I don’t like your data!

It’s always interesting to read the discussion threads on social media when new scientific papers on canine health and welfare matters are reported and when breed clubs publish their health survey results. I’ve written before about Cognitive Dissonance, a term that captures a multitude of reasons why it’s so hard to get people to see the need for improvement, let alone act to create change. In essence, it means people feel uncomfortable when newly presented evidence clashes with their existing beliefs and they try to find ways to reduce their discomfort.

Albert Einstein is quoted as having said “If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?” It should be no surprise that, with some research, the results are completely novel or, in some cases, unexpected. Newly published research should prompt us to ask the question “why?” – why might a particular association have been identified and why might the results have turned out like they did. Instead, we often find what appears to be cognitive dissonance kicking in. Here are some examples:

The sample is too small: Some research starts with very small samples, often for practical reasons such as cost or convenience. Any interesting findings need to be explored with further studies using bigger and more representative samples, not simply dismissed. Since we know how many dogs are registered in every pedigree breed each year, it is easy enough to estimate the UK population if we also know their average age of death. There are well-established statistical methods for judging the confidence that can be applied to samples so it doesn’t take much effort to decide whether a sample is really “too small”. The opposite effect also happens sometimes; the results of a small study may be misused to provide “evidence” for whole populations.

It’s misleading/skewed: This is a variant of “the sample is too small” but focusing on it being the wrong sample. All samples have some degree of bias; the important thing is to understand what that might be and most peer-reviewed papers have a section discussing potential limitations of the study. That’s where you can get an understanding of potential shortcomings in the chosen data and the potential to address these with future studies. A common criticism of breed health surveys is that the responses are skewed by people who have ill dogs or that “show people” won’t be honest. That’s why it’s important to look for other studies that perhaps cover different respondent samples to see what results were obtained there. Our first major Dachshund health survey was criticised by some for being biased with responses from 85% show breeders. When we repeated the survey 3 years later and had responses from 85% non-show owners, the findings were very similar.

It’s not scientific: This is a great one that gets trotted out to criticise breed health surveys, in particular. I don’t even know what it means. Is it because the report wasn’t written by someone with a PhD or administered by someone wearing a white lab coat? The expertise of most Breed Health Coordinators is backed-up by advice from the KC’s health team so there is invariably a strong scientific input into the design and analysis of breed surveys these days. The follow-on criticism of breed survey reports is sometimes that “it’s not peer-reviewed”. That’s probably true but most aren’t intended for publication in academic journals. The lack of peer review doesn’t negate their usefulness. Most are reporting basic descriptive statistics such as Means or Medians, and maybe Odds Ratios, often with Confidence Intervals and p-values.

We can’t do anything about it: Findings are written off because, in some people’s view, no action can be taken. For example, we found that incidence of back disease in Dachshunds is higher in Winter months than during the other 3 seasons. It prompts the question why. We could hypothesise that it’s due to them getting less exercise or some temperature effect. Whatever the reason (which more investigation might explore), it’s pretty unlikely that nothing can be done. “We can’t do anything about it” is often just a lazy response to avoid finding something that can be done. In fact, it’s just as lazy as responding with “what can we do to improve it?” unsupported by any suggestions.

We need more research: I’ve written before about the parallels between the tobacco industry’s response to the link between smoking and cancer and the dog world’s response to criticisms of health issues in pedigree dogs. A call for more research is sometimes just a smokescreen, looking for the perfect set of data which, of course, will never be found.

We need facts: This one is used alongside “it’s not scientific” and it’s hard to know what to make of such a comment when the report being referred to is full of data and analyses. The BBC says “a fact is something that can be checked and backed up with evidence” and “facts are often used in conjunction with research and study”. “Opinions are based on a belief or view”. Last year, it was reported that chocolate labradors live significantly shorter lives than the other colours. Although perhaps surprising, this “fact” can be checked by looking at the data and evidence presented in the paper. Additionally, it’s not the first example of a dog’s colour being associated with a particular aspect of its health so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising.

