An inspriational lecture? My “Best of Health” article for April 2021

I was recently invited to present what was to be billed as “an inspirational lecture” on the subject of breed health improvement, via a webinar. For those of you who can remember lectures at college or university the concept of “inspirational lecture” may be something of an oxymoron. The idea of “death by PowerPoint” while glued to a Zoom screen probably isn’t the most exciting thing to look forward to.

I’ve written and presented several times on the subject of breed health improvement strategies, including some of the success stories from my own breed (Dachshunds) and the achievements of the KC’s Breed Health Coordinators. Invariably, I return to the subject of human behaviour change because that’s what is needed in order to improve dog health. There is a major challenge to achieve the necessary changes with such a diversity of views on “the problem” and “the solution”. Some people may not even acknowledge that there is a problem, while others are shouting that it’s somebody else causing the problem. Brenda Bonnett’s call for respectful dialogue, collaboration and collective action aimed to set the tone for accelerating the rate of progress.

3 Horizons for managing change

One of the examples I might use in my presentation is the “3 Horizons Model” which has been developed collaboratively over the past 15 years. It’s a useful way of thinking about how to make sense of complex problems and to explore innovative solutions in the face of uncertainty.

  • Horizon 1 considers what is not working, how can we help it to let go and leave well
  • Horizon 2 questions what is being born and how can we help it arrive
  • Horizon 3 asks what is being disruptive and how it can be harnessed

We look at each of these horizons but in the order 1, 3, 2. All 3 horizons have a role and are a way of thinking about the future and how we might get there.

Horizon 1: Business as usual

From a pedigree dog health perspective, our starting point in the model is that pedigree dogs (KC registered ones in particular) may have peaked in their popularity and are starting to decline as the world is changing. Pet owner demand has moved significantly towards designer cross-breeds (doodles and poos). There are challenges that some breeds are no longer “fit for purpose” and that the self-reinforcing behaviour of the past is no longer achieving good enough results. For example, the consequences of inbreeding (or line-breeding) are well-understood; genetic diversity is inevitably lost and the risk of deleterious mutations causing health problems increases. Similarly, breeding for a particular phenotype to win in the show-ring can lead to exaggerations that also adversely impact on a dog’s health.

It’s also important to ask if there is anything we would want to retain, rather than lose. Here, I would argue that the role of Kennel Clubs is (or should be) central to the future improvement of dog health. The most proactive Kennel Clubs have been the biggest investors in research, education and development of screening programmes. Similarly, many breed club communities have been actively working to preserve their breed for the future and improve its health. It’s hard to see how improvements in dog health would continue without Kennel Clubs and Breed Club involvement.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that while Horizon 1 is often described as “business as usual”, it’s also sometimes “a world in crisis”. The emerging brachycephalic and other animal legislation outside the UK could be that wake-up call. Occasionally, we need a good crisis to focus our minds on the need for change!

Horizon 3: The future we want to create

I suspect this is the horizon that few breed communities have discussed, let alone agreed on any answers. What do we want our breeds to look like in 10, 20 or 50 years? I’ve written before about Preservation Breeders and these really are points that need to be considered if we’re serious about a viable future. I wonder if we went back 50 or 100 years and asked the top breeders what their vision was for their breed in 2021 what their answers would be. 

I doubt there’s a generic, simple answer to this question about the future as each breed has a unique starting point. The answers might encompass one or more of the following: numbers being registered, reduction in health issues, more moderate conformation, improved temperaments and fewer genetic bottlenecks.

How can we help make our future aspirations arrive? If there are emerging good practices such as screening programmes, can we accelerate their take-up? We need to identify the breeders who are already embracing that future and give them recognition for the work they are doing. We also need to identify those who are working for a different future, perhaps those who are content with the current direction of travel. Brenda Bonnett suggested there may be some individuals or groups who might simply never want to collaborate in breed improvement initiatives. If that’s the case, how do we prevent their vision from derailing ours?

Horizon 2: Innovations and new activities

Here, we are looking for innovations and new activities that will temporarily support today’s situation and assist us in moving towards a viable future position. We should be looking for innovations that have been implemented successfully elsewhere. For example, the Nordic Kennel Clubs’ RAS and JTO breed strategy documents were triggers for our UK Breed Health and Conservation Plans.

We also need to consider which current assumptions will be most challenged by change. These could be as simple as the requirement to have a DNA profile as evidence for registration as opposed to a pedigree system based on trust. Another current assumption that I have challenged in several previous articles is that “health tested means healthy”. We know it doesn’t and we need breeders and buyers to understand this.

We’re all aware of the pace of change of technology and there must be IT solutions that could help us. In the horse breeding world, we know there are e-passports that are proof of identity as well as providing records of health. These could be easily transferable to our world and would open up all sorts of possibilities not just for health improvement but maybe also for participation in canine activities.

There is always an emerging third horizon

Breed health improvement will be the emergent result of many things going on in the world of pedigree dogs and beyond that world. Some improvements will come as a result of our conscious intent and actions. Others will take us by surprise, whether we like them or not. The health of our pedigree breeds today, was once the third horizon, probably unplanned and largely unknown. We can either help to shape the 3 horizons or they will happen to us anyway. If we take the latter route, we may not like where we end up.


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