By Renee Greene for Saskatchewan Centre for Patient-Oriented Research (SCPOR)
When Jordan Woodsworth was determining her PhD research topic, she knew she wanted to combine two of her passions: animal care and community. Immediately, she thought of work she had been doing in the La Ronge area through her role as Clinical Associate Veterinarian with the University of Saskatchewan, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, and realized she could use her research to improve veterinary services by evaluating the accessibility and effectiveness of the semi-annual clinics in underserved communities.
Says Jordan, “Multiple communities around our province and country lack access to regular veterinary care. There is further information needed to effect change from a policy standpoint, but also in the way veterinarians engage with communities to try and fill some of these gaps.”
Her initial research plan included conducting a program evaluation of the clinics her team had been delivering. She wanted to do something related to dog management in communities that don’t have regular access to veterinary care, but she knew she couldn’t dive in without further learning what the community wanted. She reached out to some of her contacts in LaRonge to gage their interest in chatting about and potentially participating in a research project.
And so, a diverse, multi-faceted team referred to as the Advisory Circle was formed. In addition to herself and her supervisor, the Advisory Circle included a summer research assistant who was also a local community band member, a Lac La Ronge Indian Band Councilor, a board member of the Northern Animal Rescue, a public health nurse with the Band Health Services, a teacher and local band member, the Deputy Mayor for Air Ronge, a Band Elder, and a client within the community.
As the team worked together to design the SPROUT project (a grant provided to research teams in Saskatchewan by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF) and the Saskatchewan Centre for Patient-Oriented Research (SCPOR) to conduct responsive, equitable, innovative and patient-oriented research), they questioned if the research truly addressed the community’s priorities. As they questioned what the community would gain out of the research, and how changes it brought about would make things better for the community, the project design began to shift. While they could see how the community could benefit from evaluating the clinics, they realized there was a bigger picture that focused on how dog management is approached generally – not only for the people of the La Ronge Tri-Community Region, but for transferable knowledge to other communities that face barriers, as well as for the veterinary profession to learn about what communities really need.
“Initially, our research was going to focus on evaluation of vet clinics. Over time, I realized that the clinics are only a portion of the overall community approach to dog management. Conversations with community members helped me realize that there are multiple layers and factors involved in the overall approach to managing dogs in the area. Has the change in direction surprised me?” Answered Jordan, “Yes, in some ways, but I’m also really pleased because things have evolved because of our commitment to responding to the ongoing needs and priorities of the community and Advisory Circle.”
Collaboratively, this team aims to discover the factors contributing to strengths and challenges in the management of dog population health and welfare in the tri-community area. As active participants of the research team, the Advisory Circle came up with the research and interview questions, and several team members became involved in data collection.
Community Elder, John Halkett, shared his views on the importance of education in schools. “Elder John highlighted his priority - the need for kids to first of all understand the importance of animals from the worldview of the Woodland Cree, and also understand the importance of proper care; what that looks like, how that’s changed, the roles of dogs in the community and what their relationship with people looks like.”
Adds Advisory Circle member Genevieve Candelora, “Community based experiences, knowledge and partnerships are really the key to solutions regarding challenges that we face relating to dogs in the community. I value relationships with dogs, and I believe they play a really important role in our communities. They can contribute to good health, safety, and well-being of people and, in particular, I’ve really been inspired by children and the stories and experiences they have. They care about dogs and they really see them as important and deserving of respect. I would like to be guided by that.”
Summer Research Assistant Kelsey Carlson adds, “Being from La Ronge, I’ve noticed a shift in the community perspective towards dogs, our relationship with dogs and what we consider to be proper care and management for dogs. I believe a big part of the shift is through collaborative efforts between community members and community run organizations. I see this project as an extension of that community effort. We can create community specific solutions to community specific issues. Overall, I just want to be a part of that solution.”
The community’s continued involvement will be necessary to ensure the long-term success of the project. Says Jordan, “We’re not doing a great job as a veterinary profession when we helicopter into communities to provide care without establishing meaningful relationships first. We’re really useful as consultants, supporting communities to design management programs and then doing the things that need to be done by a veterinarian, like spaying and neutering if that’s what the community wants. But there are many things folks in the community can do if they’re properly trained and supported. The animal care gaps that exist are best filled locally. So that’s our end game. We’re not there yet – we need to finish our project first!”
While essential to the success of the project, working with members of the community as part of the research team has had challenges. Most team members are physically located in different communities from Jordan and have varying levels of comfort with technology. This has only been exacerbated by the current pandemic, which has made face-to-face interaction unfeasible, and led to other unavoidable issues, such as a delayed Band election that restricted the availability of at least one team member. Says Jordan “Is it challenging from a time standpoint? Absolutely. But this is the kind of research I want to do, so learning all these potential pitfalls and possible challenges is important for me now – I’m trying to see them as opportunities rather than challenges!
“The biggest, most important thing for me is that I’m not just running with my own ideas; that everything is brought back to the Advisory Circle. Because what I originally thought of as priorities were not actually the priorities, as it turns out. I feel like this approach is more demanding from a communication and time standpoint, but ultimately my perspective is that if we’re doing it right, it should lead to more useful outcomes. That’s the whole point of patient-oriented research - you should have actionable outcomes at the end of the day because you’ve focused on things that are actually important for the target knowledge users. The hope is our research will effect change in how we work with communities as external organizations and service providers to support animal health, welfare and population management so communities feel supported and empowered in their approaches to managing dogs.”