Culture eats strategy for breakfast!

I’m not overly persuaded by the many comparisons of Covid19 testing and death rates in different countries. Statisticians David Spiegelhalter and Sylvia Richardson said recently:

…it’s tempting to link a country’s statistics to the measures they have taken to control the virus: for example, has Sweden’s more relaxed policy been as effective as lockdown? But countries differ in so many ways: basic demographics, compliance and social networks, testing capacity and policy, health service characteristics and so on.”

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We face a similar situation in the world of dog health; there are lots of
examples of comparisons made between different breeds. Our main interest has, inevitably, been focused on breed health in the UK but, for some breeds, there have also been international comparisons.

It’s perfectly valid and useful to make comparisons of the prevalence of particular diseases across different breeds. Many of these differences can be attributed to genetics and/or conformation. Indeed, the fact that we have created so many different breeds makes the pedigree dog a really useful resource in the search for the genes associated with diseases that may have parallels in humans.

International comparisons within breeds can also be useful and breeds such as Irish Wolfhounds and Bernese Mountain Dogs have extensive databases that can be used to investigate different health issues across the world. Increasingly, there is also genetic data from Genomewide Association Studies (GWAS) that is identifying different geographical clusters within breeds. This information could be used to address the lack of genetic diversity in some breed population sub-groups.

In my breed, Dachshunds, we are often (rightly) criticised for exaggerated length and shortness of leg and the claimed association of this with Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD). It is argued by some that we need to amend the Breed Standard to encourage shorter bodies and longer legs with more ground clearance, similar to that specified in the FCI Breed Standard. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that the prevalence of IVDD is little different between FCI registered Dachshunds and UK dogs. In fact, there is more variation in IVDD prevalence between the 6 Dachshund varieties despite the fact they all share the same Breed Standard. For those interested, Wires and Longs are the least likely to have IVDD and Smooths and Mini Smooths are about 4-5 times more likely to have it. The research into the conformational differences and their association with IVDD is also contradictory. Nevertheless, it is clear that some Dachshund breeders (and judges) need to remind themselves of the original function of the breed and the KC mantra of “fit for function”.

3 levels of benchmarking

When I run benchmarking skills workshops, we talk about 3 levels of benchmarking: Metrics, Process and Culture. Metrics tell you “what the performance is”; Process tells you “how that performance was achieved” and Culture tells you “why” those processes achieved the particular level of performance.

Just comparing the metrics (e.g. disease prevalence or mutation frequency) ignores processes (such as breeder education, testing protocols and recording systems) and the cultural issues such as leadership, teamwork, compliance and enforcement. 

There’s a quote I use in relation to organisation design: “All organisations are perfectly designed to get the results that they do”.

For breed health improvement: “all breeds are perfectly designed to get the health that they do”.

Whatever any government, kennel club, breed club or campaigning group says about its strategy for improving canine health and welfare, it’s worth remembering Peter Drucker’s quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

International resources

Benchmarking metrics is easy, but tells you very little about how to improve.  Benchmarking processes tells you how others do what they do.  Adding in an understanding of the “soft stuff” helps explain why they get the performance that they do and is probably the most difficult area to adopt/adapt for your own breed’s use.

Visitors to the International Partnership for Dogs website (dogwellnet.com) will find a wealth of resources supplied by Kennel Clubs and Breed Clubs from around the world. It is a unique resource of data and tools (metrics and processes) that have been freely given and then curated in a single, accessible format.

Among the data, you can find breed health survey results and information on registration statistics. Having led the Breed-specific Health Strategies workstream at the 4th International Dog Health Workshop, I’m particularly interested in the tools and techniques that are being collated. These include examples of Breed Health Strategy templates which any breed club could use to get a baseline picture of what’s going on in their breed. In the UK, these are our Breed Health and Conservation Plans. The KC has completed these for 51 breeds so far and each Breed Health Coordinator for the remaining breeds has been given a simplified self-completion template to help them make a start.

The IPFD has plans to develop a Health Strategies Database along similar lines to its existing Harmonisation of Genetic Testing database. This would be an interactive resource including health conditions where recommendations have been made by Health Strategy Providers (HSPs) including kennel and breed clubs and veterinary organisations. It will include information on prevalence, severity, screening tests/programmes, links to health data etc.

