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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We need to stop trying to change people’s minds!

I am looking forward to the 4th International Dog Health Workshop (IDHW) co-hosted by the Kennel Club and International Partnership for dogs in Windsor at the end of May. I have been helping to organise one of the themes, Breed Specific Health Strategies, which is the subject of a series of workshop sessions. I will also be making a short presentation on this topic in the Day 1 plenary session.

When I spoke at the 3rd IDHW in 2017, I started by saying that the challenge we face is not a veterinary one, nor even a scientific one. My view was that the challenge we faced was a change management one and how to drive continuous improvement in breed health. This year, I will be saying the challenge is not “are you improving?” but “how fast are you improving?” and “can you prove it?”. Frankly, describing all the actions that are being taken is no longer good enough. If we can’t measure the impact on breed health, we can’t demonstrate that any of those actions were of value.

Prof. Åke Hedhammar, who is leading the theme on extremes and exaggerations in dog conformation, has said something similar in his briefing note to participants:

“We propose to once more focus on the health issues related to a brachycephalic constitution as the highest profile and worst with relation to exaggerations and extremes. In an introductory talk in plenum I will admit that we – despite the magnitude of attention, the raising of awareness across several stakeholder groups, and many actions taken – have failed, so far, to make significant changes in the health status of these breeds. Perhaps many initiatives have not been designed to fully evaluate impacts. There has certainly been a failure to impact the public perception of, and desire for brachycephalics.”

From a change management perspective, it boils down to one thing: if there is no change in (human) behaviour, there will be no improvement in (canine) health.

When I worked with the late Philippa Robinson, as part of our Dog-ED initiative we put together a model describing the elements needed to link health improvement activities with measurable benefits:

As Åke pointed out, we’ve seen lots of projects and new processes that have created outputs such as reports, websites, guidance, educational resources and even new legislation. There has been collaboration to generate support but, in my view, there just haven’t been enough new behaviours to result in rapid enough improvements in dog health. Given the wide range of people interested in dog health, there are lots of people among whom we might need to see new behaviours. Primarily, though, it falls to buyers, breeders and owners to start doing things differently.

Lots of the outputs generated have been focused on changing people’s minds in the belief that they will then change their behaviour. Provide more information, educate them, help them see the error of their ways, stigmatise them; how many of these have caused people to change their behaviour at all, or fast enough, to make a difference for dogs?

One-size-fits-all solutions rarely work

My very first “Best of Health” article described canine health improvement as what is known in business as a “Wicked Problem”. It’s complex and needs to be viewed as a system. Simple, one-size fits all solutions (e.g. change the Breed Standards; introduce more regulation), rarely work and often have unintended consequences. The scale of the challenge can seem daunting but it has parallels in the world of human health where issues such as obesity and crime are being addressed using a systems approach (sometimes!). There is lots of practical work being done, based on good research, in the field of behavioural change.

One of my favourite models for human behaviour change is Dr Susan Michie’s Behavioural Change Wheel. She created the COM-B model from a 2011 study of peer-reviewed papers on behaviour change. She concluded: “Interventions and policies to change behaviour can be usefully characterised by means of a Behaviour Change Wheel comprising: a ‘behaviour system’ at the hub, encircled by intervention functions and then by policy categories.

In the COM-B model, Capability, Opportunity and Motivation interact to generate behaviour. Capability and Opportunity address the question of whether a person can or can’t adopt a particular behaviour while Motivation addresses will they or won’t they adopt it. Both capability and opportunity can influence motivation; for example (but VERY simplistically), if a breeder understands the importance of a particular health screening programme and it is available nearby, they may be more motivated to participate in it.

Coercion vs. incentives

COM-B provides a way to design interventions aimed at changing behaviour. Michie’s work has created a taxonomy of 93 behaviour change techniques, drawn (primarily) from work in public health. The model also differentiates between “interventions” (activities aimed at changing behaviour) and “policies” (actions taken by authorities to enable interventions). So, for example, introducing new canine legislation is a policy approach with the intervention typically being focused on coercion or restriction. This approach to restrict breeding relies on the behavioural change technique of “future punishment” (if you don’t comply, you will be punished). Interestingly, a 2019 paper by Michie reported that coercion and restriction were the least cost-effective interventions in a public health setting, while use of incentives was more cost-effective.

