Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Last month, I commented on the potential unintended consequences of breeders endorsing their puppies because “that’s what responsible breeders do”. There aren’t enough well-bred, KC registered puppies to meet demand and an estimated 70% of pedigree puppies are not KC registered. If someone has bought an endorsed puppy (dog or bitch) and is determined to breed from it, they are more likely to look for an unregistered mate and produce a litter of yet more unregistered puppies. They are unlikely to go back to their puppy’s breeder for advice or to understand what health tests may be required. It is debatable how much knowledge they will have about canine husbandry, how to care for a pregnant bitch or how to rear and socialise puppies.

Not only might this result in more pedigree dogs being bred outside the KC registration system but it probably also increases the chances of the puppies growing up with temperament and developmental issues.

A quick trawl through any of the online puppy sales sites shows just how many unregistered dogs are being bred and advertised. Many of the puppies (certainly in my breed) look rather untypical specimens and seem to command virtually the same prices as KC registered ones.

More “responsible owner” fallacies?

In this country, many new owners are encouraged by their vet to neuter their dogs. The BVA’s policy on neutering states:

“Neutering helps to reduce the number of unwanted litters. BVA strongly supports the practice of neutering cats (castration of tom cats and spaying of queens) and dogs (castration of dogs and spaying of bitches) for preventing the birth of unwanted kittens and puppies and the perpetuation of genetic defects. Such surgical intervention removes the problems associated with finding homes or increasing the stray population.”

The 2018 Dogs Trust survey said there were 56,000 stray dogs across the UK, which is the lowest level reported by councils for 21 years. That’s about half a percent of the UK dog population and hardly seems the best evidence for neutering. About 10,000 of those strays ended up in welfare organisations. The Dogs Trust report also estimated that 130,000 dogs come into rehoming charities every year.

A recent paper (Throwing the Baby Out With the Bath Water: Could Widespread Neutering of Companion Dogs Cause Problems at a Population Level? – Dawson et al) starts by saying “In many countries, ‘responsible dog ownership’ also involves spaying and castration”. In the USA, Australia and New Zealand, neutering is normal practice now and, in some cases, puppies are neutered at a very young age, before they go to their new homes. In contrast, in several European and Scandinavian countries, routine neutering is not the norm and is considered to be mutilation, similar to ear-cropping or tail-docking. In those countries, it is illegal. Here, just over half of all dogs are neutered as part of so-called responsible dog ownership.

More than health impacts

There have been numerous studies on the association between neutering and dog health. These cover large breeds where there are links with musculoskeletal conditions such as hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament disease, and also with osteosarcoma and diabetes. In my own breed, our 2015 and 2018 breed surveys identified an association between neutering and an increased risk of back disease. A VetCompass study published this year showed that spaying of bitches increased the risk of urinary incontinence.

The information on the effects of neutering on behaviour is more mixed, with some studies suggesting it increases the risk of nervous aggression and others saying it reduces dog-dog aggression.

The Dawson paper considers the possible effects of widespread neutering on the breeding of dogs and their success as human companions. The authors describe 3 types of breeder:

  • Hobby breeders – who are often very experienced in a breed and often also participate in canine activities such as showing, obedience or agility. These people breed for their hobby/sport primarily, rather than to supply the pet market.
  • Commercial breeders – who breed primarily to make a living (profit) and specifically target the pet market, with higher volumes of puppies.
  • The general public – who have a dog and decide to breed from it, possibly without much experience of husbandry, whelping or puppy-rearing. They may be described as “backyard breeders” and probably know very little about health testing or genetics. They possibly breed because “it would be nice for Daisy to have puppies” or “to make a bit of money”.

No doubt breeders in all 3 groups would describe themselves as “responsible” but, Dawson et al go on to explain the changes they feel are needed if dogs and owners are not to be exploited.

Firstly, breeding choices and puppy-rearing processes should be based on knowledge of good practices. Clearly, schemes such as the Assured Breeder Scheme and the Dog Breeding Standard can help here. The free resources for breeders on the KC Academy is another useful starting point.

