We are living in strange times. I don’t want to say “unprecedented” as this has become rather over-used of late. People (mostly, irritating journalists) keep asking when it will end and why hasn’t enough been done. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty about the future and that’s largely driven by the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in. Yet, despite all this, we can’t drop the ball in our work on breed health improvement.
I’ve said many times that one of our biggest challenges is that too many people are looking for “simple” solutions to complex problems, such as:
- A DNA test for Hip Dysplasia or Cancer
- A change to Breed Standards to eliminate BOAS or IVDD
- Mandatory “health testing” for puppy registrations (please re-read my article explaining why health testing does not mean healthy)
I sometimes use Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model to help my clients understand the different types of environment in which they have to make decisions. It’s also useful in the context of breed health improvement. Snowden described 4 main decision-making environments:
- Simple (and he later renamed this as Obvious)
Rules and Good Practices
Hopefully, the work we are doing to improve breed health these days does not exist in a Chaotic environment. Looking back to 2008 when Pedigree Dogs Exposed was broadcast, we almost certainly found ourselves in a state of chaos and what was required was a rapid response.
The Simple/Obvious world is the world of known-knowns. Here, we can create rules and follow procedures whenever we have to make a decision. In the world of dogs’ health and welfare, for example, the Kennel Club sets rules on the upper age (8) for breeding from a bitch and that owners consent to any caesarean operation being reported by their vet. Similarly, any Breed Watch Category 3 (formerly “High Profile Breeds”) have to be vet-checked and passed before being allowed to compete in Group competitions or have Champion status confirmed.
Some decisions are Complicated. We are dealing with known-unknowns but it’s an area where we can apply good practices. This is the domain of experts where we can analyse data and there’s usually at least one “right answer”. The development and application of Estimated Breeding Values would be a good example. Most of us have no idea how quantitative geneticists come up with EBVs but we can easily learn how to use the tools provided on the KC website. Another example is the analysis of breed health surveys which is often done by Breed Health Coordinators (or their statistician friends). Breeders and owners don’t need to know how the statistics are worked out; their interest is in the prevalence of certain health conditions or the associations between lifestyle factors and breed health.
There are few “right answers”
The Complex world is characterised by many unknown-unknowns. In my very first “Best of Health” article in March 2014, I described these as “Wicked Problems” where we face a range of challenges that are both scientific/technical and cultural. There’s very rarely a definitive cause and effect linkage, there are few “right answers” and quite often changes result in unanticipated consequences elsewhere in the system. For example, introducing a new DNA test will almost certainly enable breeders to avoid producing puppies that will be clinically affected, but if they all flock to use a few Clear stud dogs or decide not to breed (safely) from Carriers, it’s inevitable that genetic diversity will be compromised. The end result could well be that new recessive mutations causing new health problems (surprisingly) appear and a breed ends up worse off than before the new DNA test was launched.
Navigating the complex world of canine health improvement requires great leadership. It’s no use having leaders who create rules and regulations, and then expect people to follow them, perhaps supported by a bit of education. These leaders need to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. They need to be able to see the bigger picture and how to “join the dots”. Their role is to wrangle the various different groups of interested individuals to take action. That might mean there need to be lots of different actions which, cumulatively, will make a difference to dog health. For most breed health issues, that means a series of actions designed to change buyer and breeder behaviours. It may also require behavioural changes by vets, judges, exhibitors, and even welfare campaigners.
Another challenge facing leaders is that, in some situations, there may simply not be a right answer (and certainly not a single, simple, answer). That will be difficult for some people to accept; they are usually the ones saying “all you need to do is…” or “the Kennel Club should just…”.
I summed up the role of breed health strategy leaders in an article last year as being a “choreographer”. I said: He or she was typically a “uniquely skilled and passionate individual” who was able to use their cross-cutting position and ability to see the bigger picture to help shape effective ways of working. They are often “door-openers” who can bring in, and connect, new skills and resources to help solve a complex problem.
The new “normal”
The value of the Cynefin Model is that it encourages leaders to recognise that there are no hard and fast rules for making decisions. Instead, we need to recognise the different environments within which those decisions need to be made. Currently, we are facing huge amounts of uncertainty and that’s something most people handle really badly. One study even showed that we probably hate uncertainty even more than we dislike crises and chaos.
Uncertainty can lead to decision-paralysis and we have seen far too many examples of breed health decisions being “kicked down the road” with the excuse that we need more research data and evidence.
Whatever the new “normal” turns out to be, we will still need to keep focused on dealing with the complex world of canine health and welfare and coming up with practical solutions that genuinely make a difference for dogs.