a life of service to us humans are considered not good enough. What happens to these dogs next depends on their industry.
Guide dogs that donât make the grade are high-profile and easy to rehome. Slow greyhounds or disobedient farm dogs are often not so lucky. A fortunate few may become pets but more are euthanised. And an even larger number disappear without any record of their existence.
âSomeone said to me recently, âOh, youâre just doing this because you love dogs,ââ she says. âOf course I do, but make no mistake. This isnât just about the welfare of the dogs. This failure rate wouldnât be tolerated in any other areas of business so why are we tolerating it here?â
Where did your interest in dogs come from?
Iâve always loved animals. Maybe it has something to do with growing up as an only child. When I finished my Science degree in zoology and animal behaviour, I knew animal behaviour and welfare were my areas of interest. After I finished studying, I travelled for a year, and then came back with a big credit card debt and I ended up working at the RSPCA as an animal attendant. That wasnât a job that my education had set me up to do, but I found it enlightening and challenging in ways that I hadnât expected. I worked in the admissions department where all the animals came in, and we also had to euthanise animals that were not suitable for rehoming. It was an emotionally taxing environment. Through my work there, I gained two dogs and a catâvery much an occupational hazard!
How does someone in that environment not bring every animal home? How do you choose?
Well, my husband Pete has a three heartbeat rule. That means there are only three heartbeats (that arenât ours) allowed to live in our house at any one time. I was always tempted to bring home an elephant [laughs]. My three year old daughter doesnât come under that rule now either.
Nice to know sheâs considered above dogs and cats!
Absolutely! But in terms of choosingâit really could have been any of them. My dog Elke was a cruelty case. She came in as a fragile, underweight puppy with her hip bones jutting out. I think she came in during my third week of work there. I was a total sucker! And there was another dog that would have been put down had he not been adopted by a staff member.
I imagine there are a lot of those.
Yeah, there are. And you know, there are some staff members that do feel like they have to save them all, and compassion fatigue is a huge thing. Some people feel they have to turn up for work because nobody will care for the animals as well as they do, and their own welfare is compromised. Some stay for a really long time â either to their own detriment, or they get battle-hardened and switch off emotionally. Some people like me find itâs time to move on to the next challenge.
What was your next challenge?
I went on to work in a newly set up education department within RSPCA Victoria, and then I moved on to Guide Dogs Victoria. So in a way my personal interest, my education and my work experience have all led to this point where I am working to improve the welfare of our working dogs.
So if dogs perform as they should, theyâre taken care of?
Yeah, so we really want higher success rates in those programs. Rather than a 30 to 50 per cent success rate, Iâd like to see eight puppies out of a litter of 10 go on to be suitable for the work theyâve been bred for. This would have the effect of less behavioural wastage, which is where dogs arenât suited to the work they are being bred for. At the moment, we have a lot of dogs being euthanised or rehomed. Â The point at which that decision is made about the dogâs suitability is important economically too. For a guide dog, that decision may not be made until the dog is 12 to 18 months, so there has been a lot of money invested in that dog and while that dog might make a great pet, from a working program investment perspective, thatâs all wasted.
But itâs a different case for farm dogs and greyhounds, isnât it?
Yes. In other sectors, dogs are regularly killed if theyâre not suitable for the job.
What are the big obstacles between you and achieving all of that?
Like so many things, funding! Weâre hoping to form partnerships with organisations and companies that support our initiatives. Iâve been working all this year on a voluntary basis, and thatâs unfortunately not a sustainable model.
Not for you, Iâm sure!
No! [Laughs] and all of the directors have been the same. We feel proud of what weâve achieved this year but it doesnât lend itself to being a sustainable way of doing things. Also, the work that we do has value, and I think that should be recognised.
Photographer:Â Mel Travis