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Systems Thinking, Viewpoint!

A (dog) world of unanticipated consequences

Many of my readers will know that I am heavily involved in the world of dogs, so you might be interested in this blog post from my personal blog which touches on systems thinking.

A few weeks ago, words like “self-isolation”, “social distancing” and “lockdown” were barely part of our vocabulary. The rate at which new information emerges on the progression of Covid-19 seems to increase daily and decisions that were logical and evidence-based one day, may be completely reversed or changed just a week (or even days) later. It’s so easy for the keyboard warriors to criticise those making decisions but I bet they would feel rather differently if they were part of the decision-making process or, worse, if they were ultimately accountable for those decisions.

In the world of business and leadership development, there’s a concept that’s been around for a while that describes the world we’re in. It’s VUCA, which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It originated in the US military to describe the “new normal” of extremism and terrorism which required a completely different style of leadership and response compared with the Cold War years. There are no simple solutions in a VUCA world; we need to understand that decisions made in one part of a system can have quite surprising and unanticipated consequences elsewhere. Often, those consequences will be counter-intuitive.

Let’s consider some examples from the world of dogs. The Kennel Club has seen a decline in registrations of pedigree dogs over recent years. What do we think Covid-19 will do to that trend? 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. Yet, within a week of some of the biggest changes to our working lives ever seen, there is emerging evidence that we might actually see an increase in demand for puppies. People find they have time on their hands and, instead of having to wait for the school holidays to find time for a puppy, they have time now. 

Where will they get those puppies from, though? Well, another unanticipated consequence might be that they can only get a puppy bred in the UK. Puppy farmers from Eire and those trafficking from Europe will find our borders closed. Hopefully, their desire for a puppy right now doesn’t mean they buy from backstreet breeders or get conned with puppy-farmed puppies already in the UK. I know of several breeders who have seen an increase in demand for puppies but also an increase in demand for their stud dogs. People who might have been uncertain about breeding from their bitch might feel (a) they now have time to cope with a litter and (b) that the income from puppy sales could be very important to them right now.

Of course, when we think about the “dog system” we have to look beyond supply and demand. There are other consequences of new breeders adding to the supply of puppies. How will these breeders find out about health screening before mating their bitches and how will they learn about whelping and puppy-rearing? This could be an opportune time to signpost them to the resources available in the KC Academy.

Canine lifestyles

There are other unanticipated consequences of the current situation. Where we live, the parks and countryside are now swarming with people out walking their dogs (and people without dogs). Many of these are probably dogs that previously would have been stuck at home while their owners were out at work or, at best, benefitted from the services of a dog walker and doggy day-care. So, these dogs’ daily routines will be transformed both physically and mentally and their owners will benefit similarly (unless the novelty wears off). As I write this, it’s a sunny weekend and I wonder if these dogs will continue to get this exercise if we return to the seemingly endless rain of not so long ago.

We might, therefore, expect the health of these dogs to improve in the short-term and that can only be a good thing, given what we know about the levels of canine obesity in the UK. I hope there is not an unanticipated consequence that these dogs are given inappropriate amounts or types of exercise, particularly if they are young puppies. 

These owners may also realise that their dogs need more training to make them better-behaved pets. That means there may be opportunities for dog trainers to offer online services and to encourage people to attend formal training such as the Good Citizen Dog Scheme once things return to something resembling “normal”.

Spending more time with their owners may, in the short-term, reduce problems of separation anxiety which we know is a major issue for many dogs in the UK. We might have to consider what the consequences will be once people return to work; will their dogs be even more stressed when left alone after having had the company of their owners for several weeks?

What about Rescue?

It’s possible that, because people are likely to be out of work or on reduced incomes, they may be inclined to part with their dogs to the rescue charities. It must be a worry for these organisations (and breed rescues) that they will be inundated with dogs and also suffer from a reduction in footfall of people looking to re-home. The opposite might happen, though. People may decide it’s a good time to rescue a dog. Breed rescues may be at an advantage here as many have a network of coordinators and foster homes who can continue to help. 

The big rescue charities could perhaps take a more creative approach and pay people to keep their dogs (or give them vouchers to pay for food and vet bills). After all, these dogs’ owners almost certainly don’t want to give up their dog and the negative mental health consequences of doing so could add further to their problems.

Glass half-full

We certainly are in a volatile and uncertain world at the moment and the impact of the pandemic on individuals and the health service will, no doubt, be immense. It is understandable that the government is focusing on minimising the health impacts but we are already seeing far-reaching and deeply damaging impacts on the economy and people’s livelihoods. Most of the decision-making on strategies to address the pandemic seems to be based on epidemiological modelling. From a systems thinking perspective, I’d like to know what modelling of human behaviour has been done because we’ve certainly seen some unanticipated consequences in the panic-buying of toilet rolls (!) and people flocking to the seaside and National Parks. I’d also like to know about the economic modelling and modelling of other health impacts (e.g. people who have now had operations cancelled).

There are unanticipated consequences of any decision but my glass is always half-full and I am optimistic that we will come out of this situation stronger as a dog community. Remember: DOGS ARE FOR LIFE, not just for Coronavirus.

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