Do we need to get MEAN to improve dog health?

Last month, the International Partnership for Dogs published its call for collaboration in a paper (Think globally, act locally) that was discussed in the Our Dogs editorial and by David Cavill in his column.

The paper reviews actions and attitudes that influence ongoing developments relative to pedigree dogs. It is a call for open, respectful discussions, within and across stakeholder groups (e.g. dog show enthusiasts, kennel and breed clubs, legislators, dog owners, veterinary and welfare groups), as well as countries and regions. It is a call for everyone to examine how our personal biases, attachments, and beliefs affect these discussions; and a call to work together for what is truly in the best interest of dogs and the people who care for them.

It concludes by saying “There are no quick and easy solutions. IPFD is working with collaborators to help create a roadmap to engage all stakeholders. Those deeply committed to ensuring the survival of all that is good about pedigree dogs need to participate in open and respectful dialogue to identify actions for the benefit of all dogs and people. Each of us should honestly consider how our own attitudes, and our actions – or inaction – have contributed to the current situation. And then, together, let us find a positive way forward.

There is a clear message that each of us can and should take action to improve the health of dogs,, i.e. a “me first” approach. However, it is also evident that some individuals and groups are better placed to take a leadership role that has the potential to accelerate the pace of health improvement. I make no apology for repeating my hobbyhorse theme that what is needed is human behaviour change.

Behavioural Insights Team

In 2010, the Prime Minister’s Office set up the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) as ‘the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural science to policy’. The team applies behavioural insights to inform policy and improve public services. One of the first papers describing their work was “MINDSPACE: influencing behaviour through public policy”. It describes ways of “nudging” citizens into new ways of acting by going with the grain of how we think and act. Hence, the BIT was sometimes referred to as the “Nudge Unit”.

MINDSPACE is an acronym for:

Messenger  – we are heavily influenced by who communicates information 

Incentives – our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses 

Norms – we are strongly influenced by what others do 

Defaults – we “go with the flow‟ of pre-set options 

Salience – our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us 

Priming – our acts are often influenced by subconscious cues 

Affect – our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions 

Commitments – we seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts 

Ego – we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves 

While all 9 elements of MINDSPACE may be relevant to nudging the desired behavioural changes needed to improve dog health, I want to focus on just 4: MEAN. As an aside, the imposition of legislation to address brachycephalic health is an Incentives intervention; people will generally act to avoid losses (e.g. fines or bans). However, compliance-based approaches don’t have a great track record, particularly in the world of animal welfare.

The Messenger matters

The weight we give to information often depends on the reactions we have to the source of that information. We are affected by the perceived authority of the messenger (whether formal or informal).  One study showed that interventions delivered by health educators were more effective in changing behaviour compared with interventions delivered by either trained facilitators or teachers.

Whilst expertise matters, so do peer effects. Role models from our peer group can be very influential; people often like to be seen to do what the “top people” do. 

We also have to be wary of messengers that people dislike and who are, therefore, not likely to be influential. For example, if breeders have negative views of their governing body (KC), they may be less likely to listen to messages coming from representatives, however expert they may be, from that organisation.

Ego trips

We tend to behave in a way that supports the impression of a positive and consistent self-image. When things go well, we take the credit; when things go wrong, it‟s other people’s fault. We have an inherent drive to protect our ego and to act and think in ways that make us feel better about ourselves and that we’ve made the right decisions for our dogs. 

Legislation may enforce a degree of compliance, through fear, but rewards and recognition can also be used to nudge people in the right direction. The brachycephalic breeds that have Gold-Silver-Bronze Health Award schemes are a good example of a positive approach. Recognition of early adopters and financial incentives such as screening subsidies can also help make people feel better about the actions they are taking to safeguard their breed’s health.

Affect – the act of experiencing emotion

Emotional responses to words, images and events can be rapid and automatic, so that people can experience a behavioural reaction before they realise what they are reacting to. I wrote recently that “More data won’t improve dog health” where I argued that beating people over the head with more facts was likely to fail. Of course we need data and evidence but, all too often, we have failed to engage with people on an emotional level. 

We sometimes talk about the Instagram Generation and, perhaps, we should give more thought to the power of images and videos (via YouTube), particularly to encourage behaviour change in dog buyers. Stories from owners and buyers talking about their experiences can be very powerful. Infographics are another useful medium but if they are simply used to present yet more data they won’t really engage at an emotional level. 

Norms and peer-pressure

Awareness of “social norms” – the commonly held views of our peers – can exert pressure on people to conform. If everyone else is using a health screening programme, it’s hard to be one of the few who are not. The reverse also applies, of course. Normative pressure depends on there being visibility of who is exhibiting the desired behaviour, so published lists of screened dogs or Gold Certificate holders, help to reinforce what is wanted.

Social networks (online and offline) are incredibly important in explaining group behavioural norms. It’s the echo chamber effect on Facebook; it’s hard to be a dissenting voice when a group is constantly repeating a particular message. However, in changing behaviours for dog health, there’s not much value in “preaching to the converted”. We will need to have some challenging conversations with different groups!

Different strokes for different folks

One of the really important pieces of work now being done by the IPFD is to develop a “roadmap” of tactics and options to help the various stakeholders act on breed health improvement. There are no simple or one-size-fits-all solutions. The MINDSPACE model might just be a useful checklist to help shape the roadmap and identify creative possibilities.