Where do Breed Health Strategies come from?

It might sound like a daft question to ask where Breed Health Strategies come from but I think it is of fundamental importance for those of us in breed club leadership roles. It’s also not something that just Breed Health Coordinators should be concerned about.

Here in the UK, the Kennel Club has been supporting breeds to develop Breed Health and Conservation Plans (BHCPs). In the Nordic Countries, these breed strategy documents are abbreviated as RAS and JTO. Whatever they are called, they summarise the current state of a particular breed, drawing on a wide range of evidence ranging from registration statistics and breed health survey results to peer-reviewed research reports and insurance claims data. They also summarise agreed action plans to address the identified priorities.

You might conclude that it is Kennel Clubs and Breed Clubs that are driving the need for, and development of, breed improvement strategies. I think we should step back and recognise that there are actually 2 potential driving forces behind this. Firstly, it might be driven by our own clear vision of the value of doing it or, alternatively, there might be pressure on us to do this. It boils down to are you doing it because you want to or because you are told to; i.e. is it a proactive or reactive approach.

Driven by stakeholders?

I hate having to use the term Stakeholders, but it does describe the range of individuals and groups who have an interest in improving the health of pedigree dogs. They include governments, kennel clubs, breed clubs, vets, researchers, breeders, owners, buyers and campaigners (and probably more!).

Kennel Clubs and breed clubs have 2 main choices: either they take the lead and develop evidence-based strategies for health improvement or they will have something forced upon them. If they take the lead, they can shape the direction each breed takes, based on the best available research evidence. If they don’t, they will be at the mercy of others who may be promoting simple solutions to what are actually complex problems. The danger is that, if KC and breed club leadership isn’t proactive enough, we will end up responding to badly-framed legislation (maybe including bans on particular breeds) and a constant barrage of anti-pedigree publicity (like we see in the press every Crufts).

Kennel Clubs in the Nordic countries have been at the forefront of developing breed-specific health strategies and that has undoubtedly enabled them to set the agenda for promoting pedigree dogs. However, even they have not been immune from pressure brought to bear by the veterinary profession which has expressed grave concerns about some of the Brachycephalic breeds. Here, in the UK, the formation of the Brachycephalic Working Group is a great example of our KC and breed club representatives engaging positively with others who are campaigning to improve the health of dogs in these breeds.

I have no doubt that, however proactive we might be, the pace of change will never be fast enough for some people. The late Philippa Robinson, who campaigned for breed health improvement on so many fronts, often used the phrase “trendlines, not headlines”. By this, she meant we should be looking for the evidence of underlying trends that demonstrate improvement and not simply cherry-picking attention-grabbing headlines. She also meant that those of us trying to drive improvement shouldn’t allow ourselves to be overly distracted by headlines. Someone will always be looking to grab the headlines and, with a world of social media, the tendency to try to distill a complex story down to a tweet of 140 characters is not going away any time soon.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong” – HL Mencken.

The influence of the show ring

Judges and exhibitors have a role to play, too. Most Breed Standards have been modified to ensure exaggeration is discouraged. Further work still needs to be done, in some cases, but I doubt that changing a few Breed Standards will have much impact on dog health. Too many of the puppies in popular breeds such as Bulldogs, Pugs and French Bulldogs are bred by people who wouldn’t know what a Breed Standard was, even if it smacked them in the face.

The KC asks Championship Show judges to submit reports on any visible concerns for Breed Watch Category 2 and 3 breeds (and this is an option open to judges of Category 1 breeds with no visible points of concern). Our KC has regularly argued that the show ring can have a strong (positive) influence on the health of pedigree dogs. That is true but it is easily undermined if judges reward and promote dogs that have either visible faults or obvious exaggerations.

Breed clubs have to take the lead

Kennel Clubs have limited resources and have to prioritise where they invest their time and money. Here, BHCPs were prioritised for the Breed Watch Category 3 (formerly “High Profile”) breeds. At last year’s Breed Health Coordinator Symposium, Bill Lambert told us that there was a “model” BHCP which any breed could use as a template. Effectively, he said breed clubs don’t have to wait for the KC to begin the work of developing a strategy for any particular breed. He fired the starting pistol and gave permission, if anyone needed it, for all of us to take the initiative.

Clearly, an individual breed club community isn’t going to have the time or expertise that Dr Katy Evans brought to the initial batch of BHCPs. But, we all have people who are passionate about their breed and there is a wealth of readily accessible evidence. Somehow, we have to create the capacity and capability at breed level. There are plenty of simple first steps that many breeds are already taking to demonstrate their commitment to improving the health of their dogs. It’s a shame we no longer have Philippa Robinson’s KarltonIndex Awards to recognise, celebrate and reinforce all this good work.

I also feel strongly that breed clubs should be putting their BHCP out in the public domain. The content is mostly information that is already in the public domain. Publishing a single reference point of available evidence clearly demonstrates the culture of openness and honesty about breed health that we should all be encouraging. What have we got to hide?

