New systems approach needed to improve dog health

The following article is reprinted with permission from Dog World (published 14/5/15).

MANY, if not most, canine health and welfare problems are linked to people, their behaviour and attitudes. And the issues surrounding such problems are far more complex than have been argued in recent years.

  So said Philippa Robinson at the British Small Animals Veterinary Association’s recent congress, adding that ‘finger pointing’ was no longer helpful and blame counter-productive.

  She suggested a new approach to combat health problems in pedigree dogs, and said the demand for and supply of them needed to be understood for things to change.

  All the agencies and stakeholders involved needed to work together to clarify what health and welfare messages were needed, she said.

  Mrs Robinson discussed the controversies surrounding inherited disease and how she joined the ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed campaign’ in 2007, a year before the documentary was broadcast.

  Mrs Robinson of the Karlton Index, which was launched to monitor and measure canine health, spoke of the three reports on pedigree dog which followed PDE, health including the Bateson enquiry, and the setting up of the Dog Advisory Council.

  After the Bateson report, she said, she began examining ‘how inert the Kennel Club had been on dog health’.

  “But the grip of the anti KC rhetoric began to loosen its grip on me,” she said. “An historical analysis of pedigree dog health reveals that the issues are far more complex than argued in either PDE or any of the three subsequent reports.”

  The KC had launched many initiatives regarding health and welfare including collaborative work with other parties, she said.

  Why had not other agencies taken a stand on canine health, she asked. And if they did speak out what had been the consequence?

  At that point, she said, she decided that canine health problems had not been caused by one stakeholder.

  To those present she recommended a ‘systems thinking’ approach, and looked at supply and demand of dogs and puppies, the fact they could be obtained from many different sources by people with different motives, levels of commitment and sense of duty. She talked about breed type rather than breed, and said she believed England was not a nation of dog lovers but one of dog breed lovers.

  “For whatever, complex, reason, we develop a fondness for specific types of dog,” she said. “This has resulted in each breed having very specific societal and cultural contexts.”

  She discussed the shape of the Bull Terrier’s skull, saying the breed Standard had not driven the change in shape or which dogs were awarded in the show ring.

  “Those factors may contribute to the changes of shape, undoubtedly, but the real influence I would argue is simply human preference,” she said.

  The KC could change the breed Standard to reflect the top shape of skull, she went on, and judges could begin to only award dogs with the top shape, but that would not stop people choosing the dog with the skull shape they preferred, even if it was detrimental to health.

  Mrs Robinson turned to brachycephalic breeds such as the French Bulldog saying that publicity about the breed’s health problems had had no effect on the explosion in its popularity, which was fed and encouraged by celebrity owners.

  “The French Bulldog has become a cultural icon,” she said. “It has been used to sell all sorts of merchandise, services and it is, of course, the current breed of choice for many a celebrity. This breed endorsement has not come from the KC, the show world or the breed club. Even combined, the KC, the show world, the breed club have precious few resources to counter that iconic status. They also have limited spheres of influence to change behaviours and attitudes among the wider population.”

  So how can health and welfare of the breed counter this cultural phenomenon, she asked.

  “Review the breed Standards? Introduce judicious health testing Remove untested dogs and affected dogs from the breeding programme?

  “Remove untested dogs from showing and remove untested dogs from the KC system altogether? Ensure that the public is armed with facts? Issue breeds with health warnings like cigarettes?”

  But the bigger picture needed to be considered, she said, the trends analysed and the points of intervention which would provide maximum leverage identified.

  Much had been done by the KC to improve the French Bulldog’s health, Mrs Robinson said, but most French Bulldogs were being bred away from that system by people who did not take part in health schemes.

  “Some are imported, most often illegally, to fulfil the demand created through the celebrity culture,” she said. “So without wider support of the stakeholder community, without the injection of resources from more than one stakeholder, all the valiant work will struggle to have an impact on the French Bulldog population as a whole.”

  How could the cultural phenomenon be changed, she asked. How could mind sets and contexts be changed? It had to be recognised that people make irrational choices because they are motivated by ‘a complex set of drivers’.

  The veterinary profession, welfare charities, scientists, academia, breeders, local authorities, the KC, welfare campaigners, the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, industry and the public need to work together, she said, to clarify what the health and welfare messages needed to be for each breed and breed type based on evidence and good data. The dynamics of the system which supplies dogs and puppies needed to be understood, as did the human behaviour which determined dog buying and acquiring decisions.

  Key messages needed to be delivered consistently across the board and by all parts of the system.

  “Finger pointing is no longer helpful and blame is counterproductive,” Mrs Robinson said.

  “Meaningful dialogue and courageous and creative action are the things we should be working on jointly.

  “The good news on that is courageous action and creative solutions such as VetCompass, estimated breeding values, genetics and breeder education can be really exciting projects in which to get involved. So let’s stop sniping and start sharing.”

