To really make a difference to the health and welfare of pedigree dogs, we need to understand not just how to improve breeding practices, but also why people buy the dogs that they do.
This was the argument put forward by Philippa Robinson, a campaigner for canine health and welfare, in a talk entitled ‘The demand side of the health argument’ at this year’s BSAVA congress in Birmingham.
Ms Robinson, whose professional qualifications are in the field of human resources management, first became interested in the health of pedigree dogs after her German wirehaired pointer died from familial idiopathic epilepsy in 2006 when still very young. Since then she has been involved in research and campaigns around canine health. In her presentation, she suggested that there were certain tools that could be taken from the field of human resources and used to improve the health and welfare of pedigree dogs.
Systems thinking, she suggested, could provide an invaluable framework for considering how dog breeding in the UK worked and how changes could be made. This, she explained, was an approach to problem solving that viewed ‘problems’ as part of a wider dynamic system and involved not just a reaction to headlines or particular events, but also consideration of the linkages and relationships throughout the whole system. The approach was used by the World Health Organization to tackle some of the most complex issues in human health. It had also been used by Professor Chris Elliot and colleagues when writing their report into the horsemeat scandal. She believed systems thinking could ‘bring a really refreshing and insightful way of looking at how we can progress dog health and welfare’.
A systems thinking approach to dog breeding, she explained, would look at not only breeders and the way that dogs were bred, but also owners and why people chose the dogs that they did. For canine health to be improved, she argued, multiple parts of the system needed to be targeted: ‘I think that we need to understand the motives of why breeders breed what they do and we need to try to understand the motives of why people buy the breeds that they buy.’
She used the recent rise in popularity of French bulldogs in the UK as an example. In 2005, 324 French bulldogs were registered with the Kennel Club, but by 2014 the figure had risen to 9670. This vast increase occurred, she explained, despite the fact that it was well documented that the breed was prone to certain health problems. The purchasers of these animals were usually aware that the health of their pet could be compromised and yet they bought the dog anyway.
Ms Robinson pointed out that there were a number of celebrities who owned French bulldogs and who were very active on social media. This, she suggested, could go some way to explaining the breed’s dramatic rise in popularity. The celebrities came from a range of backgrounds including sport, music, television and film, she said, and one of the most prominent had in excess of 45 million followers on Twitter. It was perhaps unsurprising then, that people following celebrities on social media might want to emulate them. And with the same celebrities endorsing high-end luxury products as well as their dogs – Ms Robinson used the example of a watch retailing at £45,000 – a canine accessory could be one of the less expensive ways for someone to emulate a celebrity lifestyle.
The Kennel Club’s assured breeders scheme was often cited as a way of safeguarding good breeding practices, but, she said, many potential dog owners, having decided on the breed and physical features they would like in their pet, would not be put off if they could not obtain it from an assured breeder. In many cases, they would simply go to a non-assured breeder to buy their dog. She also cited figures indicating that 54 per cent of UK dog owners did less than one week’s research when buying a dog, and suggested that many would not be interested in formal documents such as breed standards when deciding on their pet.
It was important, argued Ms Robinson, that factors such as these were taken into account when considering pedigree dog health. ‘One of my concerns about the debate that we so often see in the social media around pedigree dog health is that campaigners are often very focused on changing the Kennel Club. But I hope that today I have shown that the Kennel Club isn’t the only part of the system. We’ve got to work together to change the context for everybody.’
So how could interested individuals and organisations go about trying to improve breed health? For this, argued Ms Robinson, research in the fields of sociology and human psychology could prove useful. She cited work by Paul Dolan, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, which indicated that the way to modify people’s behaviour was to change both the context of their decisions as well as their mindset.
She put forward a five-point plan, involving a multidisciplinary approach, that could be put in place to improve pedigree dog health. As part of this plan, messages about health and welfare needed to be clarified for each breed (because each breed existed in a unique context) and these messages needed to be simplified and then delivered consistently across the entire system. ‘We have to be aware that there is a whole raft of social media communication going on out there that is saying different things and conflicting and contradicting the messages that we want to get across on dog health and welfare,’ she said.
Making sure that the messaging surrounding breed health was clear and consistent was one of the ways that vets in practice could really contribute to improving canine health and welfare.