If we don’t take the lead to create and publish evidence-based breed health strategies because we want to do this, we will have them “done to us”. We almost certainly won’t like these and they will quite likely include requirements that actually have unintended consequences that may make things worse for the dogs.

I’ll be leading the Breed Health Strategies workshop stream at next month’s International Dog Health Workshop here in the UK; co-hosted by the Kennel Club and IPFD. I’ll be reporting on behalf of Our Dogs so look out for daily tweets (@sunsongian) and a full report in the paper.

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Breed-specific legislation and the dangers of evidence-free policy-making

rspca_-_bsl_dogs_dinnerI was interested to read David Cavill’s latest blog where he sings the praises of the RSPCA for their report on the Dangerous Dogs Act (DDA). ‘Breed Specific Legislation – a Dog’s Dinner‘ sets out the history of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), its lack of effectiveness and proposes a number of solutions and recommendations.

The report concludes: ‘The RSPCA strongly believes that the evidence presented in this report clearly shows that BSL has been ineffective in achieving its goals of protecting public safety and reducing the number of prohibiting types of dogs.  Since its introduction in 1991 a significant proportion of dogs involved in fatal incidents are not those prohibited by law and hospital admissions due to dog bites have increased substantially in the past decade despite the provisions.’

It is truly shocking that, despite all the evidence, the Government still seems to believe that breed specific legislation is the answer. It was evident after just 5 years that it was not working as there had been no significant reduction in dog bites between 1991 and 1996.

Quite how this situation has been allowed to continue is puzzling since government is supposed to follow the principles of evidence-based policy-making. The whole point of this approach is that government asks Civil Servants to review and analyse the available data before drafting legislation. They should also be analysing the counterfactuals – what would happen in the absence of the policy or legislation.

Of course, all this is designed to avoid policies being developed either as a knee-jerk reaction to circumstances (exactly what happened with the DDA) or on the basis of a politician’s personal agenda or ministerial whim.

David describes the Dangerous Dogs Act as a “car crash piece of legislation” with a whole load of unintended consequences. He also points out that many of the parties who could make a difference seldom work together in a coordinated way because they are more interested in protecting their own “brand”. With true collaboration, pooled resources and a coordinated approach there might just be a chance of reducing dog bites and fatalities. After all, that’s what everyone wants to achieve.

Politicians and those in positions of power, such as ministers, are notoriously bad at asking for data and evidence, let alone using it to inform decisions. Steve Dean also noted this recently in his Our Dogs article on the outcomes of the EFRACom review of canine welfare issues. His article “Poor research and little science” discussed the lack of critical information to support the committee’s views and recommendations. He concluded by saying “attempting to impose sanctions on the majority, to deal with a disreputable minority, is a repetitive misdemeanor of governing bodies“.

Politicians too often look for simple solutions to complex problems. The last thing they want to do is to look at the data or evidence because these would undermine the rationale for their current “pet policy”. As a consequence, they end up implementing the wrong solution to the wrong problem which is what has happened with the Dangerous Dogs Act. They also end up with unintended consequences and even more bad publicity!

You can read the RSPCA Report here.

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Grappling for political attention: the case of dog welfare

This article, by Philippa Robinson, was first published on the Centre for Animals and Social Justice blog in October 2014.  With an upcoming election, the message is particularly relevant today…

Lewis… people don’t drink the sand because they are thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference
An American President (Aaron Sorkin 1995)

Campaigners for improved health and welfare in dogs (in England at least) will not be at all disappointed with DEFRA’s initial dismissal of CASJ’s call for an Animal Protection Commission. Not disappointed sadly, because it is what we have come to expect. We have lever-arch files and inboxes full of similar correspondence, all making the same spurious claims.

We are all too familiar with ministerial insistence that: the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) 2006 is sufficient protection for dog welfare; there is no need to consolidate the piecemeal legislation, nor update longstanding laws; local authorities have all the power they need to enforce better breeding and ownership of dogs; DEFRA and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health have issued more than adequate guidance; and, political channels for effective consultation and implementation are in place through such structures as the Animal Health and Welfare Board of England (AHWBE).

That government stands by this, in the case of dogs, is disconcerting because a not-insignificant amount of parliamentary time has been invested in exploring dog welfare and bringing the key issues to their attention. But to what effect?

Running up to and following the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the plight of companion animals received increased scrutiny, with dogs in particular benefiting from that:

  • In 2003 the Companion Animal Welfare Council set up its inquiry into the welfare issues attached to selective breeding with a published report in May 2006.
  • The Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW) led an inquiry into dog health in 2009 and published a full report.
  • The Bateson Inquiry funded by Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club reported in January 2010.
  • As recommended by Bateson an Advisory Council for the Welfare Issues in Dog Breeding (DAC) was established in 2010 whose remit was to provide independent, expert advice and make recommendations including advising on appropriate regulation.
  • That was followed up by the House of Commons Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee inquiry into Dog Control and Welfare resulting in a debate in the main chamber in June 2013.

Therein, ample opportunity was provided to explore the welfare issues attached to dogs, work up actions to address them and elicit political buy-in. Both the EFRA committee and DAC concluded that consolidation of dog law, together with secondary legislation under the AWA 2006 was needed to secure better welfare goals for companion dogs.