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Modelling the UK Dog Population – #OR56 conference presentation

Alessandro Arbib (DECC) made this presentation (see Slideshare below) to the Operational Research Society’s 2014 conference OR56.  Abstract:

2014-09-09 14.46.17-1 (Custom)The breeding, ownership and welfare of dogs in the UK is a complex social area. Although there has been research into the size of the dog population, nobody has pulled all this together into a single model that everyone can use to help focus priority issues. A consensus understanding of the population and how it is stratified is crucial to allow proposing meaningful welfare improvement policies. From November 2013 to May 2014 a group of 3 OR analysts and an engineer from DECC worked with the RSPCA (the UK’s leading animal welfare charity) and Dog-ED (a Social Enterprise applying Systems Thinking to canine welfare) to provide analytical evidences about the number of dogs currently present in UK and how they move through the system. The project involved a significant literature review to collect the data necessary to produce a snapshot of the UK dog population; designing and building a “stocks and flows” model to investigate the flows of dogs from the different categories; and developing recommendations for possible uses and future development of the model. Lack of consensus amongst the data sources, and considerable variation in data quality and definitions used made it difficult to provide accurate answers to the customer’s problem. We will describe our main outputs including estimated upper and lower bounds for the dog population, a “stocks and flows” model developed in Excel, and a list of the main data gaps and issues we met in our work. Last but not least, we will focus on the valuable experience of working for the Third Sector, summarising the main lessons learnt and the value that OR was able to add in this area.

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Modelling the UK Dog Population – summary report

The breeding, ownership and welfare of dogs in the UK is a complex social area. Although there has been research into the size of the dog population, nobody has pulled all this together into a single model that everyone can use to help focus priority issues.  As a consequence, different stakeholders have varying, and sometimes conflicting, views of how many dogs there are and their needs.  Without a consensus understanding of the population and how it is stratified, it is difficult to propose meaningful welfare improvement policies.

Earlier this year the RSPCA and Dog-ED worked with a group of Operational Research analysts from the Department for Environment and Climate Change (DECC) to review the literature and establish a baseline of data on the UK dog population.  The DECC team did this for us as a pro bono project coordinated by the Operational Research Society, of which Ian Seath is a member.
The project case study (download pdf) summarises the results of the literature survey and the challenges the DECC team faced when trying to build a population stocks and flows model (example below).  The DECC team will be presenting a paper at this year’s OR Conference, based on this work.
Stocks and Flows

Conclusions:

  1. Top-down and bottom-up calculations of the UK dog population do not agree, resulting in a significant range (8.5 – 11+ million)
  2. There is insufficient data from publicly available sources to quantify the origins and populations of non-KC registered pure-bred dogs (e.g. “hobby breeder”, “commercial” or “puppy farm”)
  3. There is insufficient data to understand the reasons why dogs are relinquished and go into welfare, or to identify the extent to which dogs in welfare may be moving in and out of “revolving doors”
  4. The lack of data makes it too difficult to identify additional areas (over currently known points) where interventions could occur to improve the welfare of dogs
  5. Forecasts of the potential impacts of different interventions are dependent on external factors (economic and societal) which are themselves difficult to predict
  6. The DECC OR team has brought a rigorous and disciplined approach to this project and highlighted the data and evidence challenges that exist in this complex social policy area

 

Download: Understanding the UK Dog Population

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What would an effective Breed Health Improvement Strategy look like?

This presentation is based on work we have done to help develop Breed Health Improvement Strategies. It provides a framework for strategy development and gives examples of the elements required within a comprehensive strategy. The framework can be used to help pull together existing approaches and to ensure they are aligned.

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“Wicked problems”: there is no RIGHT answer

directionRecently, we’ve been talking with a variety of individuals and groups who are trying to trying to develop a workable solution to a complex change management problem based on a canine health issue.  This is not a “simple” problem that can be readily defined with an associated “best” or “right” answer.

It is a classic example of a “wicked” problem that need lots of stakeholder engagement, where there is much complexity, with lots of inter-dependencies and there’s no right answer. There’s simply no single, right approach or solution.  Treating a wicked problem as if it is a simple one is doomed to fail!

When you are trying to solve Wicked Problems, you face a range of barriers which are both cultural and technical. People “in the problem” are likely to have conflicting objectives and there may be hidden agendas that don’t surface readily. Equally, people may not have the technical capability to solve the problem, either through a lack of knowledge of relevant tools, or lack of skill in applying them in a what will inevitably be a culturally challenging environment.

There are some pretty clear lessons to be learned from thinking about the type of problem you face before you launch into trying to solve it.

Firstly, you have to decide how simple or wicked your problem is. The number of stakeholders who want to get involved and their degree of consensus should give you a clue. If it’s a problem that’s been around for a long time, it’s probably not going to be simple to solve, is it?

Secondly, it’s no use being a “one trick pony”; only the simplest of problems are amenable to being solved using basic or single problem solving tools. Be very wary of people (academics, researchers, consultants) who claim to have have a methodology or a research project that will “give you the answer”. Anything complex will require excellent facilitation skills and access to a range of data, information and possible problem solving tools which need to be applied intelligently, at the right time, with the right people.

Thirdly, you may need to accept (and get stakeholders to accept) that, for some problems, there will be no right answer. It will be uncomfortable for some people to live with that level of ambiguity, but unless you can, problem solving will probably be a very painful and slow process.

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