This would be supported by an IPFD Expert Panel who would provide collective opinions on key questions, e.g. the quality and utility of genetic tests, their application within breeds, geographical areas, etc. and in the context of the broader view of health in the breed.

It’s all about people!

Making these internationally-sourced resources available is great but their applicability will be very dependent on the cultural context in each breed and each country. For example, approaches that have been successfully applied in the Nordic countries where there are fewer breeders than in the UK may simply not be workable here. In the USA, things will be different again; we’ve seen from their Covid19 lockdown protests that some Americans don’t take kindly to being told what to do! 

I also think there would be some value in categorising the various types of breed health improvement intervention (processes) using human behaviour change principles. I’ve written before about Susan Michie’s (UCL) behaviour change wheel which identifies 7 policy categories and around 90 different types of behavioural change technique. We will only improve breed health if individuals’ behaviour changes (breeders, buyers, judges, vets etc.). Behaviour change research in the field of human health (e.g. smoking and obesity) suggests that successful change typically requires around 10 different techniques to be employed. Incidentally, this explains why the reliance on “breeder education” has been consistently unsuccessful.

Returning to my initial thoughts on Covid19, some readers will be aware that Susan Mitchie is one of the advisors to the government on behaviour change associated with the pandemic. So, if you are interested to understand what’s been done in the past few months to shape your behaviour, I’d recommend you do some reading on behaviour change techniques. 

Breed Health Improvement Strategies – a webinar for the Danish Kennel Club

Ian Seath hosted a webinar on Breed Health Improvement Strategies for the Danish Kennel Club on June 11th 2020. An important subject that is more current than ever, where some breeds are faced with a difficult time in relation to health and considerations for the future of the breed.

Course content:
Part 1:
– What is a Breed Health Strategy?
– Why every breed needs one
– A process for developing a Health Strategy
– The role of human behaviour change in breed health improvement
Part 2:
2 UK case studies:
– The Dachshund Breed Council’s improvement strategy and achievements
– Addressing Lafora Disease in Miniature Wirehaired Dachshunds

Puppy buyers: mismatched expectations?

IMG_2281On the day the UK Covid-19 lockdown was announced, I wrote a Friday Essay for Our Dogs describing some of the potential unanticipated consequences of the pandemic and the government’s response to it. I asked, “what do we think will happen to the current trend in declining registrations of pedigree dogs?”. Even at that point in the pandemic, there was emerging evidence that puppy enquiries were booming and that seems to have continued. Breed Club Secretaries that I have spoken with have seen a massive increase in the number of enquiries. As a consequence, the Kennel Club has been busy providing advice for buyers and breeders to try to head off some of the potential problems that might arise. One of the concerns is that, once life returns to some semblance of normality, many of those dogs may be surrendered to rescue organisations.

We have known for a long time that there is a group of buyers that do virtually no research and appear to buy on impulse. A KC survey in 2017 showed that 1 in 5 people admitted they spent no time researching where to buy a puppy. More than one-third of respondents (34 per cent) admitted they were clueless about how to find a reputable breeder for their puppy and were therefore vulnerable to the scams that should ring alarm bells. Choosing a puppy took 36 per cent of people in the survey 20 minutes or less! It would be surprising if much has changed since 2017 and, with so many people having “time on their hands”, the temptation to buy a puppy on impulse is probably much greater.

Those of you who read my “Best of Health” articles (thank you!), will know that one of my recurring messages is that addressing canine health and welfare problems is actually a human behaviour change (HBC) issue, rather than a veterinary or scientific one. Unless breeders, buyers and owners (and a few others) change their behaviour, we will continue to see dogs suffering.

How hard can a puppy really be?

I’ve recently been speaking with Justine Williams who launched the Our Family Dog website last year. She’s also interested in human behaviour change and has been applying some of the HBC principles and tools in the design and content of her website and a support forum. Her blog recently featured an article titled: “How hard can a puppy really be?” where she describes the mismatch between the expectations and reality of owning a puppy. She says: “The reality of what new puppy owners have let themselves in for only hits home as the sleepless nights, piles of poo and puddles of pee on the carpet, and having to be on puppy watch 24/7, begin to take their toll”.

