My report on the 4th International Dog Health Workshop for Our Dogs 7th June 2019

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The 4th International Dog Health Workshop, co-hosted by the Kennel Club and International Partnership for Dogs took place from 30th May to 1st June in Windsor. Around 130 delegates from 17 countries participated in this unique collaboration of Kennel Clubs, vets, geneticists, researchers, campaigners, trade representatives and, of course, dog owners and breeders. Royal Canin were sponsors.

Delegates registered on Thursday evening and were greeted by members of the KC’s events team, surrounded by an exhibition of posters displaying a wide range of canine research projects and initiatives.

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The workshop was launched early on Friday morning with welcomes from Dr Pekka Olson (IPFD Chairman), Caroline Kisko (representing the KC) and Dr Brenda Bonnett (IPFD Chief Executive). Day 1 comprised a series of short presentations by speakers who would later be leaders or facilitators in the participative breakout sessions. The whole point of this event is that it is a WORKSHOP, where collaboration can lead to agreed actions.

The 5 themes running throughout the workshop were:

  • What is a breed?
  • Supply and Demand
  • Breed-specific Health Strategies
  • Genetic testing
  • Exaggeration and extremes

Supply and Demand was a new theme and was seen to be important in light of several trends that have developed in dog-buying and dog-breeding. We’re all aware of the massive growth in popularity of Bulldogs, Pugs and French Bulldogs. Demand for these simply can’t be met by what most of us would recognise as “reputable breeders”. Puppy farmers, illegal imports and commercial breeders have all stepped in to meet the demand. That demand was estimated to be around 8 million puppies per year in the EU and 8-10 million in the USA.

All 5 themes also had a cross-cutting theme: human behaviour change. It has become increasingly evident that unless buyers, breeders and owners change their behaviour, the health and welfare issues facing (all) dogs simply cannot be addressed. Dan O’Neill from the Royal Veterinary College summed it up in the closing discussion when he said: “We need to stop saying it’s all about the dogs. It is clear that it is really all about the people”. Right at the start of the workshop, it was said that many of the approaches that had been tried so far, to influence people’s behaviour, had had very little effect. We’ve had reviews, reports, legislation, website resources, puppy contracts, education for breeders and judges to name just a few initiatives, yet any impact on canine health and welfare either isn’t happening or isn’t happening fast enough.

Now, that might all sound rather depressing but the point of many of the presentations and working sessions was to identify and highlight examples of what can be achieved by engaging with people in more creative ways than has perhaps been done previously. One of the most thought-challenging presentations was by Candace Croney of Purdue University in the US. She has been working on a programme with high-volume puppy breeders (Puppy Mills) to develop welfare standards for facilities, breeding and rearing of dogs. The standards have been developed in collaboration with these breeders and are focused on recognition, rather than legislation, compliance and punishment. Candace presented evidence to show that dog welfare had improved, buyer satisfaction had improved and participating breeders ended up with more profitable businesses. It all sounds quite counter-intuitive but the collaborative approach has resulted in benefits for everyone; buyers, breeders and the dogs.

There was a specific presentation on human behaviour change by Tamzin Furtado where she described the importance of understanding psychology and the process of change that people go through. Delegates could all relate to examples of how difficult personal change can be, for example stopping smoking, cutting down on drinking or not speeding when driving. Ingrained habits are hard to change and it takes lots of repetition to embed new habits. Many of the techniques of human behaviour change focus on positive reinforcement and creating “nudges” to drive new, desired habits. Telling people they need to change or the use of coercion are notoriously unsuccessful techniques.

During Friday, there were 2 breakout sessions where working groups discussed the challenges related to their 5 themes and worked towards ideas and solutions for addressing the challenges. The aim was for each thematic group to develop action plans that could be implemented after the workshop.

On Friday evening, there was a gala dinner which provided a further opportunity for networking among the participants before another early start on Saturday morning. The 5 thematic breakout groups reconvened to summarise their conclusions and proposed action plans.

Professor Steve Dean presented the “What is a breed?” team’s conclusions with some clear messages about the reality of breeds being under continuous development, through selection, even with closed stud books. Many Kennel Clubs already have policies in place to allow for bringing new blood into registries, for example with outcrossing programmes or introduction of unregistered working stock. More open stud books would, the group felt, be a helpful way to address some of the challenges of diminishing genetic diversity.

The Supply and Demand group (represented by Gareth Arnott) emphasised the importance of identification and traceability. They also felt there were opportunities for standardisation of policies and procedures across the EU (which raises interesting questions in light of Brexit, of course). Some of the ideas that the Purdue team had applied with commercial breeders in the US were also clearly transferrable to other countries.

The Breed-specific Health Strategies team (led by Gregoire Leroy) focused on the value of international cooperation and identified a number of areas where solutions from one country could be applied elsewhere. But, this would require a better flow of information and data-sharing between Kennel Clubs and Breed Clubs. The group also stated that there were plenty of tools already available to help individual breeds but some work was needed to make them more accessible.

The Genetic Testing group discussed a couple of challenges; validation of tests and the subject of genetic counselling. There is concern that DNA tests are being developed ever more rapidly but the published research doesn’t always include sufficient information on validity (i.e. is there a clearly understood mechanism by which the mutation causes clinical manifestation of a disease). That’s not always the fault of the researchers because project funding often doesn’t extend to validation. Therefore, this issue needs to be given more focus (and funding). We’re all aware of how breeders can be tempted to rush off and use the latest DNA test, just because it’s been made available commercially. Genetic counselling and improved guidance is required, in many cases, and this becomes more important where multiple DNA tests are available in a breed; how should people prioritise among these and how should the results be used?

Finally, the exaggerations and extremes group presented their report. Perhaps their most significant statement was that some of the most important people involved with this issue weren’t present at the workshop; breeders, owners and judges need to be involved. The learning about human behaviour change through engagement and collaboration had clearly struck a chord (and not just in this theme). We all know that work is underway on Breed Standards in the Brachycephalic breeds and the team highlighted the potential value of international collaboration on the brachy issue, rather than it continuing with individual countries doing their own thing. Interestingly, the group also recommended action in relation to canine obesity and challenged the IPFD and others to sign-up to an international charter to recognise obesity as a disease. The move from telling people their dogs are too fat to diagnosing and treating obesity as a disease opens up a new range of opportunities to influence human behaviour and the vets can play a major role here.

This final presentation was followed by some further brief discussions and a feedback poll of the delegates showed that 83% felt positive about the actionable outcomes of the workshop while just 1% were less convinced of its benefits (the remainder were “unsure” – probably a reflection of the need to “wait and see what happens after the workshop”).

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Pekka Olson and Brenda Bonnett wrapped-up the workshop with thanks to Caroline Kisko and the KC team as well as all the other helpers who had made the workshop possible. And now, the hard work begins!

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