Michie also points out that interventions operate within a social context and should be evaluated against 6 criteria (abbreviated to APEASE):

CriterionDescriptionExample questions to answer
AffordabilityAn intervention is affordable if it can be delivered within an acceptable budget to all those who should benefit.What is the budget to implement the proposed intervention and ensure it is working as intended?
PracticabilityAn intervention is practicable if it can be delivered and implemented as designed.Who will implement the proposal?
Effectiveness and cost-effectivenessEffectiveness refers to the effect size of the intervention in relation to its objectives. Cost-effectiveness is the ratio of an intervention’s effect to its cost.Does the evidence support the recommendations for the intervention?
AcceptabilityAcceptability refers to the extent to which an intervention is judged to be appropriate by relevant stakeholders (and this may differ for different stakeholders).What are the views of vets, KC, breeders, owners and have they all been considered?
Side-effectsAn intervention may have unwanted side-effects or unintended consequences.What might be the unintended consequences or displacement actions?
EquityAn intervention may reduce or increase the disparities between different potential beneficiaries.What will be the effect on other breeds or other owners?

The Quality Guru Joseph Juran said: “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got”. Is it time we took a more behavioural and systems-oriented approach to look at why canine health improvement is not happening or not happening fast enough?

I don’t like your data!

It’s always interesting to read the discussion threads on social media when new scientific papers on canine health and welfare matters are reported and when breed clubs publish their health survey results. I’ve written before about Cognitive Dissonance, a term that captures a multitude of reasons why it’s so hard to get people to see the need for improvement, let alone act to create change. In essence, it means people feel uncomfortable when newly presented evidence clashes with their existing beliefs and they try to find ways to reduce their discomfort.

Albert Einstein is quoted as having said “If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?” It should be no surprise that, with some research, the results are completely novel or, in some cases, unexpected. Newly published research should prompt us to ask the question “why?” – why might a particular association have been identified and why might the results have turned out like they did. Instead, we often find what appears to be cognitive dissonance kicking in. Here are some examples:

The sample is too small: Some research starts with very small samples, often for practical reasons such as cost or convenience. Any interesting findings need to be explored with further studies using bigger and more representative samples, not simply dismissed. Since we know how many dogs are registered in every pedigree breed each year, it is easy enough to estimate the UK population if we also know their average age of death. There are well-established statistical methods for judging the confidence that can be applied to samples so it doesn’t take much effort to decide whether a sample is really “too small”. The opposite effect also happens sometimes; the results of a small study may be misused to provide “evidence” for whole populations.

It’s misleading/skewed: This is a variant of “the sample is too small” but focusing on it being the wrong sample. All samples have some degree of bias; the important thing is to understand what that might be and most peer-reviewed papers have a section discussing potential limitations of the study. That’s where you can get an understanding of potential shortcomings in the chosen data and the potential to address these with future studies. A common criticism of breed health surveys is that the responses are skewed by people who have ill dogs or that “show people” won’t be honest. That’s why it’s important to look for other studies that perhaps cover different respondent samples to see what results were obtained there. Our first major Dachshund health survey was criticised by some for being biased with responses from 85% show breeders. When we repeated the survey 3 years later and had responses from 85% non-show owners, the findings were very similar.

It’s not scientific: This is a great one that gets trotted out to criticise breed health surveys, in particular. I don’t even know what it means. Is it because the report wasn’t written by someone with a PhD or administered by someone wearing a white lab coat? The expertise of most Breed Health Coordinators is backed-up by advice from the KC’s health team so there is invariably a strong scientific input into the design and analysis of breed surveys these days. The follow-on criticism of breed survey reports is sometimes that “it’s not peer-reviewed”. That’s probably true but most aren’t intended for publication in academic journals. The lack of peer review doesn’t negate their usefulness. Most are reporting basic descriptive statistics such as Means or Medians, and maybe Odds Ratios, often with Confidence Intervals and p-values.