Secondly, they advocate that all dogs should be independently tested for suitability before being bred from. In addition to suitability from a health point of view, they believe behavioural testing is important to check their suitability to be good companion animals. There are several canine mentality/behaviour tests available, but programmes such as the KC’s Good Citizen Dog Scheme is another option. Dogs that are themselves good companions, are more likely to produce puppies that will be as well.

Thirdly, experienced breeders should be helping their puppy buyers who may be interested in having a litter so that these people don’t become “backyard breeders”. It would be relatively easy to include advice on breeding in the puppy pack that is given to new owners. Advising them not to neuter could also be beneficial from a genetic diversity perspective by keeping breeding options open. Widespread neutering excludes thousands of ideal companions from the gene pool. This includes dogs neutered by their breeder before sale or those who are sold with a contract stipulating they should be neutered or not bred from.

The paper concludes by saying: “Over the long term, a more considered approach to the breeding of companion dogs would help lessen the gap between owner expectations and the dogs available to them. However, this is only possible if attitudes toward neutering are addressed and “responsible ownership” is broadened to include a dynamic partnership between owners and breeders to produce dogs most suited for life as companions.

If we don’t change our thinking on what is meant by “responsible breeding” and take a population-wide view, we risk continuing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. More and more unregistered puppies will be bred by inexperienced people and the gene pools of our closed stud books will get even smaller.

The Dog Owners’ Handbook – a great (free) resource from the Kennel Club

The Kennel Club has recently published (online) a Dog Owners’ Handbook. It’s free and you can download it as a 74-page pdf file, as well.

It contains lots of good advice for novice owners and there’s information that more experienced owners will also benefit from.

KC Dog Owner Guide 2019

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Every breed needs a choreographer!

I recently read a paper published by Save the Children, the charity, that described a range of approaches to collaboration in the field of humanitarian aid. It struck me that many of the things described had parallels that could be of use to us. Clearly, sorting out the challenges of pedigree dog health is not on the same scale as dealing with world poverty but, increasingly, we do have to find more effective ways to work together as individuals, groups, and organisations. While the improvements we need to make are often quite simple to define, the underlying causal factors are too complex and interconnected for one organisation to come up with “the solution”.

There is lots of talk about “collaboration” but it’s hard to pin down exactly what this means and, no doubt, different groups will have different views.

For example, the International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD) describes itself as a non-profit organisation whose mission is to facilitate collaboration and sharing of resources to enhance the health, well-being, and welfare of pedigreed dogs and all dogs worldwide. By contrast, the Brachycephalic Working Group (set up in 2016) has a framework document that describes a “partnership approach to improving brachycephalic health and welfare”. They don’t use the “collaboration” word at all but talk about having shared objectives and shared actions.

The Save the Children paper says there is a persistent gap between the promise of collaboration and the real-world ability to apply it in practice. It goes on to say that the promise of collaboration has resulted in lots of energised work but all this seems to contribute more to noise and confusion than practical application. That’s not something we can afford to end up with in our canine health work.

If we go back 10 years, most of the organisations working on canine health and welfare did so in their own self-sufficient ways. There was the KC, the vets, charities, researchers and campaigners. Breeders pretty much got on with their own thing, in their own way. Today, it is obvious that the pace of improvement has not been fast enough and that there are growing gaps between funding and needs. There will always be more projects that need to be done than resources available to fund them.

More than pooled resources

Essentially, collaboration is a way of integrating the work of distinct organisations. Collectively, they share objectives but each of the parties retains their independence to act on their own or with other groups, depending on the need. It’s more than a simple pooling of resources, though; the shared purpose is what binds the collaborators together.

One model of collaboration is the “supply chain” approach which works well where there is a requirement to deliver high volumes of consistent quality services. Health testing fits with this model; there is a chain from funders such as the KC Charitable Trust, through researchers such as the AHT, to service deliverers such as commercial testing labs and BVA screening panels and back to the KC with its health recording and reporting database.