An Open Access paper published at the end of April discusses some long-term research into the dog-owner relationship. It found that how owners’ expectations and beliefs changed over time depended on whether they had experience with dogs (owning a dog presently, in the past, or never). In the first six months of ownership, especially for people with no prior experience with dogs, the owners had to adapt their expectations and beliefs. In the subsequent year, only a few differences based on dog ownership history were found. 

Who are the puppy buyers?

A recent study by a marketing communications company, Pegasus, identified 4 core pet owner “behaviour types”:

  • The Nerdie Newbie – New and eager young pet owners who want to be the best owner they can be. They are proactive in safeguarding the health and wellbeing for their pet
  • The Selfie Sidekick – Pet owners who see their pet as part of their lifestyle aesthetic. Likely to refer to their pet as their “fur baby”, they place higher importance on the appearance of their pet over its health and wellbeing
  • The Good Companion – Older, more experienced pet owners who love and value their pet as another member of the family; health and wellbeing is an absolute priority for their pet and they have an established, organised routine 
  • The Practical Caretaker – Pet owners who don’t “anthropomorphise” their pets. Pragmatic in their care, they understand their pet has different health and wellbeing needs to themselves but could have a more reactive approach to health and care

Research by the KC has also identified different buyer profiles and this highlighted attitudes to dog health, in particular. 

Hit the “panic button”

Justine, at Our Family Dog, has identified 4 key buyer/owner problem behaviours which she has mapped to the early stages of the dog ownership journey. The behaviours are:

  • People launch into getting a puppy without any preparation
  • People make impulse buying decisions
  • New puppy owners ‘panic’ and access poor quality information on puppy care during the early weeks (8-12)
  • People use unqualified trainers, feed the wrong diet and leave dogs alone for too long (from 12 weeks onwards)

When I was speaking with her, I suggested there must be something we can learn from the challenges faced by first-time human parents. She agreed and said there’s a lot of HBC thinking behind organisations such as NCT (National Childbirth Trust) where, for example, they have resources to support the first 1000 days (from pregnancy to a child’s 2nd birthday). The peer-support offered through Mumsnet is another example. Our Family Dog has worked hard to collect stories from new dog owners and these help other new owners to realise that a puppy is hard work and it’s perfectly normal to panic or despair. 

Thinking about the dog ownership journey as a series of discrete stages is a really helpful way of identifying the problem behaviours that owners make and for developing practical tools and tips to get them through to the next stage.

The reality is that it’s extremely hard to overcome the impulse-buyer problem but we can make sure that good quality advice and support is available when novice owners “hit the panic button”. 

[Justine Williams’ blog post is here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-hard-can-puppy-really-expectations-versus-reality-williams/]

The Dachshund Breed Council’s Advice for Buyers and Tips for New Owners

 

Dealing with the dog-health infodemic

Along with all the talk of the Coronavirus Pandemic, there has been a discussion of the parallel infodemic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) launched an online platform to combat misinformation and fake news which they described as an infodemic. It occurred to me that we could perhaps learn something from the WHO responses that would be applicable to the ways we tackle fake news and misinformation on dog health matters.

In the case of Coronavirus, misinformation was spread rapidly through social media channels and posed a threat to public health. “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the Munich Security Conference on February 15th.

There has always been misinformation associated with health issues but the challenge with social media is that it is amplified and goes faster and further than ever before. That’s just as true in the world of dog health and the task for those of us in breed health leadership positions is to make sure dog buyers, owners, and breeders will do the right thing to improve the health of their dogs. We have to go further than simply providing information; we have to provide information that drives them to act appropriately.

We have to ensure people have access to trustworthy information, for example through data sharing and publication of peer-reviewed research. However, we know that such information has to be tailored to the needs of different audiences. For breed clubs, that means making their websites and social media channels the “go to” places for anyone who wants to find out about the breed. 10 years ago, all a breed club needed was a website with (at least) a few pages describing the characteristics of the breed, how to find a reputable breeder and information on the main health issues and what was being done about these.

Back in 2011, the late Philippa Robinson published her first Karlton Index Report summarising the work breed clubs were doing in the field of health improvement. Her second report in 2013 found 15 breeds with no online information at all and she scored 62 breeds (1 in 3) at less than 10 points out of the maximum possible 100.