We can’t do anything about it: Findings are written off because, in some people’s view, no action can be taken. For example, we found that incidence of back disease in Dachshunds is higher in Winter months than during the other 3 seasons. It prompts the question why. We could hypothesise that it’s due to them getting less exercise or some temperature effect. Whatever the reason (which more investigation might explore), it’s pretty unlikely that nothing can be done. “We can’t do anything about it” is often just a lazy response to avoid finding something that can be done. In fact, it’s just as lazy as responding with “what can we do to improve it?” unsupported by any suggestions.

We need more research: I’ve written before about the parallels between the tobacco industry’s response to the link between smoking and cancer and the dog world’s response to criticisms of health issues in pedigree dogs. A call for more research is sometimes just a smokescreen, looking for the perfect set of data which, of course, will never be found.

We need facts: This one is used alongside “it’s not scientific” and it’s hard to know what to make of such a comment when the report being referred to is full of data and analyses. The BBC says “a fact is something that can be checked and backed up with evidence” and “facts are often used in conjunction with research and study”. “Opinions are based on a belief or view”. Last year, it was reported that chocolate labradors live significantly shorter lives than the other colours. Although perhaps surprising, this “fact” can be checked by looking at the data and evidence presented in the paper. Additionally, it’s not the first example of a dog’s colour being associated with a particular aspect of its health so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising.

My dogs don’t have that: We need to remember that data presented in papers and reports are from samples of populations. These will contain a range of cases and non-cases. Just because one breeder has never had a particular problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. “The plural of anecdote is not data“! Gregoire Leroy has written an excellent blog at dogwellnet.com about this, which he calls the “sampling effect”.

A nudge towards breed health improvement

My Christmas reading was Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. It’s all about how people and organisations learn (or don’t). One paragraph really struck a chord with me:

Science is not just about a method, it is also about a mindset. At its best it is driven forward by a restless spirit, an intellectual courage, a willingness to face up to failures and to be honest about key data, even when it undermines cherished beliefs.

We do need to question the research that is published on canine health matters, not to knock it down but to understand how it can be used to help us. Every piece of research and every breed survey has the potential to nudge us towards actions that will improve the lives of our dogs.

An international approach to breed health improvement

This year, the International Partnership for Dogs will be holding its 4th workshop. Our Kennel Club is hosting the event which will take place from 30th May to 1st June, near Windsor. The Kennel Club was a founding partner of the IPFD since its inception in 2014 and hosted the first ever meeting of the IPFD Board that same year. Kennel Club Secretary, Caroline Kisko, is the Vice Chairman of the IPFD and our KC also provides the secretariat for board meetings.

A major goal of the International Dog Health Workshops (IDHW) is to promote collaboration and networking. This begins with the reception on the Thursday evening and continues throughout the next 2 days. All attendees are expected to share expertise/experiences and to participate actively in discussions in breakout sessions.

I attended the 3rd IDHW in Paris in 2017 and was privileged to be invited to make a short presentation on our work in the Dachshund Breed Council to develop and implement a breed health strategy. I also took part in the breed-specific health strategies workshop and this year I have been asked to help with the design and facilitation of that part of the programme.

As with previous IDHWs, the majority of time is spent in interaction: limited plenary talks have been chosen to highlight Themes; most time is spent in smaller group breakout sessions.

There are 5 main themes being tackled this year:

1)   The concept of ‘Breed’ and how it influences health and welfare in dogs. How attitudes to the definition and understanding of breed affect actions for health; the history and future of outcrossing; public perception; conservation vs. development of breeds; the role/ influences of breed standards; judging for health/function not just appearance; experience in other species.

2)   Supply and Demand. The reality of sourcing – national vs. registered/pedigree populations; commercial breeding: the reality; new developments in health and welfare management; ‘rescues’ / marketing; the role of different stakeholders.

3)   Breed-Specific Health Strategies: By breed, nationally and internationally. Defining and sharing tools to support the work of breed clubs.