A second model of collaboration is where several organisations work side-by-side, doing broadly similar things but allowing for a degree of flexibility and tailoring to meet local needs. The various Brachycephalic Breed clubs fit this model; each breed has slightly different challenges and needs, but together they have to address a common challenge. Each breed’s club activities are independent but, collectively, they are able to share learning and tools.

A third model of collaboration is the network approach which works well for big, complex problems that require diverse skills and where the problem they are trying to solve may be ambiguous and changing. This is, broadly, the world of the IPFD which brings together multiple, independent individuals and groups with different capabilities. The connections between these people are flexible and new connections can readily be made to meet unique needs. No one organisation is naturally in charge and membership of the network is likely to change in response to the evolving state of the wider system. So, for example, this year’s IPFD workshop featured new themes (the concept of breed and supply/demand) and dropped a previous theme (numbers/data).

What success looks like

The Save the Children paper suggests there are 5 core capabilities for successful collaboration:

  • Aligned goals – all participants need to agree what the purpose of the work is before they start looking at detailed options and activities
  • Responsibility and reward – there should be clear roles and incentives to contribute
  • Trust – the participants must have confidence in each other; there should be no surprises
  • Integrated work – information, processes and tools should be shared to enable consistency and efficient ways of working
  • Review and learn – take time to check on progress and achievements; learn from mistakes

The choreographer

Collaborations appear to need someone to own the whole system for them to stand a chance of succeeding. Someone must work across the organisational boundaries that define the contributing participants’ normal work. The role is much more than simply being able to chair a committee or to get different representatives to work together. In the Save the Children study, this role was called the choreographer. 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.

A Stanford Innovation Review said “Most multi-stakeholder collaborations excel at vision and fail in execution. They need someone to maintain a constant drumbeat, ensuring that all partners maintain a clear and consistent connection to the overarching purpose of the partnership”. 

This sounded, to me, very much like the description of attributes required to be a Breed Health Coordinator (BHC). Although there is a role description for BHCs, the reality is that their success and the impact they can have on their breed’s health depends on a few key attributes. Firstly, they need passion and persistence. Often, it is their self-motivation that helps them to work through the resistance that they inevitably come across. Secondly, they need to be able to see the “big picture”, not just for their breed but for dog health, in general. To that extent, they have to be flexible in their approach and to be prepared to adapt plans if they aren’t working out. Finally, they need to be given freedom and support by their breed clubs and councils. If they are tied down to slow, committee-based, decision-making and breed politics, they simply cannot do their job. The appointment of a Breed Health Committee can help share the workload and, often, a Health Committee’s recommendations can carry more weight than just a single person (the BHC), asking for something to be done. The inclusion of “pet owners” on these committees can also bring a useful perspective that is not influenced by breed or club politics.

So, if we want collaboration in breed health improvement to succeed, I’m convinced every breed needs a choreographer. Does your breed have one and are you supporting him or her?

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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.

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Breed-specific Health Strategies – my presentation at IDHW4

When I spoke at the 3rd International Dog Health Workshop in Paris in 2017, I started by saying that breed health improvement is not a conformation problem, a genetics problem, or a veterinary problem. It’s a change management and a continuous improvement problem.

For IDHW4 held in the UK recently, I said the challenge is not “are you improving?” but (a) “how fast are you improving?” and (b) “can you prove it?”.

We now know what a Breed-specific Health Strategy looks like. There are examples from the Nordic countries (RAS & JTO) and the UK now has its Breed Health and Conservation Plans. All these are based on the principle that a strategy is an action plan with a rationale.

Of course, we need to ask what is driving the development of breed strategies and I think there are 2 forces at work. Firstly, there is pressure for change and secondly, there is vision for change. Breeds will end up with strategies either because they are told to do it or because they want to do it; reactive or proactive. It’s a choice.