In 2013, running alongside these traditional yet frustrating (there still has been no consolidation nor secondary legislation) parliamentary routes to policy improvement a campaigning vet, Marc Abraham, decided that another tactic might prove more fruitful in tackling one pressing welfare issue in dogs. That of unscrupulous intensive production of puppies for the pet market, commonly but unhelpfully referred to as puppy-farming.

In May 2013 Abraham launched an e-petition calling for a ban on the sale of youngpuppies and kittens without their mothers being present, and within six months had received over 111,000 signatures, enough to trigger further action. Now, Angela Roberts points out that e-petitions are proving to be no more than a sop to public opinion as their outcomes are not legally binding and government appears deaf to them. That may well be the case. The life of this e-petition and its resultant debate in the main chamber, however has been revelatory. For as well as amplifying the message that animal welfare is an issue taken very seriously by the public and reiterating the need for more explicit protection and increased resource for effective enforcement, it did something else.

I accept e-petitions may just be sops but the speed with which Abraham’s petition reached the requisite 100k signatories, the profile it achieved within the dog campaigning community, and its highly successful #wheresmum social media campaign meant it gathered some disruptive power, which though limited, may well be extremely valuable to dogs. That power is located not in its ability to rattle government, (as suggested by Angela e-petitions tend not to rattle Government) but in the fact that its momentum rattled the existing stakeholders such as welfare charities and the pet trade. Stakeholders that perhaps, and I am just surmising here, perhaps, had become inured by those prevaricating ministerial mantras.

Initially Marc Abraham’s petition did not enjoy public support from the RSPCA, Dogs Trust, or DAC. It was driven by Marc himself, and a growing body of entrepreneurial campaigning micro-organisations such as CARIAD, ones that are not shackled to corporate interests nor limited by outdated charitable objects. As the petition gained momentum the welfare charities began to express their support and in the final debate were recorded as backing the motion. This expression of support, made late in the day, in turn rattled the pet trade, not least because some of the very same stakeholders such as the Dogs Trust, that now support a ban on selling puppies in pet shops, were only very recently engaging in collaborative drafts of CIEH guidance on pet vending licencing conditions. Guidance that allows for the sale of puppies in pet shops. The Dog Advisory Council has never called for a ban on pet shop sales either but thanks to Marc, now they do. So if nothing else, his petition did at least secure a change in heart amongst key stakeholders.

This petition began to shape the agenda, and it is an agenda that really does need shaping. I have long argued that what dogs need is strong leadership and a coherent strategy if their welfare is to be protected adequately and I have argued that we should be concerned that despite long, illustrious stakeholder histories (dates they were established respectively are RSPCA 1824, Kennel Club 1873, Dogs Trust 1891) dogs are still yet to benefit from coherent legislation and effective enforcement. In his review (published September 2014) of the RSPCA’s prosecutions work Wooler concluded similarly, in stating that the role of the RSPCA now “owes more to history than strategy”. The exact same thing can be said about all mainstream dog welfare organisations. There has never been a “dog strategy”. There is no overall leadership on this matter even with the “independent” DAC. In the absence of both a welfare strategy and strong leadership it is no surprise that the puppy and kitten e-petition, as singular as it was in its focus, grabbed the attention of the pet loving community.

There is one final observation to make about these recent dog-related political activities. In both the EFRA inquiry debate and the e-petition one, backbenchers let slip a very worrying characteristic of our democratic process. That even if calls for consolidation of legislation are heeded by ministers, the civil servants will advise and counsel against it. The civil servants? That revelation felt quite sinister to me and in its light the CASJ’s proposal for “a joined-up” approach to animal welfare involving “deeper, structural changes” no longer seems desirable, but absolutely essential.

Government may have relied on the complex machinations of Westminster to create a mirage of meaningful political activity and they may hope e-petitions remain a sop. I would argue those are dangerous assumptions on which to proceed towards a general election. E-petitions are a great deal easier to understand by the public and failure to listen to them will be very obvious to those of us that have taken part. Petitioners and campaigners like me remain thirsty for political change but are beginning to wonder, given that it is proving so very difficult to secure, that may be all this time we have just been drinking the sand. Parliamentary candidates be aware: an electorate that draws that conclusion is a very different beast from one that does not.

Find out more about Philippa Robinson and The Karlton Index – measuring progress in the health and welfare of dogs

Knowledge and perception of UK Dog Laws – Survey

If you live in the United Kingdom you are invited to take part in a survey being conducted by Anthony Raynor, currently based at Newcastle University. The aim of the study is to assess and evaluate knowledge and perception of UK dog related laws.

The survey consists of 12-20 questions and takes between 8 – 10 minutes to complete (dependent upon responses).

Your responses are completely anonymous and any information gathered will be used solely for the purpose of this research topic in accordance with the Data Protection act 1998.

If you would like any information about the survey or a summary of the results please contact the author at the following e-mail address: a.raynor@newcastle.ac.uk