Is puppy yoga ethical? The dark side of a growing wellness trend

An ITV News investigation by Sam Leader, Daniel Hewit, and Imogen Barrer uncovers the dark side of a growing wellness trend

In a world where influencers are continually looking for the latest social media trend to jump on it seemed that puppy yoga, the practice where young dogs roam around your yoga class, was a perfect fit.

On the face of it, the events provide an enticing mix of cute animals in a relaxing environment, creating images that are perfect for sharing on social media.

But an ITV News investigation offers a glimpse into a differing reality than those filtered Instagram videos might lead you to believe.

Celebrities attending were unaware of the potential impacts it might have (L-R: Tasha Ghouri, Sophie Habboo, Jamie Laing, Andrew Le Page) Credit: Pictures from social media

From Made in Chelsea to The Only Way is Essex, some of the top reality shows have attended these types of classes - with customers paying up to £40 a session. However there's no suggestion anyone involved with those shows was aware of the potential impacts puppy yoga may have on the dogs taking part.

After months of going undercover at a number of puppy yoga studios, we found an array of basic welfare requirements, deemed necessary by animal welfare experts, were not being met.

Participants are sold the mental health benefits of these classes, whilst for the puppies they're described as "really really good" for socialisation.

Yet having been shown evidence from our investigation, leading animal experts have slammed these classes as ‘incredibly concerning and worrying’ environments for puppies.

“This is the opposite to socialisation”

As many dog owners know the socialisation period of a puppy's life is essential to how a puppy acts as it grows into adulthood. 

It’s one of puppy yoga’s biggest marketing techniques that the classes benefit the customers but also benefit the puppies. 

Classes vary depending on the location but most we attended started with 'puppy time' where the dogs would run around the room whilst interacting with customers.

But “this is the opposite to socialisation” the RSPCA told us.  

As part of our investigation, we were told repeatedly that it was good for a puppy's socialisation to attend a class – claiming it helped with their "confidence" - the RSPCA disagree.

Esme Wheeler, science and policy officer for dog welfare and behaviour at the RSPCA said “this is entertainment, in my view, which is operating under the guise of socialisation. But this is not to the benefit of the dogs.” 

“There is nothing in that environment which I would consider to be beneficial to the health, the welfare or the behavioural lifelong development of these animals.” 

“Socialisation is about introducing a young animal to something in a way which is gradual calm, and they have the freedom to move away” 

Bill Lambert, Health, Welfare and Breeder Services Executive at the Kennel Club said "there's no benefit to repeating the same scenario that perhaps a dog is never going to encounter again through the rest of its life."

You can hear a special episode on the puppy yoga investigation in our quick-briefing podcast What You Need To Know...

“Oh no no, [it] might make them pee more”. 

The classes we experienced varied greatly in terms of the environment the puppies were set to experience. 

We attended a 'Puppy Yoga Essex' class hosted by 'The Bully Barn' in Wickford with just a yoga teacher present in the room.

Staff only came in to clean up any mess the puppies had inevitably made.

The class in Essex was taking place in a small room - and it was hot to the point where they opened a window to cool the room down, so we questioned if the puppies had water. 

Video: Undercover filming at 'Puppy Yoga Essex' hosted by The Bully Barn

The yoga teacher taking the class responded with “oh no no, [it] might make them pee more”. 

Esme noted that not providing water is “a significant risk to dogs.”

“Dogs don't have the capacity to store water in the same way that we do […] so they need constant access, otherwise health and potentially fatality can occur quite quickly.” 

We showed the RSPCA another class we attended organised by Puppy Yoga Liverpool where punters appeared in a studio alongside tiny cockerpoo puppies whilst music played in the background.

It's pretty clear to Esme that “on an environmental level it's incredibly loud, it's incredibly bright. This is not a situation in which young animals are going to learn anything positive.” 

Whilst the puppies started out energetic, they quickly tired and began to fall asleep cornering themselves in one area of the studio – but staff at the class would persistently pick the pups up, leaving them unable to rest as they moved them around the room. 

We saw the same behaviour at a 'Puppy Yoga Nottingham' class where sleepy puppies were often woken.

“Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, and there's no reason to assume that this won't be as damaging to these dogs.” 

Esme noted that “this looks like an environment which has the potential to be incredibly distressing for these animals."

“They're constantly picked up, they don't have the ability to exercise any choice or control in that situation.” 

The Kennel Club agreed that puppies "shouldn't be moved and picked up at will and that this is really, really quite damaging for puppies, to actually deprive them from what is a completely natural behaviour".