We also have to understand the landscape of breed strategy drivers. Both pressure and vision for change can come from one or more of:

  • Governments/Legislators
  • Kennel Clubs
  • Breed Clubs
  • Veterinary Surgeons
  • Scientists & Researchers
  • Breeders
  • Owners & Buyers
  • Campaigners
  • Media

Brenda Bonnett, CEO of the International Partnership for Dogs said:

“For many years, lecturing about breed-specific issues in dogs, even before the existence of IPFD, in discussions with the breeding community, veterinarians and others, it was becoming self-evident that if concerns were not addressed by the dog community, society would likely impose ‘solutions’ on them.  This is coming to fruition in many areas, and society and the media wants to move at a much faster pace than many in the pedigreed dog world.

A couple of my favourite quotes on planning come from General Eisenhower and the management guru Peter Drucker. Eisenhower said: “Plans are nothing, planning is everything”. He meant that the thought process and engagement of the right people in producing plans is more important than the document that pops out at the end. Drucker said, “Eventually, plans must degenerate into hard work”. If Breed Strategies sit on a shelf (or website) and nobody does anything different, we shouldn’t be surprised if canine health doesn’t improve.

Spray and pray!

One of the models I use when working with my clients to plan and implement projects and programmes makes the connection between the work that needs to be done and how benefits will be achieved. For dogs to benefit, i.e. become healthier, we need to establish new behaviours. Plenty of organisations are defining projects and processes and creating outputs such as breed strategies, legislation, toolkits, websites and so on. However, if there is no support for them because of the way plans have been developed, people’s behaviour is unlikely to change. All too often, the groups designing the projects, processes and outputs are not the same ones as will have to change their behaviour for dogs to benefit. Outputs get “lobbed over the wall” in the hope that breeders/owners/judges/buyers will change their behaviour. If the people who have to change their behaviours are involved in the design of the solutions, they are far more likely to support them. Otherwise, it’s just “spray and pray”.

It might be a bit of an exaggeration to say that the people designing the solutions aren’t involving the people who have to implement them because there are some excellent examples of very collaborative approaches. Those are the models we should follow; for example the Brachycephalic Working Group in the UK.

At the heart of breed improvement is human behaviour change. When it comes to behaviour change, we need to answer 2 questions: Can people change and will people change?

Canine health and welfare improvement are not unique in having to achieve human behaviour change and, surprise surprise, there is plenty of peer-reviewed evidence of what works in other fields. Complex problems such as Adult Social Care, Criminal Justice, Obesity and Smoking are all being tackled with interventions requiring behaviour change.

Behaviour change techniques

One of my favourite frameworks is the COM-B Model developed by Susan Michie and colleagues at University College London. In her 2011 paper which reviewed 19 behaviour change models from other studies, she identified Capability, Opportunity and Motivation as the 3 sources of behaviour. The Behaviour Change Wheel that she produced summarises a range of interventions and policy tools that can be used to influence Capability, Opportunity and Motivation. There is even a Taxonomy of 83 Behaviour Change Techniques available as an online toolkit. We don’t need to be starting from a blank sheet of paper. In a recent paper, Michie also reported on which interventions were most successful in changing behaviours for human health problems. Significantly, coercion and threat were the least likely to work; beating people up and telling them they have to change is of little value. She also reported that, for many of the health problems, around 9 or 10 different intervention types were required to implement successful change. In other words, a single, one-size-fits-all solution will be unlikely to achieve sustainable behavioural changes.

I reflected on an example from my breed, Dachshunds. Over the past 7 years, we have achieved an important improvement in the health of Mini Wire Dachshunds by tackling Lafora Disease, which is a form of epilepsy. A DNA test is available and we have moved from 55% of litters being bred with “at risk” puppies in 2012 to the position now where only around 5% are affected. That has been achieved by adopting techniques from 8 of the 9 COM-B intervention categories and 6 of the 7 policy categories. Our work has involved breeders, buyers, owners, vets and our clubs and breed council.

