Focus and alignment – a challenge for Breed Plan Communications: my December 2017 “Best of Health” article

Best of HealthLast month, I wrote about the soon to be published Breed Health and Conservation Plans (BHCPs) which the KC is developing with Breed Clubs. Initially, 17 breeds are in the pipeline to have their plans published. These will be really important documents to set a baseline for each breed’s health status and genetic diversity. They will also be a formal starting point for improvement plans, although, in reality, for many breeds actions are already well underway and have been for some years.

I touched briefly on my hobby-horse of Change Management and said this boils down to creating specific plans for communication, education, training and recognition with target groups and individuals (stakeholders!). There may also need to be plans to change rules, regulations, legislation, standards and processes.

This month, I want to look in a bit more detail at communications. There are broadly three levels at which communication needs to be effective: pedigree dogs, breeds and breeders.

The benefits of pedigree dogs

The Kennel Club has a key role to play in communicating the benefits of owning pedigree dogs. For the purposes of this article and because BHCPs only apply to pedigree dogs, I am going to ignore its stated objectives to support the improvement of all dogs and to encourage responsible dog ownership in general. It’s pretty clear that the KC does a great job in this area. It is proactive on social media and is tirelessly lobbying and putting forward the positive benefits of owning pedigree dogs. Since that TV programme in 2008, we have seen a much more proactive stance and, these days, the KC is very much on the front foot with clear messaging to the public, politicians, vets and numerous other stakeholder groups.

BHCPs are developed by the KC’s Health Team in collaboration with the relevant Breed Club/Council, using the Breed Health Coordinator as a key point of contact. I would expect BHCPs to include communication objectives that are focused on a range of specific stakeholder groups. Those groups are likely to include both the supply-side (primarily breeders) and the demand-side (primarily buyers and owners). The achievement of these objectives will largely be down to the KC and the breed club/council.

The role of Breed Clubs

Each breed will need to have a unique, tailored communication strategy. There is no place for a “one size fits all” approach and, clearly, the messaging from the KC and the breed clubs needs to be aligned. Breeds such as French Bulldogs and Pugs will need very different communications objectives from those needed by native vulnerable breeds. The former may well be trying to influence demand downwards while the latter will probably be trying to influence demand upwards. Both are likely to need considerable support from the communications professionals at the KC. Breeds with visible health conditions (Breed Watch Category 3) will be communicating the importance of more moderate conformation, while others may simply have to raise awareness of available screening programmes.

As an example of the complexity at a breed level and to illustrate the need to avoid a generic approach, I want to use Dachshunds as an example. In the UK, we have 6 varieties of Dachshund (9 under the FCI) and, while there are some generic messages we want to get over to potential owners, each variety has its own specific challenges from a communications perspective. One of the generic messages for buyers and new owners, in particular, is that Dachshunds originated as a working breed, and have a temperament that derives from their role as hunters and trackers. So, while they should be “Faithful, versatile and good tempered” according to our Breed Standard, those of us who have owned them for many years know they can be obstinate and “go deaf” when off the lead if they come across an interesting scent. They need plenty of exercise and mental stimulation and, without these, can be noisy, destructive and suffer from separation anxiety (like many dogs). They do enjoy being on the sofa but they are by no means cute lap dogs.

Three of our varieties (Smooth, Long, Mini  Long) have declining KC registrations and therefore need “promoting” from a communications perspective. Mini Wire registrations, by contrast, have remained fairly static and don’t particularly need promoting. However, given the prevalence of Lafora Disease in this variety, our communications have focused on raising awareness of the available DNA test (for breeders) and the importance of buyers not buying puppies from untested parents. That very focused communications objective has meant we have moved from a position 5 years ago where around 45% of litters were “Lafora safe” to now, when around 95% of litters are safe, with no puppies likely to be Lafora-affected.

Our biggest worry from a communications perspective is the Mini Smooths where registrations have grown from 1800 in 2006 to 4600 in 2016 (and this year looks like it will be even higher). While this may not be as dramatic as the rise in French Bulldog registrations, nevertheless it has led to similar problems: growth in sales of unregistered puppies, increasing numbers of adverts for “rare colours” (including the so-called “colour not recognised”) and an influx of puppies from dubious sources outside the UK. Some people attribute the rise in popularity to the high profile of Mini Smooths on the TV and in the press. They are in numerous adverts and have appeared on Gogglebox and Coronation Street, to name but two programmes. All these tend to hype the “cute”, “comical” and “toy” attributes of the breed which appeal to the type of buyer who must have one instantly. We need to counter this with communications that emphasise the reality of owning a Mini Smooth Dachshund. So, as a specific example, at our recent Breed Council meeting, we agreed to ask the KC to amend its website advice on the breed to make clear the type of home and amount of exercise that is most suitable.

Our Breed Health and Conservation Plan will be developed in the second phase of the KC’s project and we will want to ensure that communication strategies reflect the needs of each of the 6 varieties of Dachshund. By working together with the KC, our Breed Clubs can ensure we provide the right communications through all our available channels (e.g. Discover Dogs, Social Media, Seminars).

Breeders: Supporters or blockers?

The final communication level is that of individual breeders and owners. All the good work done at breed level can be undermined quickly by people who are either out of touch with the latest evidence or who are determined to sell a contrary message (for whatever reason). If these people are active on social media (keyboard warriors?), unhelpful messages can be spread far and wide. At their worst, they can provide incorrect advice to buyers/owners, resulting in adverse health and welfare impacts on their dogs. That is why a critical part of a breed-level communication strategy has to include a social media component and maybe also plans to bust the myths propagated by influential individuals.

In summary, the communications elements of BHCPs will need to be focused and aligned, so that the KC, breed clubs and breeders are all singing from the same hymn sheet.

I’ll end by wishing all Our Dogs readers a Happy Christmas and the Best of Health for 2018.

 

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