Systems thinking and (non) Breed Standard Colours

Life, the universe and everything!

Last month, I wrote about the importance of seeing the bigger picture as we consider how to address concerns about pedigree dog health in 2021. I argued that it’s easy to leap to solutions that can actually make things worse unless we can actually see how different factors affect each other. I mentioned that one of the particular issues that might benefit from taking a wider perspective is Non Breed Standard Colour registrations (formerly Colour Not Recognised – CNR). The KC now has separate lists of Breed Standard and NBS colours that breeders can choose from when registering their puppies.

Concerns about NBS colour registrations

“Concerns about NBS” is a pretty broad problem statement and, from what I’ve read in the various online discussions, includes:

  • NBS colours “swamping” BS colours so that traditional colours are no longer the most common
  • NBS dogs aren’t  “pure”; they must contain cross-breeding
  • Health issues such as Colour Dilution Alopecia in dilute coloured dogs
  • Lack of participation in health testing schemes by NBS breeders
  • The KC not protecting purebred dogs that conform to the Breed Standard
  • The KC is “only interested in making money” so they are encouraging “greeders” to breed NBS

If we really want to understand any problem associated with NBS registrations we need to have some supporting data. There are some interesting analyses of NBS vs. BS registrations in some breeds and there is no doubt that Bulldogs and French Bulldogs have seen an increase in the popularity of NBS colours. Cassie Smith has published some really useful analyses of the differences between BS and NBS Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Pugs. Her most recent report examines the rate of Caesarean Sections and shows the BS registered dogs in these breeds all have a higher percentage of litters born by CS than the NBs litters. The reasons for this are unclear and open to speculation. With some other breeds where people are expressing their concerns, there is very little data being discussed.

In my breed, Dachshunds, the main concern seems to be about registration of dilute colours such as Blue and Isabella as there is some evidence that they can be more prone to Colour Dilution Alopecia. Unfortunately, there is very little peer-reviewed evidence of this, which makes it difficult to argue the case for banning their registration on health grounds (unlike double-merle registrations). The situation in Dachshunds is complicated further by the fact that skin conditions/allergies was the second most prevalent health issue identified in our 2018 breed survey (approx. 8% affected). For that reason, the focus of our 2021 breed survey will be skin conditions and we are working with the KC health Team and a veterinary dermatologist on the design and content. We hope this will give us a firm evidence-base for recommendations on the risks of, and factors associated with, skin diseases. 

Systems thinking

Systems models are one way to consider the links and relationships between different factors. They typically start from a statement of a problem. You have to be clear about the problem you are focusing on; in this case I have used the fairly generic term “concerns about NBS colours”.

One challenge of developing any systems model is where to draw the boundaries because, ultimately, everything is part of a wider system (life, the universe and everything; or 42!). If you make the boundaries too narrow, you may end up with “simple but wrong” interventions. If you draw them too wide, you end up with so much complexity that it’s hard to see how or where to intervene to make improvements. Here is my initial attempt at a systems model based around people’s concerns over NBS colour registrations.

For those not familiar with how they work, a solid arrow means the 2 variables increase or decrease together (e.g. registration of NBS colours increases KC income). A dashed arrow implies that as one variable increases, the other decreases (e.g. education of breeders reduces the breeding of NBS colours). The value of systems models is that they can help us to understand what the knock-on effects might be of different types of intervention. Interestingly, very often they highlight what might be counter-intuitive options for interventions. They also help us to avoid so-called unanticipated consequences (which, of course are entirely predictable if you apply systems thinking).

Thinking through options for change

We can use this (relatively simplified) systems model to consider actions that might address concerns over NBS registrations. It’s obvious that there aren’t that many “levers” we can pull.

We can’t directly reduce either the demand for, or breeding of, NBS puppies. There are calls for the KC not to register NBS puppies or to place them on a separate register so they can’t be shown or bred from. What does this model tell us might happen if that “solution” is implemented. Firstly, it doesn’t change either supply or demand. These dogs will continue to be bred and bought. However, it does reduce KC income and the consequential ability of the KC to invest in education programmes for breeders and buyers. It will, therefore, be more likely that these puppies will be bred without any awareness of the importance of health screening. Additionally, it reduces the size of the registered gene pool and makes it less likely that NBS dog owners would consider using a KC registered mate when they do decide to breed.

It leaves the breed clubs with the task of educating people and we know how much of an uphill battle that is. Whether anyone breeding NBS puppies outside the KC registration system would even come across or be interested in breed club messages is debatable.

What can we do?

I’m sure there are other factors and relationships that should be built into this type of model but it gives a feel for the potential consequences of decisions. Before deciding on solutions to address concerns, we need to decide what we are trying to achieve. 

For those of us in breed clubs, one of our primary aims must be to preserve our breed for the benefit of future generations of breeders and owners. That means ensuring the breed is viable from a genetic diversity perspective as well as health and temperament. If we don’t think about these longer term goals, any decisions we make today might backfire on us.

You cannot see what I see because you see what you see”. Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.