The best of health – a new column in Our Dogs Newspaper

OurDogsI was delighted to be invited to write a column for Our Dogs on a subject that I feel really enthusiastic about; that is the work of, and challenges facing, breed clubs and their members in canine health improvement. That’s a pretty broad remit, but currently I’m thinking it might cover:

  • New health initiatives being launched by clubs (e.g. surveys & research projects)
  • Discussion of educational events
  • Hot topics being looked at by Breed Health Coordinators
  • How clubs are getting owners involved and motivated on health matters
  • Successes and innovations
  • Challenges and how people are addressing them

For those readers who may not know me, I am Chairman of the Dachshund Breed Council and a member of their Health Committee. As a breed, we’ve been fortunate to have lots of committed people prepared to help with our work on health improvement over many years and that’s been “formally” recognised by us winning the Top Breed award in the KarltonIndex Awards last year. I’m also privileged to be a member of one of the KC’s Dog Health Group sub-committees: the Breed Standards and Conformation Sub-Group.

I might be a bit of an oddity compared with the majority of readers of the dog papers because I’m not one who immediately turns to the show reports. I skim the top news stories and then head for the opinion pieces where I enjoy reading the diversity of views on the hot topics of the moment, be they health-related, or otherwise.

Most breed club members will (should?) know that each breed has its own Breed Health Coordinator (BHC), although some breeds have shared this role among several people. There’s an active and very constructive Facebook Group where BHCs meet to discuss health matters and share ideas. I’m hoping that the group will be a source of ideas for this column, as well as the more informal discussions we have when we meet face-to-face.

Recently, I’ve been talking with a group of breeders and specialists who are trying to develop a workable solution to a complex problem based on a canine health issue and the associated advice for breeders. This is not a “simple” problem that can be readily defined with an associated “best” or “right” answer.

It is a classic example of what’s known as a “wicked” problem; one that needs lots of involvement of those people affected and those who have an interest in it. There is complexity, lots of inter-dependencies and no right answer. Treating a wicked problem as if it is a simple one is doomed to fail as there is simply no single, right approach or solution. I’d argue that many (most?) of the challenges we face in improving canine health and welfare are “wicked”.

When we try to solve wicked problems, we 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 challenging environment. With some health issues, we may not yet have the tools, but with the pace of development in the world of genetics we’ve already come a long way in a very short time. Who’d have thought that terms like Coefficient of Inbreeding, Expected Breeding Values and Whole Genome Scans would be become the subject matter of seminars for “ordinary” dog breeders?

There are some pretty clear lessons to be learned from thinking about the type of problems we face in breed health improvement before we launch into trying to solve them.

Firstly, we have to decide how simple or wicked our problem is. The number of people who want to get involved and their degree of consensus should give us a clue. If it’s a problem that’s been around for a long time and lots of people have lots of views on it, 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. We need to be very wary of people (academics, researchers, experts) who claim to have have a methodology or a research project that will “give us the answer”. Anything complex will require access to a range of data, information and problem solving tools which need to be applied intelligently, at the right time, with the right people. Even health problems where we now have reliable DNA tests aren’t actually that simple because we have to consider the impact on breed diversity when deciding whether or not to breed from Affected dogs. For every “simple solution” to a wicked problem, there’s inevitably a knock-on effect and/or unintended consequences.

Thirdly, we may need to accept (and get others 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 we can, health improvement will probably be a very difficult and slow process.

I’ve also been following various online discussions about health screening over recent weeks, where opinions are often particularly polarised. That may just be because it’s the people with the more passionate views that tend to express their opinions, while the silent majority lurk in the background and don’t put “pen to paper” (or fingers to keyboard).

The discussions feature what some might describe as the health zealots and those in health denial, not necessarily in the same conversion; in fact more usually in completely separate online conversations. As with most things, there is almost certainly a normal distribution of reactions, with some people really passionate about canine health at one end of the curve and at the other end we have those in denial. The two groups will never see eye-to-eye. Those who are perhaps over-enthusiastic need to aim for what is practical and implementable in today’s world, rather than “perfection”. Those who are in denial will eventually feel the effects of either peer pressure, or the market (puppy buyers).

It seems to me that trying to use logic or data to persuade either the health zealots, or those in health denial, to adopt a different perspective is like mud-wrestling with a pig: you both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it.

With wicked health problems we’re never going to get 100% agreement and collaboration, but we ought to be able to get enough agreement and collaboration to get started and make a difference. Plenty of breed clubs and their members are quietly getting on with it, doing the right thing. What’s right for one breed won’t necessarily be right for another. I hope I’ll be able to share some of their success stories in future articles.

Ian J Seath, March 2014

(The above article was published in the Crufts issue of Our Dogs)

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