How to create a culture of openness, trust and collaboration for breed health improvement

The annual KC Breed Health Coordinators’ Symposium held at Stoneleigh on 19th September was attended by about 130 people. For the second year, it was open to people who are not BHCs, so it was good to see some “friends of BHCs”, other health team reps and folks with a genuine interest in breed health improvement, taking the opportunity to attend.

Last year, the KC’s health team launched a BHC Mentoring Scheme and six of us volunteered to act as mentors. The Mentors were allocated a 30-minute slot at the end of the morning session for a Q&A with the attendees. We took some pre-prepared questions in case the audience was too shy to ask anything but we should have known that BHCs are generally a talkative and inquisitive group. So, despite us being the only barrier between them and their lunch, we fielded plenty of good questions and still managed to finish on time.

Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of questions were about “people issues”, rather than technical topics such as running surveys or developing screening programmes. We were asked questions about dealing with confidentiality, how to use anecdotal evidence of problems and how to get people to participate.

Offline, I was asked if I could say something about how to create a culture of openness, trust and collaboration. It’s a question I’ve been asked previously when I have spoken at workshops about the work we have done in the Dachshund breed. Unfortunately, we ran out of time in the Q&A but it gives me a good topic for this month’s column!

Avoid fanfares and pronouncements!

First of all, you don’t start off by saying either that you want to, or you are going to, create a culture of openness, trust and collaboration. That might seem counterintuitive but it’s deeds, not words, that count. You have to do things that are consistent with and that help to build the culture you want.

As an example, the first breed health survey we did was very informal, asked a few questions about known issues and didn’t ask for the dog’s or the owner’s names. It gave us valuable baseline data but, more importantly, it clearly signalled that we valued people’s input and there would be no witch-hunt. Our follow-on survey collected 500 responses, mostly from the show community and most of whom happily gave their name and their dog’s name. We built openness and trust by publishing our analysis quickly without breaching any confidentiality.

It’s also important to realise that having a team-based approach to health improvement is far more likely to succeed than having one or two people dictating what needs to be done and presenting fait accompli solutions to breed clubs and their members. If you want widespread collaboration, those people leading your health initiatives have to work collaboratively. Again, it’s leading by example. Our Health Committee members share responsibilities for work and we willingly allow individual breed clubs to take the lead on issues that are important to them. So, the Miniature Dachshund Club takes the lead on eye conditions, opening up a wider pool of potential helpers and routes to engage owners in screening programmes. Similarly, the Wirehaired Dachshund Club takes the lead on Lafora Screening. In 2010, this was led by their Chairman and a committee who felt passionate about doing the right thing for the dogs. 9 years later, there is new leadership at the club but constancy of purpose has meant that “unsafe” breeding has been reduced from 55% of litters to around 5%.

It’s always about the purpose

I recently attended the retirement celebration for the Director of a Charity I’ve worked with for many years. Her chair of trustees introduced her as “the amazing Tina”, which she is, because of what she has enabled the organisation to achieve under her leadership. Significantly and spontaneously, her first words to us in the audience were: “It’s never about the person, it’s always about the purpose”.

That’s exactly what I’d expect every one of our Health Committee to say and so would our many other volunteers and helpers. None of them do it for personal glory or advancement. Their behaviour also sets the tone for other people to get involved and work collaboratively. We have dozens of fundraisers who believe in the purpose.

As an aside, Martin Luther King managed to get a quarter of a million people to turn up in Washington to hear him speak in 1963. He didn’t have the benefit of social media to promote the event. In his speech, he said “I have a dream” and had been using that phrase previously. People turned up to hear about his dream. He didn’t say “I have a plan” and he certainly didn’t say “this is how I’m going to implement it”. How many people would have gone to hear that?

Rewards and punishments don’t work

In pretty much all of our health improvement work, we have ignored the people who don’t want to participate. We haven’t used threats to force them to get on board or unleashed witch-hunts to make them look bad. We have put more effort into making it easy for those who want to participate to do so. That has included using our health fund to subsidise screening programmes and even to offer free “research” screening sessions where we need to gather data about new or emerging conditions.

We don’t really use rewards either. People get certificates with screening results but, more importantly, they get the satisfaction that they have done the right thing for their breed. We make sure our regular communications shout about these good news stories to encourage others to participate.

Regular communication using a wide variety of channels is critical. Social media is an essential tool – the clue is in the title: it’s “social” and a great way to engage, educate and collaborate with breeders, potential owners and current owners. It’s timely, too. Use it to communicate why you are doing things, what you’re doing, what’s been achieved and how people can help. Our Pet Advisors spend huge amounts of time sharing data and evidence in Facebook Groups to counter the anecdotal nonsense that can get published.

How long will it take?

That depends! If you’re doing the right things, consistently, and your deeds match your words, I am convinced you can begin to make a difference within 18 months. That depends on having a team of like-minded leaders. One or two people can’t railroad change through on their own.

You won’t get it all right the first time. Try hard, fail fast. You’ll make mistakes and annoy some people. Sometimes you’ll get a completely unexpected negative reaction. Apologise and move on. There is no place for politics and grudges in breed health improvement. Work with the people who want to be worked with.

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

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How Beliefs and Attitudes about Dog Health and Welfare Limit Behaviour Change

Among the presenters at The First International Conference on Human Behaviour Change for Animal Welfare held in Dorking, Surrey, UK from September 19-21st was IPFD’s Dr. Brenda Bonnett. Dog-ED gets a mention. Thank you!

