You don’t know what you don’t know!

It’s well-known that when you ask people to rate their driving skills, the majority say they are better than the average driver. Clearly, that’s impossible because, by definition, more than 50% of people can’t be “above average”. Apparently, it’s the same when it comes to dog breeders understanding of (even basic) genetics. A recent poll by Carol Beuchat on her Institute of Canine Biology Facebook Group asked people to rate their own understanding of genetic management and that of other people in their breed. On a scale of 1 to 5, most people rated themselves at 3 or more, while rating their breed peers below average (lots of 1s).

This might be another example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect which I have mentioned before. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. Essentially, some people do not possess the skills needed to recognise their own incompetence. This leads them to overestimate their own capabilities. Charles Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

At the other end of the spectrum, Dunning and Kruger found that highly competent people held more realistic views of their own knowledge and capabilities. Additionally, these experts actually tended to underestimate their own abilities relative to how others did.

Carol went on to explain in her blog why this lack of knowledge about genetic management is such a problem for pedigree dogs. She says: Inbreeding in dogs is FAR higher than in any other mammal, wild or domestic. Inbreeding of wild animal populations is usually in the very low single digits. Breeders of livestock begin to panic as inbreeding approaches 10% because the negative effects are so significant. In fact, they worry about every percentage point of increase.

In a closed gene pool, inbreeding can only increase over generations and the gene pool can only get smaller. With that comes the inevitable consequences of inbreeding depression such as reduced longevity, smaller litter sizes and the appearance of more inherited diseases associated with deleterious mutations.

Breeding strategy

Tom Lewis, formerly the KC’s geneticist, published a paper in 2015 showing data on changes in inbreeding coefficients across numerous KC registered breeds. The data show that breeders are choosing inbreeding as their preferred strategy and, although the data show some evidence of reductions in breed average COI, this is mostly due to the effect of imported dogs with few generations of pedigree data. The data also show COI to be lower than reality because the KC’s pedigree information used in the study only goes back as far as 1980 and therefore excludes breed founders.

In her blog, Carol says there are 2 problems that need to be fixed: firstly, “the significant inbreeding problem that severely imperils essentially every breed”. Then, “we need to breed sustainably” which requires an understanding of the tools used for the management of other animal populations. Clearly, there is much we could learn from the worlds of farm animal production and zoological conservation.

Beyond the Tipping Point?

In some breeds, not only do they face the genetic challenges described above but they also have phenotypic issues associated with exaggerated conformation. You may recall my article last year about the seminar I ran for the Whippet Breed Council. I described the poll we ran for the attendees and their number one concern about the breed for a viable future was conformation and exaggeration. Their number two issue was genetic diversity including inbreeding and popular sires, i.e. everything I have described in the first part of this article.

To me, it was quite surprising that conformation and exaggeration was seen as such a hot topic in Whippets. I’m no expert on the breed, but they don’t strike me as one of the breeds that ought to be overly concerned about that issue. Closer to home, I’m much more concerned about exaggeration in my own breed, Dachshunds. Our Breed Standard was amended last year to make it even more explicit that excessive length of body and a lack of ground clearance were highly undesirable traits. Our health committee produced a paper illustrating a range of types from unacceptably long, heavy and low, through to excessively tall and leggy.

The concept of Tipping Points is, I believe, really useful when considering exaggerated conformation. It is evident from what we see getting awarded in the showring that different judges vary in their view of what is acceptable. The Kennel Club’s Breed Watch programme should be a way to help judges (and exhibitors) recognise the point where exaggeration tips over into visible points of concern, including those with obvious health implications.

Typical dogs

We are also now seeing such discussions about tipping points in published research papers. For example, a paper was published in December 2021 titled: French Bulldogs differ to other dogs in the UK in propensity for many common disorders: a VetCompass study. In it, is this sentence: “In support of a view that French Bulldogs have diverged substantially from the mainstream of dogs in the UK and, are in many respects, no longer even a typical dog, is reflected in their higher differences in disorder propensity.”

I’ve had several interesting conversations about exaggeration recently with vets. Some of those centred around the five welfare needs of dogs which I wrote about in February. We also talked about the dangers of vets (and others) using terms like “normal for a xxx” (insert a breed’s name). The worry here is that we are starting from the perspective of what has become normalised in a particular breed, rather than remembering these should be dogs first. This leads to the question of whether there is a tipping point beyond which a particular breed can no longer be considered to be viable as a dog. When you see pictures of the grossly exaggerated “toadline bulldogs”, it’s pretty clear that a line has been crossed.

For an interesting discussion on exaggeration, listen to Dr Sean McCormack’s wildlife podcast featuring Rowena Packer and Alison Skipper:

play.acast.com/s/seanswildlife/the-flat-faced-dog-dilemma

One person suggested to me that judges’ education should ignore canine conformation and movement and learning should start with looking at horses. That way, judges would learn about virtues and faults without the hindrance of considering what might be “normal for a breed”. I can’t help thinking there is an urgent need for a robust discussion about tipping points and for breeders and judges to go back to basics in defining where we should draw the line on what is acceptable.