The challenges of developing and implementing Breed Health Strategies

I was one of the facilitators in the Breed-specific Health strategies theme at the 4th International Dog Health Workshop (IDHW4), held in Windsor, recently. Our group comprised vets, breeders, Kennel Club and Breed Club representatives. We set ourselves the task of defining the key challenges associated with developing and implementing breed strategies and coming up with potential solutions. Our starting point definition was that a Strategy is an Action Plan with a Rationale. It, therefore, is based on having data and evidence of what needs to be improved plus specific doable actions that will make a difference.

The first challenge we considered was how do Breed Clubs get started with developing a strategy. At least 3 issues lie behind this; transparency/trust, lack of resources and degree of influence.

Where breeds have been able to create a climate of transparency and trust by publishing open registries of health data this is a constructive approach as long as the data aren’t used to “expose and shame” individuals. Peer pressure and recognition, for example with Gold/Silver/Bronze health schemes is often more productive. Another suggested solution was to wait until there is a significantly large set of test results before publishing them, en masse. It is also important to use language carefully when reporting test results so as not to alienate breeders.

We have seen over many years that, in some breeds, there is strong cognitive dissonance around the need for improvement. This often manifests itself as what was described at IDHW4 as “normal for the breed”. It’s not just owners and breeders that may be guilty of this, some vets have fallen into that way of thinking as well. The challenge is to recognise what is “normal for a dog”.

Breed Clubs depend on volunteers and will always be stretched for resources. Running events (shows, fun days) will, inevitably, take priority over time to support health work. However, clubs could look wider afield for volunteers, from among their members and not just rely on existing committees. Many breeds would, no doubt, discover a diverse pool of talent, willing to help. Otherwise, with a declining pool of helpers, clubs will find their influence diminishing.

How to engage breeders

Our group discussed 3 main challenges related to engaging breeders in improvement: lack of knowledge/understanding, too many unachievable requirements and the fact that they don’t feel responsible for overall breed health.

Education and communication are key to this. Many breed clubs run seminars and conferences addressing health matters but these are likely to reach only a small proportion of the target audience, especially owners who do not belong to clubs. The use of social media is increasingly important to support this education and every breed should have an active social media presence, at least on Facebook. Instagram is also a useful channel, being focused on the use of images to grab people’s attention. It’s not great for directing people to other websites such as club health pages, so the use of Twitter, with posts including hyperlinks can help as well. Wider use of social media is also more likely to influence demand for puppies by influencing buyers and helping them to recognise what a well-bred puppy means.

Another point about education is that a breed’s messages must be backed-up by evidence. Providing links to references and peer-reviewed papers adds a degree of credibility to differentiate a club’s information from the anecdotal “advice” often shared by others in social media discussions.

As the number of DNA tests proliferates, it is going to get more difficult for breeders and owners to make sense of what is important for the future health of a breed. A collaborative approach to prioritising what needs to be done to protect a breed for the future is essential. Here, in the UK, the KC is involving breed clubs in the development of Breed Health and Conservation Plans. The Brachycephalic Working Group is another great example of how, by bringing interested parties together, realistic and achievable priorities and plans can be agreed. Breeders who are members of clubs are more likely to take notice of recommendations that have been developed with the involvement of their peers.

The genetic testing theme at IDHW4 also discussed the validation of tests and we need to ensure breeders and owners are better equipped to know which tests are worthwhile. Just because a test is available commercially, doesn’t mean it is appropriate for it to be used.

Breed clubs can also incentivise breeders (members and non-members) to participate in health improvement activities. They can ensure screening sessions are frequent and accessible, or offer subsidies and “member prices”.

Measuring the impact of our strategies

We shouldn’t create and implement breed strategies if we don’t know how their impact will be measured. That means identifying a manageable number of performance indicators during the creation of the strategy: decide what you want to achieve, then decide what you need to measure. 

There are breed-level indicators such as those published by the KC on genetic diversity (e.g. Coefficients of Inbreeding, Effective Population Size) and disease-level indicators (e.g. Hip/Elbow Scores, DNA test results). At a breed level, these indicators invariably take time to show improvement. In business, they would be described as “Lagging Indicators”. To give confidence that these are likely to move in the right direction, a breed also needs “Leading Indicators”. These are measurements that respond in the short-term and, if they go in the right direction, are good predictors of the slow-to-change breed-level indicators. Examples could include the proportion of litters bred from health-tested parents, the proportion of matings that are below the previous year’s median hip score, or the number of webpage hits and downloads of advice.

The working group at IDHW4 also agreed that it was important to share data with researchers, vets, breed clubs, KCs, breeders and owners. They might need this presented in different ways, ranging from peer-reviewed papers, through web and newsletter articles or with infographics and posters. Collaborative events such as the IPFD workshops and the dogwellnet.com website also provide valuable ways for good practices, information and data to be shared internationally.

Not just a Talking Shop

These IPFD workshops are not just “talking shops”. Since IDHW3, breed-specific health strategy resources have been developed and added to dogwellnet.com. There are now examples of strategy documents from many breeds in the Nordic countries and the UK. Templates for these are also now available, together with a PowerPoint presentation summarising what might be expected in a strategy.

The dogwellnet site now also includes guidance documents, such as our KC’s Breed Health Strategy Guide, and a number of blog posts on the theory and practice of strategy development and implementation. Individual breeds also initiated international discussions using dogwellnetonline Forums to review evidence and critique published papers of relevance to their strategies.

We now need to ensure the energy and enthusiasm at IDHW4 is translated into actions that will benefit our dogs.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.