"They have to be able to make their own choices and sleep when they want to sleep and not be woken up and essentially forced to participate in an activity that's completely unnatural for them."

"At six weeks old they’re still feeding off their mother"

The first eight weeks of a puppy’s life is some of the most crucial time in a dogs development. 

During our investigation we found multiple breeders told us that puppies had been exposed to these kinds of environments before they were even supposed to leave their mother. 

The Essex class we visited claimed their puppies first took part in a class when they were six and a half weeks old.

Bill Lambert, Health, Welfare and Breeder Services Executive at the Kennel Club said "at six weeks old they’re still feeding off their mother."

"Puppies need to be fed four times a day at this point and they certainly need access to water […] so anything that takes them out of a natural environment is not good for the puppies.”

At the Nottingham class, we were told by the breeder that the puppies had just turned eight weeks old, to have found out later "they've done loads, they do like three [lessons] a day".

That's at least nine lessons they took part in before they were eight weeks old, up to three times a day. That’s up to four hours in these spaces with a fifteen minute gap in between.

“These are young dogs that are being repeatedly used for these activities” Esme noted, “and there is just no way that they can obtain the amount of rest that they need at that age.” 

"I think regulation, that would actually send a negative signal"

From our research we found there were over 25 companies advertising puppy yoga classes across online searches and Facebook, but that list is likely to be much more exhaustive at a local level.

Dr Ros Clubb, performing animals expert at the RSPCA, said "Puppy yoga classes, and similar events that use animals, should be required to be licensed to make sure animals are protected and cared for."

In England, anyone who commercially keeps or trains animals for exhibition must be licensed under the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018.

"There are conditions that licence holders are required to meet, including limits on how many animals are used, the number of competent staff supervising an event and that animals are kept in a suitable environment."

"The footage shows that there are very young puppies being used in these classes, with a lack of proper supervision, no access to water, a lack of opportunities to rest or protected areas where they can choose to get away from people.”

But given how new puppy yoga is, it becomes a grey area, and it's unclear if any laws are being broken.

However, Liverpool City Council said Puppy Yoga UK operating in Liverpool "doesn’t have the appropriate licence and this matter will now be investigated."

Whilst Basildon Council, who have jurisdiction over 'Puppy Yoga Essex' at 'The Bully Barn', was grateful to ITV News for bringing it to their attention, adding "we will not tolerate businesses that operate without appropriate licences".

Nottingham City Council said Puppy Yoga UK in Nottingham is not licensed with them but they would have to further investigate to see wether they needed one in regards to the Animal Welfare act.

Jenny Campbell, a Kennel Club assured breeder, gives her opinion on the trend

Jenny Campbell is a Kennel Club assured breeder whose dog has just had a litter of flat coated retrievers.

Jenny agrees that the puppies "should be with mother at home."

"Why would you take them in to a public environment with people you don't know, as a breeder."

"We stopped selling puppies out of shop windows years and years ago in this country and essentially were just putting them back in a shop window, it's called a yoga class, and it's just totally wrong."

I asked Bill at the Kennel Club if he thinks puppy yoga needs to be regulated - but he abruptly shut that idea down.

"Quite frankly, I wouldn't like to see it regulated as an activity, because it simply shouldn't happen at all."

"So I think regulation, that would actually send a negative signal."

"I think possibly there is behaviour that's taking place that already could be challenged under the Animal Welfare Act because this is not the things that we should be doing with dogs."

‘Made in Chelsea’ did not film at any of the puppy yoga studios filmed by ITV News and there's no suggestion they were aware of any adverse impacts of the activity. The show declined to comment.

‘The Only Way is Essex’ filmed at ‘Puppy Yoga Essex’ in Wickford before our investigation took place. There is no suggestion that anyone involved with the show was aware of concerns around their practices. 

ITV News understands TOWIE insists their filming was subject to stringent health and safety procedures and guidelines. 

A spokesperson for Sophie Habboo and Jamie Laing say that they’re deeply concerned by our findings.

They say they did not attend classes at any of the venues we investigated and were not aware of complaints and concerns by the RSPCA or the Kennel Club about puppy yoga generally.

Representatives of Tasha Ghouri and Andrew Le Page did not respond to our requests for comment but there is no suggestion they attended the classes we investigated or knew of any adverse effects from the activity.

Puppy Yoga Essex in Wickford, operated by The Bully Barn, declined to comment on the findings of our investigation.

Puppy Yoga Nottingham, Puppy Yoga Liverpool, and Puppy Yoga UK did not respond to our repeated requests for comment.