Mobile-friendly breed information

Today, numerous social media channels have overtaken static websites as the first port of call for many people. It’s not just the younger generation that is hooked to their mobile devices, there are plenty of silver surfers who are just as tech-savvy and whose access to information is primarily through a mobile device. That means as a minimum, your breed’s website needs to be mobile-friendly. I recently discovered that our “Tips for New Owners” web page which we had only just rebuilt in 2019, just wasn’t working on all mobile devices. Half the tips weren’t being displayed so I had to rebuild the page layout completely to make it work properly on phones.

All this points in the direction of breeds needing a social media strategy as part of their overall communication plans. Most breed clubs have a Facebook page these days and that’s obviously a useful channel for disseminating news. There are also, inevitably, numerous owners’ groups for most breeds and it makes sense for breed club and health committee members to join these so they can provide the best available advice in response to questions from buyers and owners.

Goodwill and volunteers

Of course, all that takes time and we are reliant on the goodwill of volunteers. The reality is that most breeds probably don’t have enough people with time to devote to offering help and pointing to the best advice across multiple social media channels and discussion groups. One way to address that is to develop a network of supporters and advocates who are “on message” and can act to amplify your messages. Your network could include nominated Pet Advisors (we have 3 on our Dachshund Health Committee) and subject matter experts such as vets or vet nurses. Another useful group to build bridges with is the Admins of pet owner  Facebook Groups. In some breeds, these people will have access to thousands of group members which is a far wider reach than most breed clubs can ever hope to achieve.

The other way is to make the provision of relevant information more efficient. Instead of providing a bespoke answer to every question, it’s far quicker simply to post a link to the relevant page on your website. That means, of course, you need to have pages with good quality information on the most frequently discussed topics. You could also build a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and direct people to those.

Another way to improve the efficiency of how you disseminate information is to connect your various social media channels so that a post on one channel automatically gets posted on other channels. Many blogs, for example, enable you to cross-post to Twitter and Facebook without having to create new posts on these additional channels.

The best source of up-to-date information

One of the approaches the WHO has taken to provide clear, simple advice on Covid-19 is to create a series of infographics that other people can use to provide accurate information. These can be downloaded from their Covid-19 website which is the single best source of up-to-date information. The breed health parallel is to have dedicated websites for specific health concerns instead of having this information “lost” in a general breed website. In Dachshunds, we have created a dedicated website for IVDD (back disease) information and this includes a series of infographics and FAQs. Other breeds might do something similar for Brachycephalic issues or there might be value in the various brachy breeds to collaborate on a single site.

“Mythbusters” can also be used to challenge the nonsense and fake news that so often does the rounds of social media. It is well-known that closely-held false beliefs can actually be harder to rectify and sometimes this backfires, resulting in the false news being reinforced (the so-called boomerang effect). Successful tactics include story-telling, rather than presenting facts (appeal to the heart, not the head). Fear-mongering, the use of threats and specifically trying to change peoples’ minds are all notoriously unsuccessful.

One study of factors that caused articles about human vaccination to go viral on social media showed the most shared articles contained:

  • Statistics demonstrating the case being made, plus…
  • A bottom-line message with clear advice for the reader

Both factors had to be present for maximum impact. Articles that were just stories or without statistics were least likely to be shared. Interestingly, articles that acknowledged both sides of an argument (such as acknowledging occasional adverse vaccine reactions) before coming out with a clear bottom-line message were also seen to have high credibility.

There may be no way to prevent a COVID-19 pandemic in this globalised time, but verified information is the most effective prevention against the disease of panic. We should apply the same common-sense approach to communicating the evidence about breed health.

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”  Jonathan Swift, 1710

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Covid-19: A (dog) world of unanticipated consequences

A few weeks ago, words like “self-isolation”, “social distancing” and “lockdown” were barely part of our vocabulary. The rate at which new information emerges on the progression of Covid-19 seems to increase daily and decisions that were logical and evidence-based one day, may be completely reversed or changed just a week (or even days) later. It’s so easy for the keyboard warriors to criticise those making decisions but I bet they would feel rather differently if they were part of the decision-making process or, worse, if they were ultimately accountable for those decisions.

In the world of business and leadership development, there’s a concept that’s been around for a while that describes the world we’re in. It’s VUCA, which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It originated in the US military to describe the “new normal” of extremism and terrorism which required a completely different style of leadership and response compared with the Cold War years. There are no simple solutions in a VUCA world; we need to understand that decisions made in one part of a system can have quite surprising and unanticipated consequences elsewhere. Often, those consequences will be counter-intuitive.