In Dachshunds, our approach to Lafora Disease has been part of our wider breed health strategy and the process we follow is based on a guide developed by our Kennel Club. It has 4 stages: Lead, Plan, Engage and Improve. All 4 stages are required for a breed health strategy to become sustainable and I prepared a poster that was on display at IDHW4 to illustrate some of the work we have been doing.

In my opinion, breed health strategies need more focus and effort on leadership and engagement in order to get better and quicker improvement results. There are lots of plans in many forms but, without leadership and engagement, dog health will not improve.

I ended my presentation with 3 quotes:

“The ‘tell, sell, yell’ strategy for Change Management never works.”

“Culture change happens in units of 1.”

“And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time.”

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International Canine Health Awards 2019

The International Canine Health Awards returned for the seventh year to celebrate some of the world’s finest researchers and scientists whose work has had a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of dogs.

The 2019 awards were run by the Kennel Club Charitable Trust and included substantial cash prizes donated by Vernon and Shirley Hill of Metro Bank, to go towards new or continued research.

The awards ceremony took place on Thursday, 30th May in Windsor at the start of the 4th International Dog Health Workshop. Professor Steve Dean, Chairman of the Trustees, was master of ceremonies and offered apologies from Mr & Mrs Hill who were unable to be in Windsor, although they (and their dog Sir Duffield) sent a video message to all the attendees. Mr Hill said “We are proud to support these important awards again, to fund research that may transform canine and human health by encouraging the same visionary thinking and innovation that Metro Bank champions. At Metro Bank, ‘Dogs Rule’”.

The four categories for the International Canine Health Awards were:

  • International Prize in Canine Health for outstanding contribution in the field of canine health and welfare with a prize fund of £40,000 for future projects. The award was presented to Dr Danika Bannasch who is Professor of Population Health and Reproduction at the University of California, Davis.
    She has made significant contributions to our understanding of of the genetic basis of many genetic disorders. She has been responsible for the development of DNA tests for 7 canine diseases including hormonal defect hyperadrenocorticism and chondrodystrophy.
  • Lifetime Achievement Award with a £10,000 prize fund was won by Associate Professor Gary Johnson from the Department of Veterinary Pathology at the University of Missouri. The award citation said that Gary Johnson is proof that it isn’t necessary for a vet to wield a scalpel or dispense a medicine to make a difference to animal health. His work on canine genetic diseases is reckoned to have saved the lives of many more dogs than most practising vets will manage during their careers. His lab was one of the first to adopt whole genome sequencing and, from 153 whole genome sequences, has identified 83 heritable diseases.
  • Student Inspiration Awards were split into undergraduate and postgraduate, with a prize fund of £10,000 for the post-graduate and £5,000 for the undergraduate winner. The post-grad winner was Adrian Baez-Ortega from Cambridge University who has been working in the field of bioinformatics – the combination of biology and information technology. His recent work has been on the evolution of canine transmissible venereal tumours. The under-grad winner was Nivan Mamak from Edinburgh University. In 2018, her vacation project was an investigation of paroxysmal dyskinesia in a family of Golden Retrievers. These student prizes aid further education costs, the development of these young people’s careers, or support a further project.
  • Breed Health Coordinator Award – with a £1,000 prize fund, went to Liz Branscombe (Flat-coated Retriever BHC). Liz is a registered veterinary nurse and, as well as acting as BHC, is also one of the KC’s team of BHC Mentors who spends time helping other breeds with their breed health improvement work. As well as working with her breed, Liz says an important part of her role is to pass on information from the breed community to the vet profession, which she has done as an author of articles in the vet press and as a regular public speaker.

After the final award was presented, it was great to see one of last year’s students, Alice Denyer, return to talk about how her prize had helped with her studies and research over the past year. Proof indeed, of the impact these awards can have in the real world!

Steve Dean concluded the presentations with further congratulations to the winners and thanks to the awards judges and KC team who staged the event. He then invited the assembled International Dog Health Workshop attendees to stay for a buffet dinner and celebratory drinks.