20 reasons why improving breed health is so difficult

“Cognitive Bias” is a term that captures a multitude of reasons why it’s so hard to get people to see the need for improvement, let alone make the necessary changes that will improve the health of dogs. It’s also referred to as”Cognitive Dissonance”.

Breeders and exhibitors make many decisions every day about thei dogs. Everyone likes to think these are rational, but maybe things aren’t quite that simple.

Here are 20 types of Cognitive Bias which I read about in “Business Insider” and have interpreted for canine health.

1. Anchoring Bias: People rely on the first piece of information they hear. In a conversation about a particular health condition, the first person to comment on its prevalence sets the scene for everyone else’s views on the problem. “I’ve never seen it in 30 years of breeding” will anchor everyone in a mindset that it really can’t be an issue.

2. Availability Heuristic: People overestimate the importance of information that is available to them. Someone might argue that Cavaliers are not prone to heart disease because they know of a dog that lived to 15 with no disease.

3. Bandwagon Effect: The probability of one person adopting a view increases based on the number of other people who also hold that view. This is one reason why some stud dogs end up being so-called Popular Sires.

4. Blind-spot Bias: Failing to recognise your own cognitive biases, is a bias in itself. The classic manifestation is Kennel Blindness (“My dogs no longer have any faults”).

5. Choice-supportive Bias: When you choose something, you usually feel positive about it, even if you know it has problems. Choosing a stud dog to mate with your bitch often comes with this bias.

6. Clustering Illusion: This is the tendency to see patterns in random events, like the idea that red dogs of a particular breed are more likely to be aggressive.

7. Confirmation Bias: We tend to listen more to information that confirms our existing perceptions. This is perhaps one of the reasons why it is so hard to have a rational conversation about outcrossing as a means to improve genetic diversity and health.

8. Conservatism Bias: This is where people are slow to accept new evidence, for example the VetCompass data that shows, on average, crossbreed dogs live longer than pedigree dogs.

9. Information Bias: This is the tendency to seek more information rather than taking action. How much more data do people need before they get the message that high levels of inbreeding increase the risks of harmful mutations emerging and reduced levels of fertility. I’ve said before ‘if you wait for the perfect set of data, you will wait a very long time’. Sometimes, it’s easier to make a decision with less information.

10. Ostrich Effect: This is the decision to ignore dangerous or negative information by burying your head in the sand, like an ostrich. People who have invested time and effort in building a “line” of dogs are likely to be less inclined to acknowledge diseases or problems that can be traced back to their pedigrees.

11. Outcome Bias: Judging a decision based on the outcome, rather than on how the decision was made. Just because you bred a “healthy” dog with a Coefficient of Inbreeding of 30% doesn’t mean it was a smart decision.

12. Overconfidence: Some people are too confident about their abilities and this causes them to take greater risks. Experts are more prone to this bias than lay people, since they are more convinced they are right. Experienced breeders might believe they can “safely” mate two merle (dapple) dogs and not end up with deaf or blind puppies.

13. Placebo Effect: This is when simply believing something will have an effect causes it to have that effect. According to a study by Conzemius & Evans, a caregiver placebo effect by both dog owners and vets was common in the evaluation of patient response to treatment for osteoarthritis. Half the owners whose dogs received placebos stated that their dog’s lameness was improved during the study.

14. Pro-innovation Bias: People with new ideas often over-value their usefulness and under-value their limitations. Just because a new DNA test has been developed, doesn’t mean it’s important to use it, particularly if the mutation frequency is extremely low, or if the welfare impacts of the condition are minimal.

15. Recency: The latest information you receive is often weighed more heavily than older information. Conformational exaggerations seen in the ring today may be admired and rewarded, rather than remembering a breed’s original purpose and type.

16. Salience: This is the tendency to focus on the most easily recognisable features of a situation. For example, in Dachshunds it is much easier for breeders to focus on eradicating cord1 PRA where there is a DNA test than on reducing back disease which is a complex condition, with no “simple” test. The fact that, statistically, Dachshunds are more likely to suffer from back problems than to go blind, may be overlooked just because a test is available for PRA.

17. Selective Perception: This is where we allow our expectations to influence how we perceive the world. If we “know” that a particular line of dogs is prone to a particular health condition, we tend to look for more examples to prove that case, rather than looking more widely across the breed. We end up with “Mrs Miggins’ dogs produce xyz disease”.

18. Stereotyping: This is where we expect a particular situation without having any real evidence. Just because one of Mrs Miggins’ dogs is aggressive, doesn’t mean all her dogs have a bad temperament. People tend to over-use and abuse the limited evidence available.

19. Survivorship Bias: This is an error that comes from focusing only on surviving examples. For example, we might think that Mrs Miggins’ dogs are long-lived, because we haven’t heard of any of her dogs that have died at an unusually young age.

20. Zero-risk Bias: Sociologists have found that we love certainty, even if it’s counter-productive. That’s why many breeders are obsessed with “health-testing” and the continual search for new tests. They should, instead, be focused on the root cause of the problem which is closed stud books and high levels of inbreeding.

All of these cognitive biases are potential stumbling blocks that affect our behaviour and they can prevent us from acting in the best interests of our dogs and our breeds.

However, if we are aware of them, we can turn some of them to our advantage. The way we present information; how we communicate good practices; how we reward and reinforce improved canine health; all these can nudge people in the right direction.

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