4)   Genetic Testing for Dogs: Selection, evaluation and application of genetic testing: building expert resources for genetic counselling / IPFD Harmonization of Genetic Testing for Dogs (HGTD) initiative; coordinating across stakeholder groups; latest developments in genetics and genomics.

5)   Exaggerations and Extremes in Dog Conformation:

a)   Health, welfare and breeding considerations; review of national and international efforts, on all fronts (consumers, show world, breeders, judges, vets, etc) since 2012 – what has been achieved?; brachycephalics; other existing and emerging issues; overcoming polarization and conflict, resolving science and emotion.

b)   Education and Communication – Past practices may not have achieved desired outcomes. What are tools and techniques to promote human behaviour change? What can we learn from other fields?

“In God we trust, everyone else must bring data” – Dr. Edwards Deming

In 2017, one of the themes was “Show me the numbers” and some people might wonder why this has been dropped for 2019. It was obvious from the discussions within that theme in 2017 that it was actually cross-cutting, meaning it was a key aspect running through all the other themes. So, we can take it as read that improvement in any of the themes on the 2019 agenda will have to be underpinned by the availability of good data and evidence.

The format of this year’s workshop is slightly different from 2017; there are 4 interactive plenary sessions taking up a large part of the agenda on 31st May. These include short presentations by renowned experts from around the world. Nick Blaney, who heads up our KC’s Dog Health Group is among the speakers.

All change please!

I’ll be particularly interested to hear the presentation by Suzanne Rogers who is a Director of a consultancy: Human Behaviour Change for Animals (HBCA). I’m pleased to see she will be speaking about communication to promote change. When I spoke in 2017, I started by saying that dog health improvement was not a scientific, veterinary or genetic problem. My view was (and still is) that dog health improvement is a continuous improvement and change management problem. It is something we have to work on continuously and we can expect to see incremental improvement (rather than step-change) only if people behave differently. By “people”, I mean owners, breeders, exhibitors, judges, vets and everyone who directly impacts on the dog system. That is why it’s a change management issue. It’s also no good each of those groups acting independently in their own silos without thinking about how they could be collaborating with others in the system. The Brachycephalic Working Group is one example where a multi-stakeholder approach has been taken in order to produce a plan that has a broad consensus of support. We’ve seen too many campaigns by individuals and groups that simply alienate the people who have the potential to make improvements happen. That is still happening and it feels like lessons aren’t being learnt. I therefore hope Suzanne will be able to bring some new thinking to this year’s workshop. The HBCA website lists 4 pillars for change: the process of change; the psychology of change; the environment for change; and ownership of change. The importance of these has, in my opinion, not been sufficiently well recognised, understood or addressed in many breed health improvement efforts.  

Breed-specific health strategies

At the 3rd IDHW, participants in this theme agreed that effective and sustainable implementation of health strategies requires innovative solutions to many different challenges. Provision of sufficient reliable information was agreed as critical, for both situational assessment as well as health screening and DNA testing of dogs. Considering the design of breed health strategies, the group agreed that it was important to identify and balance the major issues for each individual breed and give guidelines on how priorities could be determined for each, while still allowing breeders discretion to make their own decisions within an overall framework of requirements and recommendations.

The general conclusion was that there is no “one size fits all” solution for developing breed-specific health strategies and that the most effective interventions would need to be adapted according to the specific context of each breed, nationally and internationally.

This year, the activities for this theme will include:

  • Clarifying what we mean by a breed health strategy, by reference to currently available examples
  • Understanding the challenges facing breed clubs, such as how to get started with a breed strategy, how to maintain momentum and how to accelerate progress
  • The role of Kennel Clubs in the wider context (national and international), such as advocating for breeds, influencing legislation and providing resources for clubs and breeders
  • Identifying and sharing currently available resources and tools to address these issues
  • Identifying gaps in current capabilities (approaches, resources, tools) and how these might be addressed

It’s a lot of ground to cover in the 3 working sessions but, if 2017 is anything to go by, participants will bring a high level of knowledge and energy and leave with a clear sense of the priorities and tasks to be undertaken over the next 2 years.

You can find out more about IDHW4 here: https://doghealthworkshop2019.co.uk/