We don’t need change, we need improvement!

It’s 14 years since Pedigree Dogs Exposed but actually much longer since some of the challenges associated with the health of pedigree dogs were first discussed. My first “Best of Health” article was published in March 2014 and in it I described canine health improvement as a “wicked problem”.

Wicked problems do not have optimal solutions. They are typically characterised by having multiple stakeholders who often have diverse views of what’s wrong, what’s needed and how to address them. Everyone has an opinion on some aspect of the problem and what needs to be done to solve it. The trouble is, different people disagree about what needs to be done. They are also the realm of unanticipated consequences where somebody implements a supposedly simple solution that ends up making things worse.

We are not alone in having to deal with wicked problems, of course. The economy, climate, health, crime and many other societal issues fall into the category of wicked problems, yet many governments still believe that “evidence-based policy-making” will lead to viable solutions. Governments have tried for at least the past 40 years to draw on research and evidence to inform policy decisions. When I was consulting in the criminal justice sector in the early 2000s, there was much effort put into documenting “what works” in the belief that it could be replicated and rolled-out more widely. Research groups such as the Justice Data Lab collated and published studies to show “what works” to reduce reoffending.

In some ways, we’re not that different in the world of dog health; there is a huge investment in collecting better evidence (supposedly) to help us solve our big health problems. That, of course, is a perfectly rational approach; evidence helps us to understand the scope and scale of any problem, and we can then develop optimal solutions to address them. The trouble is, there’s strong criticism from outside our community that we’re not improving things fast enough and, in some cases, there’s no evidence of improvement at all. In an increasingly complex and polarised society, is the best we can hope for to manage our wicked problems, rather than to solve them? 

Cherry-picking evidence

However rational we might like to be, in reality, the views and opinions of people and groups often means that decisions are political rather than purely being based on any available evidence. There have also been examples of evidence being cherry-picked to make a particular case (e.g. selective choice of photographs to illustrate either “good” or “bad” health in a breed). Some argue that we don’t have enough evidence but that’s always going to be true in a complex, evolving, situation. Others happily put their own spin on the evidence they have looked at. Everyone is entitled to have their own opinions; they are not entitled to have their own “evidence”, though.

One of the other big challenges to evidence-based policy-making is the wide variety of mass communication channels now available through social media. While we’d all like to hope we can participate in courteous conversations in discussion groups, we’ve probably all found ourselves on the end of some wildly polarised conversation. At their worst, some of these groups degenerate into playground squabbles, abuse and trolling. The end result is a multitude of parallel-world echo-chambers where people rarely hear anything other than views that they can align with. This intensifies biases and means that alternative evidence simply doesn’t get any airtime. Back in 2017, I wrote about alternative facts and the post-truth world.

Moving from talk to action

There are a few groups, networks and organisations that continue to defend evidence-based discussion and use collaborative approaches to discuss strategy but they too struggle to get enough people to move from talk to action.

It’s pretty clear that many of the dog health and welfare problems are passionate causes for some people but will, inevitably, be difficult to resolve. More research and more evidence has not resolved the conflicting views; at least not fast enough to benefit the dogs. There is evidence that working at a smaller scale, at breed level, can lead to successful and lasting improvement. I’ve previously written about the pivotal role of Breed Health Coordinators and, each year, we see these individuals given recognition through the International Canine Health Awards. We should encourage more of these breed-level approaches but we do have to recognise they are very dependent on having effective leadership in place. I’m not convinced there’s much effort being put into identifying and developing the breed leaders of the future.

Campaigners, governments and dog people often look for simple solutions to solve these complex problems (change the breed standard, mandatory health-testing, compulsory licensing, more regulation etc. etc.). Vocal leaders among these groups sometimes try to impose their own preferred solution in an effort to “do something”. It’s quicker to “do something” than to acknowledge others’ views and to find ways to collaborate on developing longer-term viable solutions.

Each breed has a unique history that has led it to where it is today and we also have to recognise that, in some cases, large proportions of breeders fall outside the breed club community. I have argued previously that it is important for breed clubs to engage with these people if they want to be taken seriously as guardians of their breed.

There are no neat and quick solutions to the wicked problems associated with canine health and welfare. If that’s what some people continue to search for, they will be bitterly disappointed. We do need the research, the data and the evidence but these alone will not lead us to finding simple solutions to our complex problems. The useful solutions we come up with will necessarily be based on the best available evidence but also based on our ability to collaborate and agree shared objectives. I suspect we’d make more progress if all the groups who “want to do something about dog health” put more effort into improving the way they collaborate than on coming up with the next quick fix aligned to their individual agenda.

If you truly want to understand something, try to change it” – Kurt Lewin