Aussies love slogans. It’s an indisputable fact that if something is able to be chanted at the football or cricket, it will burn it’s way in to the public psyche and resist all attempts to remove it, no matter how silly, useless or downright dangerous the concept behind the slogan is. Politicians know this and have cottoned-on to the particular effectiveness of 3-word slogans. ‘Stop The Boats’ is chantable, ‘A Fair Go For All’ is not – guess which one caught on and has hung around like a bad smell for the better part of a decade. So, what’s the go with ‘Responsible Pet Ownership’? It’s not really up there in the singalong stakes, but it’s often abbreviated to RPO to improve mouth-feel and it’s taught to young children in schools across the country, then repeated ad nauseum in Local and State Government educational materials and by Not-For-Profit animal welfare organisations. We have animated videos on YouTube encouraging people who own companion animals to be ‘Responsible Pet Owners’ and an entire animated town dedicated to teaching kids about RPO. Aussies also seriously love pets – around two thirds of Australian households own a pet and we spend around $13 billion a year caring for them, so we consider ourselves a pretty pet friendly bunch. Given that relationship and how much effort has gone into making the RPO concept penetrate and permeate Aussie pet-keeping culture, why isn’t it being chanted by school children and stuck on the back window of family cars in every suburb?
One hurdle to society jumping on board the RPO speed-wagon could be that the phrase itself is just not that palatable. ‘If you drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot’ isn’t in our typical 3-word favourite style but it’s a simple idea that meets us where we are at and frames the message in a way that most Aussies can relate to. ‘Drunk Drivers Die’ just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, even though it would sound pretty catchy if we could get people to chant it at the cricket. The language we use has a big impact on messaging – if it doesn’t tickle our funny bone, strike an emotional chord, or hook into our typically laid-back culture in some way, chances are good that our audience is going to change the channel. And let’s be frank here, if Australia’s response to Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that breaking laws we deem superfluous and telling our mates about it over a beer (or telling the world about it on Facebook!) is a common Australian pastime. Any messaging that relies on an appeal to our sense of duty to a higher authority, or slips in a not-so-subtle threat of minor legal punishment, is probably going to change our behaviour but it’s unlikely to illicit the intended response. Telling most Australians to leash their dogs or cop a fine is basically challenging them to find ways to walk their dog past the council offices while carrying the leash, and get away with it.
Another hurdle could be that ‘Responsible Pet Ownership’ is kind of a big concept. Unlike ‘Stop the Boats’ and ‘Just Do It’ which are pretty self-explanatory, Responsible Pet Ownership requires a fair bit of defining to help people understand just what it is. Anybody who wants to know more can visit their local council or state government website, RSPCA Australia, or any one of a dozen other organisational websites that promote the RPO concept. It just hasn’t become common knowledge so Random Joe at Woolworths has no real idea what RPO means. While there’s some variations around the main theme depending on who you ask, the basic message is that responsible pet owners take their responsibilities seriously, and if they don’t, their council will make them or someone will be judging them from ‘on high’. The core behaviours within the RPO concept are usually pretty consistent too:
- Register and microchip your pet and keep their ID up-to-date
- Vaccinate and desex your pet
- Contain your dog (and sometimes your cat)
- Walk your dog on a lead and carry a poo bag when in public
- Make sure your dog doesn’t bark all day and drive your neighbours insane, or show aggression to other community members
All of this stuff sounds fairly straight forward, but who is actually going to hear ‘Responsible Pet Ownership is important’ and think ‘I’m not responsible but I own a pet, so I should jump on Google and find out more about this whole RPO deal’? Even if we 100% agree that desexing, registration and health care are critical to the health and happiness of our pets, hearing ‘Be responsible or else’ and responding by finding out how to comply is just not really a thing we Aussies do, is it? And this is all based on the pretty big assumption that all owners who consider themselves responsible actually believe that the behaviours described above are necessary for healthy and happy pets.
