2021: Time to see the bigger picture – my January “Best of Health” article

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that focusing on a few narrowly defined issues results in many undesirable consequences that could have been anticipated and avoided, had we remembered to ask about the bigger picture. The mainstream media’s obsession with reporting “cases”, “hospital admissions” and “deaths within 28 days of a positive covid test” meant that many people simply had no other contextual evidence upon which to base any judgements about the impact of coronavirus or the various intervention responses. We’ve seen exactly the same in the world of dog health. Three examples: In the Netherlands, new Brachycephalic legislation focuses on the cranio-facial ratio (CFR) as a means to mandate “healthier breeding”. In the UK, some breed communities are obsessing over colours and whether these should be registered by the Kennel Club. Finally, we continue to find breeders using the results of single DNA tests as the primary criterion for making breeding decisions.

These are just three examples of decisions and calls for action that fail to take account of the bigger picture. In the past, I’ve written about the importance of Systems Thinking; a way of considering how things are connected and how decisions in one part of a system can impact on other parts, sometimes in surprising ways.

As an example, back in March 2020, I wrote: What do we think Covid-19 will do to the downward trend in puppy registrations? The “obvious” conclusion would be that registrations will decline further as people face a period of uncertainty about their jobs and are unwilling to commit to the costs of buying and owning a dog. We now know that Covid-19 resulted in a boom in demand for, and supply of, puppies.

My Christmas reading last year was Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, fast and slow”. Kahneman is a psychologist and economist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on behavioural economics in 2002. Thinking, fast and slow is all about why people think what they do and why they make the decisions they make. Kahneman calls “thinking fast”, System 1, and “thinking slow”, System 2.  System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little effort and without voluntary control. System 2 requires mental effort and concentration. System 1 can result in simplistic solutions that actually make things worse.

Beware unintended consequences

It really isn’t too difficult to see how some of the 2020 dog health actions could actually make things worse. The Dutch CFR legislation may well stop brachycephalic breeding in the Netherlands but it may increase the importation of poorly-bred examples of these breeds from other countries. It may also drive breeding underground because it will do little to reduce the demand for these dogs. It’s already obvious that the legislation has fueled more polarising conversations and further divided groups who should have the same objective of improving canine health.

The Colour Not Recognised (CNR) – now “Non Breed Standard Colour” – debate here in the UK has led to calls for the KC not to register these dogs or to put them on a separate register where they are not permitted to be shown or bred from. The KC’s first Object (3.1.1), listed in the Red Book, is to promote in every way the general improvement of dogs. Object 3.1.2(b) is the registration of dogs. Although 3.1.2(a) refers to the classification of breeds, there is no mention of Breed Standards anywhere in the 7 Objects. The latest Dogs Trust UK welfare report suggests there are around 10 million dogs in the UK. With annual KC registrations of about 250k and an average lifespan of 10 years, there are probably around 2.5 million KC registered dogs in the UK; i.e. just 25% of the population. If we are looking at the bigger picture, do we really want to reduce the number of dogs that the KC registers? Along with that, do we want to reduce the number of dog owners the KC can influence so that dogs’ lives can be improved?

Readers will recall my earlier articles where I argued that “health tested does not mean healthy” and I really think breeders (and buyers) need to step back and see the bigger picture beyond the world of DNA tests and clinical screening programmes. This is particularly true for breeds that may have just 1 or 2 DNA tests for simple recessive mutations. Removing dogs from the breeding population where there is often already low genetic diversity, on the basis of one mutation, can only make things worse. Similarly, breeders flocking to use a few Clear stud dogs reinforces the Popular Sire issue, reduces genetic diversity and makes it more likely that further recessive mutations will become evident. Puppy buyers are equally at fault; they have been lured into believing that good breeders do every possible health test, irrespective of whether it is relevant or important in a particular breed, or the fact that there are no tests available for other potential diseases.

What do we need to do differently?

Although I have often said that improving dog health is a complex problem and that simple solutions won’t work (on their own), it doesn’t mean that we need to be looking for complex (or even complicated) solutions. We simply need to step back and consider how any proposed solution might impact on the bigger picture. Questioning helps us join the dots and identify how a proposed solution fits in the wider system:

  • How much of a difference will this actually make to the overall problem?
  • What will it cost to implement this?
  • Can it be implemented practically for the target audience?
  • To what extent will this idea be considered acceptable by different groups affected? 
  • Are there any potential unintended or undesirable consequences?

We need to set aspirational goals for the future health of all dogs and recognise that these can’t be achieved overnight. We also need broad policy directions to guide our decision-making. These are probably the areas where different stakeholders need to collaborate, at least initially. Without this agreement from the different interest groups, the detailed proposals for actions will inevitably lead to polarised views and confrontational conversations. Please can we make it a New Year’s Resolution for dog health improvement to keep in mind the bigger picture of what we’re trying to achieve for the benefit of dogs? 

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