Let’s consider some examples from the world of dogs. The Kennel Club has seen a decline in registrations of pedigree dogs over recent years. What do we think Covid-19 will do to that trend? The “obvious” conclusion would be that registrations will decline further as people face a period of uncertainty about their jobs and are unwilling to commit to the costs of buying and owning a dog. Yet, within a week of some of the biggest changes to our working lives ever seen, there is emerging evidence that we might actually see an increase in demand for puppies. People find they have time on their hands and, instead of having to wait for the school holidays to find time for a puppy, they have time now.

Where will they get those puppies from, though? Well, another unanticipated consequence might be that they can only get a puppy bred in the UK. Puppy farmers from Eire and those trafficking from Europe will find our borders closed. Hopefully, their desire for a puppy right now doesn’t mean they buy from backstreet breeders or get conned with puppy-farmed puppies already in the UK. I know of several breeders who have seen an increase in demand for puppies but also an increase in demand for their stud dogs. People who might have been uncertain about breeding from their bitch might feel (a) they now have time to cope with a litter and (b) that the income from puppy sales could be very important to them right now.

Of course, when we think about the “dog system” we have to look beyond supply and demand. There are other consequences of new breeders adding to the supply of puppies. How will these breeders find out about health screening before mating their bitches and how will they learn about whelping and puppy-rearing? This could be an opportune time to signpost them to the resources available in the KC Academy.

Canine lifestyles

There are other unanticipated consequences of the current situation. Where we live, the parks and countryside are now swarming with people out walking their dogs (and people without dogs). Many of these are probably dogs that previously would have been stuck at home while their owners were out at work or, at best, benefitted from the services of a dog walker and doggy day-care. So, these dogs’ daily routines will be transformed both physically and mentally and their owners will benefit similarly (unless the novelty wears off). As I write this, it’s a sunny weekend and I wonder if these dogs will continue to get this exercise if we return to the seemingly endless rain of not so long ago.

We might, therefore, expect the health of these dogs to improve in the short-term and that can only be a good thing, given what we know about the levels of canine obesity in the UK. I hope there is not an unanticipated consequence that these dogs are given inappropriate amounts or types of exercise, particularly if they are young puppies.

These owners may also realise that their dogs need more training to make them better-behaved pets. That means there may be opportunities for dog trainers to offer online services and to encourage people to attend formal training such as the Good Citizen Dog Scheme once things return to something resembling “normal”.

Spending more time with their owners may, in the short-term, reduce problems of separation anxiety which we know is a major issue for many dogs in the UK. We might have to consider what the consequences will be once people return to work; will their dogs be even more stressed when left alone after having had the company of their owners for several weeks?

What about Rescue?

It’s possible that, because people are likely to be out of work or on reduced incomes, they may be inclined to part with their dogs to the rescue charities. It must be a worry for these organisations (and breed rescues) that they will be inundated with dogs and also suffer from a reduction in footfall of people looking to re-home. The opposite might happen, though. People may decide it’s a good time to rescue a dog. Breed rescues may be at an advantage here as many have a network of coordinators and foster homes who can continue to help.

The big rescue charities could perhaps take a more creative approach and pay people to keep their dogs (or give them vouchers to pay for food and vet bills). After all, these dogs’ owners almost certainly don’t want to give up their dog and the negative mental health consequences of doing so could add further to their problems.

Glass half-full

We certainly are in a volatile and uncertain world at the moment and the impact of the pandemic on individuals and the health service will, no doubt, be immense. It is understandable that the government is focusing on minimising the health impacts but we are already seeing far-reaching and deeply damaging impacts on the economy and people’s livelihoods. Most of the decision-making on strategies to address the pandemic seems to be based on epidemiological modelling. From a systems thinking perspective, I’d like to know what modelling of human behaviour has been done because we’ve certainly seen some unanticipated consequences in the panic-buying of toilet rolls (!) and people flocking to the seaside and National Parks. I’d also like to know about the economic modelling and modelling of other health impacts (e.g. people who have now had operations cancelled).

There are unanticipated consequences of any decision but my glass is always half-full and I am optimistic that we will come out of this situation stronger as a dog community. Remember: DOGS ARE FOR LIFE, not just for Coronavirus.

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