Which brings us to Problem Number 3 – the crux of the RPO concept is really more of an opinion on what makes a pet owner responsible, rather than evidence-based practice that allows owners some autonomy in deciding what is best for their family members. My social circle is made up, by and large, of animal professionals and passionate pet owners. These are people who live, breathe and sleep dogs and cats (and lizards, birds, horses and a host of other companion animals). They spend all or most of their disposable income on their pets, they belong to special interest groups about their chosen species, they keep up to date on current research about pet health and behaviour, and they do everything in their power to make sure their pets are safe, happy and healthy. About half of them have at least one unregistered pet because they think pet number restrictions are unnecessary if the pets are not causing issues with neighbours, or they have indoor-only cats with microchips and blingy collars with electronic GPS tracking tags. Many don’t believe in paediatric spay-neuter for dogs (or don’t believe that desexing is the best choice for their dogs full stop) because they are familiar with research findings on the behavioural and health implications of desexing for some types of dogs. As far as I know, none of them get yearly C5 vaccinations for their dogs because they follow the WSAVA guidelines for vaccinations. Easily ¾ of the group advocate for TNR for cats in some form, so they are openly hostile to messaging that says all unowned or semi-owned community cats are unhealthy and feral. And I can tell you from personal experience doing exactly this, that if you ask any of them why they hold the opinions they do, they can articulate a clear, concise and evidence-based response and they are more than happy to talk about the topic – at length! Furthermore, many people within my social circle are strong advocates for inclusive and progressive animal management. They believe in pet food pantries, pound-prevention programs, low-cost and targeted spay-neuter for low SES communities and community cats, and getting people on the ‘Pet Lovers are Good People’ bandwagon by lifting them up and wrapping their arms around them. They know that most people dearly love their pets and are more often than not doing their best, so the aim of the game is to help them do better, not embarrass or judge them because they don’t have the means or prior exposure to better information to be doing what we think is best. They know that most of the community does the right thing by their animals and they take exception to messaging that assumes pet owners are an irresponsible bunch who put their own desires before the needs of their pets and the community. Yep, they also unanimously agree that strong enforcement of animal laws has a place, but it’s not the starting point or even second base for behaviour change. It’s a tool used to force compliance when we have run out of options to get people to join in of their own accord. RPO language is more than missing the mark with this crowd, it’s actively turning them away from engaging with local government and the animal welfare community on the topic of pet keeping at all.
Now that leaves the question ‘well, what do we DO then?’ and this is where we can learn a whole lot from psychologists and marketing people. When we are trying to change behaviour, it’s important that we understand why people do what they do so that we can tilt the scales towards them doing what we want… I promise this is not as manipulative as it sounds! There is a neat theory called ‘The Theory of Planned Behaviour‘ which can help us influence people more effectively. At a basic level, this model says that intentional behaviour like desexing or registering a pet is controlled by three things – people’s attitudes or beliefs about the behaviour, what they think their peers believe about the behaviour, and how much control they have or feel they have over performing that behaviour. Now it’s really difficult for friends and family to change a person’s beliefs (who hasn’t had THAT conversation about politics), it’s almost impossible for a stranger to do it, even if they are in a position of power over the person. The TAC campaign to reduce the road toll is a notable exception and fantastic example of how to successfully target people’s attitudes and everyday behaviours through advertising. While no one can argue about the effectiveness of TAC campaigns, they are controversial and I’m sure most fellow Victorians can recall their visceral reactions to at least one TAC commercial… it’s not really the effect we are looking for with pet owners! So, we need to focus on the other two factors in order to get people to willingly change what they do – we sell the behaviours we want as net positives for our target audience that are viewed favourably by the broader community and we remove real and perceived barriers to people doing those behaviours. Make it sexy and make it easy. Funny and chantable are handy too, but only if the product itself is sexy and easy.
When you are communicating with your community about pet keeping practices, they need to know why your suggestions are good for them, how they can achieve the goal behaviour (easily, within their budgets and resource limits) and most importantly, they need to feel that the behaviours we are asking them to do are viewed positively by their social group. Don’t forget that language matters too and we need to make sure the message we are sending hits home and connects with our audience. Given that our current messaging is missing the mark, I think it’s time we consider retiring ‘Responsible Pet Ownership’ and think about ways to make fencing, registration and ID tags sexy. Who wants to try out a new slogan?
P.S. That’s Sisco in the picture, my much-loved Mr Miyagi who was desexed as a teenager and spent the vast majority of his life by my side, off lead on my then un-fenced bush block.