International cooperation on dog health – my May 2017 “Best of Health” article

Best of HealthIt would be very easy to view the event run by the International Partnership for Dogs in April as a talking shop for those of us actively involved in breed health improvement work. I’ve not attended the previous two events, so have nothing to compare it with but, overall, it was an impressive example of international and inter-disciplinary collaboration.

By inter-disciplinary I mean not just geneticists, vets and epidemiologists, but also breeders, owners and campaigners. Clearly, they are never all going to see eye to eye but this event majors on collaboration, with clear messages about what actions can be taken, even if it is by sub-groups of interested parties.

Whenever you get dog people in a room, they inevitably want to talk about their breed and their specific issues. They are passionate about their breed and really want to find practical ways to improve things. That’s something of a challenge in this type of workshop because it can probably never deal with specifics like one breed and one health condition. The real value is bringing these knowledgeable people together to share what works and to generate some energy to create new resources for others to use.

I had the privilege of making one of the plenary presentations and that was a nerve-wracking experience in front of an audience such as this. There were representatives of 17 Kennel Clubs, the FCI and world-renowned scientists as well as lay people who “just” own dogs. Judging by the feedback, my session went down well. Quite how I was supposed to encapsulate the work our Dachshund Breed Council team has done in less than 15 minutes I don’t know. Nevertheless, I was able to give a flavour of our approach which combines everyone’s passion for the breed with some good data and some basic change management principles that I bring from my day-job as a management consultant. I am sure many of them found me something of an oddity; talking about my enthusiasm for data combined with ideas on how to enthuse people on health projects and change behaviours.

Breakout working groups

The main work at the event was done in 6 breakout groups, each of which had its own theme and a team of facilitators to help guide and shape the discussions. I worked in the “Breed-specific health strategies” team which came up with some practical actions that should create a series of resources for breed clubs and kennel clubs around the world.

What was fascinating to me, but probably shouldn’t have been surprising, was the impact of national cultures on which approaches will or will not work. For example, the Nordic countries are well advanced in developing Breed-specific strategies and have a culture where they can achieve high levels of regulation of, and compliance from, breeders. Others, like the Benelux and Southern European nations would risk driving breeders away from their Kennel Club sphere of influence if they were as prescriptive. All this does, however, lead us to the definition of an interesting range of approaches and some understanding of where they might be useful and effective.

Breeding Strategies

I hope five things will emerge from this working group:

  • a framework for defining the starting point for an individual breed (e.g. the characteristics that define the issues facing Cavaliers and how they differ from those affecting Bernese Mountain Dogs).
  • a set of templates for breed data collection, covering health, welfare, temperament and conformation. There is a model for this already available via the AKC and we also have a health surveys toolkit available in the UK.
  • a framework for summarising the range of options available to address health issues, together with some understanding of where and when each might be appropriate. This is needed to help give people practical solutions, but also to enable them to see why some may not work or what the unintended consequences might be. At the moment, it’s very easy for people to leap to solutions like “change the Breed Standard” or “do an outcross mating” without having defined the problem adequately.
  • a set of implementation guidelines and case studies which address some of the behavioural change issues many breeds currently face. These need to cover aspects such as education, communication, “nudging behaviour”, recognition and enforcement.
  • finally, some example templates for summarising Breed Improvement Strategies. The Swedish RAS framework is well-proven and, again, our KC has its Breed Health Improvement Strategy Guide.

If we can put all this together, it will be an amazing resource for people to use. We need tools that are practical and which don’t require years of delay while more data is collected or more research is conducted. That’s not to say these won’t be necessary in some cases, but, for many breeds they need well-thought through actions, sooner, rather than later.

My definition of a “strategy” is an action plan with a rationale; this set of resources might just help accelerate the creation and importantly, the implementation, of strategies that benefit the dogs.

I blogged separately throughout the weekend about what happened at the workshop and the plans developed in each of the 6 workstreams. Time will tell if the energy visible in Paris actually turns into actions.

Brenda Bonnett, CEO of IPFD did a fantastic job of designing this workshop and the French Kennel Club team brought it to life with a real passion. The next International Dog Health Workshop will take place in the UK in 2019. Paris will be a hard act to follow!

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