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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Thinking, fast and slow. Cognitive biases can hinder breed health improvement initiatives

Last month, I ended with a quote from Dr Dan O’Neill at the 4th International Dog Health Workshop (IDHW4): “We need to stop saying it’s all about the dogs. It is clear that it is really all about the people”. While it’s important to understand canine health and genetics, it’s become apparent that many of the successes and failures of health improvement initiatives are down to human motivation, behaviour, and thinking. One of the underlying themes at the IDHW4 event was “human behaviour change” and, in previous articles, I’ve written about some of the ways this can be influenced. Studying fields such as psychology that are concerned with how people think, behave and make decisions can give us some useful insights into why canine health improvement can be so difficult.

My Christmas reading was Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking fast and slow”. Kahneman is a psychologist and economist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on behavioural economics in 2002. Thinking fast and slow is all about why people think what they do and why they make the decisions they make. Kahneman calls “thinking fast”, System 1, and “thinking slow”, System 2.  System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little effort and without voluntary control. System 2 requires mental effort and concentration.

For example, if you told most dog breeders that 2 of the 3 genotypes from a DNA test are “Clear” and “Carrier”, they would instantly know that the 3rd genotype is “Affected”. System 1 gives us the answer automatically because it’s something we’ve learned through practice and repetition. If, however, I asked you what is the expected proportion of Carrier puppies from mating a Clear and Carrier together, you’d probably have to think more carefully or draw a punnett square. Kahneman claims that we all like to believe we think in a System 2 way; i.e. rationally, and we use that ability to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens in practice.

System 1 is fine because it uses what we have learned in order to react quickly and lowers the mental load we have to cope with. System 1 often uses “rules of thumb” to make decisions quickly and usually these lead to good decisions. Occasionally, it can also lead to mistakes. Try this: A bat and a ball cost £1.10 between them. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Most people answer 10p but the correct answer is 5p. If the ball cost 10p and the bat cost £1 more, it would cost £1.10, making the total cost £1.20. System 1 thinking evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing and wrong! System 1 causes people to be overconfident and to place too much faith in intuition. Our brains are inherently lazy and we default to System 1 decision-making and with that comes cognitive biases. Only if we come across something unusual or if we make a conscious effort, do we engage System 2.

WYSIATI: What you see is all there is

System 1 is a “machine for jumping to conclusions” on the basis of limited information. Try this:

Jo is 30 years old, outspoken and has tattoos. Jo lives in a Northern city and works as a car mechanic. Which of these statements is more probable?

1: Jo owns a Gundog

2: Jo owns a Terrier

Based on registration statistics it is actually 4 times more likely that 1 is correct, yet some people will jump to conclusions because of their inherent biases or will assume the (irrelevant) storyline is of some significance and outweighs the statistical evidence. It takes more mental effort to apply System 2 thinking and come up with the right answer.

If you’re a breeder and you had 4 out of 5 litters born by caesarean, System 1 could lead you to conclude that most bitches need caesareans and you might be inclined to go for elective caesars rather than wait. Similarly, if you’re a breeder who has never had a dog with a condition that is known to be prevalent in your breed, System 1 may lead you to conclude that “it’s the way everyone else rears theirs”, despite there being no evidence and your experience is based only on your own small sample of dogs.

When you bring individuals with their own supposedly rational views into a group, you can end up with a whole group coming up with completely irrational rejections of robust scientific evidence. System 1 thinking has little understanding of logic and statistics, which is why we all need to be aware of this risk and become more careful and reflective users of breed health data.

Recognising bias

System 1 takes shortcuts to make decisions; for example, confirmation bias means you tend to agree with information that supports something you already believe. If you’ve heard about a few cases of epilepsy in a breed, you’re more likely to agree with research studies that also found epilepsy, even if they only involved very small sample sizes.

There is also an “availability” bias, where you overestimate the probability of something that you have heard often or that you find easy to remember. This is a particular danger in the world of health improvement where a few cases of a disease might get discussed widely, or a DNA test is developed and people then rush to use that test, while completely ignoring the low incidence of the condition or the fact that other conditions are much more important to address.

Kahneman discusses the “availability cascade”. This is a self-sustaining chain of events that may start with a few media reports of a problem that lead to widespread public panic and eventually result in policy changes by legislators. Often, the emotional reaction (e.g. dogs dying) becomes a story in itself and the story can be accelerated by media headlines, social media groups and campaigning individuals who work to ensure a continuous supply of bad news cases. Scientists who try to try to use data to dampen the fears sometimes face hostility or are accused of a cover-up and we simply don’t get to hear of the 99.9% of dogs that haven’t been affected.

Hindsight bias occurs when people reconstruct a story to exaggerate the probability they knew an event was going to happen. I can’t think of any canine health examples but it’s regularly heard around the ringside just after the Challenge Certificate has been awarded!

System 1 thinking is intuitive and makes our lives easier by reducing the amount of mental effort we need to expend when making decisions. Being aware of this helps us to understand why it’s so hard to change the behaviour of breeders, judges, buyers, and owners. It’s helpful to be aware of these lessons from Thinking fast and slow because, otherwise, we will continue to make the same mistakes and will not see the improvements in canine health and welfare that we all want to see.

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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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