20 reasons why improving breed health is so difficult

“Cognitive Bias” is a term that captures a multitude of reasons why it’s so hard to get people to see the need for improvement, let alone make the necessary changes that will improve the health of dogs. It’s also referred to as”Cognitive Dissonance”.

Breeders and exhibitors make many decisions every day about thei dogs. Everyone likes to think these are rational, but maybe things aren’t quite that simple.

Here are 20 types of Cognitive Bias which I read about in “Business Insider” and have interpreted for canine health.

1. Anchoring Bias: People rely on the first piece of information they hear. In a conversation about a particular health condition, the first person to comment on its prevalence sets the scene for everyone else’s views on the problem. “I’ve never seen it in 30 years of breeding” will anchor everyone in a mindset that it really can’t be an issue.

2. Availability Heuristic: People overestimate the importance of information that is available to them. Someone might argue that Cavaliers are not prone to heart disease because they know of a dog that lived to 15 with no disease.

3. Bandwagon Effect: The probability of one person adopting a view increases based on the number of other people who also hold that view. This is one reason why some stud dogs end up being so-called Popular Sires.

4. Blind-spot Bias: Failing to recognise your own cognitive biases, is a bias in itself. The classic manifestation is Kennel Blindness (“My dogs no longer have any faults”).

5. Choice-supportive Bias: When you choose something, you usually feel positive about it, even if you know it has problems. Choosing a stud dog to mate with your bitch often comes with this bias.

6. Clustering Illusion: This is the tendency to see patterns in random events, like the idea that red dogs of a particular breed are more likely to be aggressive.

7. Confirmation Bias: We tend to listen more to information that confirms our existing perceptions. This is perhaps one of the reasons why it is so hard to have a rational conversation about outcrossing as a means to improve genetic diversity and health.

8. Conservatism Bias: This is where people are slow to accept new evidence, for example the VetCompass data that shows, on average, crossbreed dogs live longer than pedigree dogs.

9. Information Bias: This is the tendency to seek more information rather than taking action. How much more data do people need before they get the message that high levels of inbreeding increase the risks of harmful mutations emerging and reduced levels of fertility. I’ve said before ‘if you wait for the perfect set of data, you will wait a very long time’. Sometimes, it’s easier to make a decision with less information.

10. Ostrich Effect: This is the decision to ignore dangerous or negative information by burying your head in the sand, like an ostrich. People who have invested time and effort in building a “line” of dogs are likely to be less inclined to acknowledge diseases or problems that can be traced back to their pedigrees.

11. Outcome Bias: Judging a decision based on the outcome, rather than on how the decision was made. Just because you bred a “healthy” dog with a Coefficient of Inbreeding of 30% doesn’t mean it was a smart decision.

12. Overconfidence: Some people are too confident about their abilities and this causes them to take greater risks. Experts are more prone to this bias than lay people, since they are more convinced they are right. Experienced breeders might believe they can “safely” mate two merle (dapple) dogs and not end up with deaf or blind puppies.

13. Placebo Effect: This is when simply believing something will have an effect causes it to have that effect. According to a study by Conzemius & Evans, a caregiver placebo effect by both dog owners and vets was common in the evaluation of patient response to treatment for osteoarthritis. Half the owners whose dogs received placebos stated that their dog’s lameness was improved during the study.

14. Pro-innovation Bias: People with new ideas often over-value their usefulness and under-value their limitations. Just because a new DNA test has been developed, doesn’t mean it’s important to use it, particularly if the mutation frequency is extremely low, or if the welfare impacts of the condition are minimal.

15. Recency: The latest information you receive is often weighed more heavily than older information. Conformational exaggerations seen in the ring today may be admired and rewarded, rather than remembering a breed’s original purpose and type.

16. Salience: This is the tendency to focus on the most easily recognisable features of a situation. For example, in Dachshunds it is much easier for breeders to focus on eradicating cord1 PRA where there is a DNA test than on reducing back disease which is a complex condition, with no “simple” test. The fact that, statistically, Dachshunds are more likely to suffer from back problems than to go blind, may be overlooked just because a test is available for PRA.

17. Selective Perception: This is where we allow our expectations to influence how we perceive the world. If we “know” that a particular line of dogs is prone to a particular health condition, we tend to look for more examples to prove that case, rather than looking more widely across the breed. We end up with “Mrs Miggins’ dogs produce xyz disease”.

18. Stereotyping: This is where we expect a particular situation without having any real evidence. Just because one of Mrs Miggins’ dogs is aggressive, doesn’t mean all her dogs have a bad temperament. People tend to over-use and abuse the limited evidence available.

19. Survivorship Bias: This is an error that comes from focusing only on surviving examples. For example, we might think that Mrs Miggins’ dogs are long-lived, because we haven’t heard of any of her dogs that have died at an unusually young age.

20. Zero-risk Bias: Sociologists have found that we love certainty, even if it’s counter-productive. That’s why many breeders are obsessed with “health-testing” and the continual search for new tests. They should, instead, be focused on the root cause of the problem which is closed stud books and high levels of inbreeding.

All of these cognitive biases are potential stumbling blocks that affect our behaviour and they can prevent us from acting in the best interests of our dogs and our breeds.

However, if we are aware of them, we can turn some of them to our advantage. The way we present information; how we communicate good practices; how we reward and reinforce improved canine health; all these can nudge people in the right direction.















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