My dogs don’t have that: We need to remember that data presented in papers and reports are from samples of populations. These will contain a range of cases and non-cases. Just because one breeder has never had a particular problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. “The plural of anecdote is not data“! Gregoire Leroy has written an excellent blog at dogwellnet.com about this, which he calls the “sampling effect”.

A nudge towards breed health improvement

My Christmas reading was Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. It’s all about how people and organisations learn (or don’t). One paragraph really struck a chord with me:

Science is not just about a method, it is also about a mindset. At its best it is driven forward by a restless spirit, an intellectual courage, a willingness to face up to failures and to be honest about key data, even when it undermines cherished beliefs.

We do need to question the research that is published on canine health matters, not to knock it down but to understand how it can be used to help us. Every piece of research and every breed survey has the potential to nudge us towards actions that will improve the lives of our dogs.

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Nearly 20 years of DNA testing – what can we learn?

Doctors Tom Lewis (KC) and Cathryn Mellersh (AHT) recently published an Open Access paper where they analysed trends in DNA testing for 8 autosomally recessive conditions in 8 breeds. A headline in the Vet Times said “Study reveals ‘fantastic work’ of DNA testing”. The sub-headline stated that “A study has revealed responsible breeders are reducing the number of pedigree dogs at risk of often painful and debilitating inherited diseases by around 90%”.

This paper is exactly the sort of great work we have come to expect from the KC’s Health Team and their partners at the Animal Health Trust. I believe it could be one of the most influential papers that might be published this year because of its potential to influence breed health policy and strategy, as well as the behaviour of breeders and buyers.

I don’t want to dwell on the detail of the research; you can read that for yourself, here: https://goo.gl/PiQmMF – I want to discuss how and why this paper might be important. The study covers the results of 8 DNA tests in 8 breeds for the period 2000 to 2017. 2 of the DNA tests applied to 2 breeds, resulting in 10 test+breed combinations. The key metric used to measure progress was the Mutation Frequency which is more useful than simply counting the number or calculating the proportions of Clear, Carrier and Affected dogs. It is calculated as [(2 x No. of Affected) + No. of Carriers]/(2 x No. of dogs with a known result).

Measures of progress

Previously, many reports on the progress of DNA testing have simply shown the proportion of Clear, Carrier and Affected dogs tested each year and that’s what we used to report in our Dachshund Annual Health Report. However, as tests become more established, the KC is able to deduce the status of untested dogs and assign their hereditary status. For many tests we are now able to identify Hereditary Clear, Hereditary Carrier and Hereditary Affected dogs based on test results from their parents. That still leaves a proportion of dogs in the KC database without known or deduced status and the researchers acknowledged this in their analysis but were able to calculate a “worst case” view of mutation frequency in each breed. Those of us reporting on DNA testing in our breed should be asking the KC Health Team for Hereditary results so we can give a more accurate picture of the impact being made. The difference can be quite significant, for example 50% of the test results for PRA-rcd4 in Gordon Setters were “Clear” in 2017 but, when hereditary status is taken into account, 95% of the breed was “Clear”. When you’re telling the story of what’s been achieved, that’s a big difference.

Another aspect of the paper is the data on trends in uptake and usage of DNA tests. For most breeds, unsurprisingly, the peak uptake of DNA tests was around the time it became commercially available and subsequently tailing off. The one exception to this was Exercise Induced Collapse in Labradors where use of the test has grown steadily since its launch. The peak around launch may reflect the fact that breed club communities are often actively involved in developing a test and are therefore keen to make use of it as soon as it becomes available. The challenge for all of us in breed clubs is how to educate and influence those outside our community to make use of these tests.

The paper also shows that there is an inverse relationship between the size of a breed and the take-up rate of tests. The slowest rate of increase occurred in the 2 numerically largest breeds, Labradors and Cockers. In smaller breeds, it’s more likely that breed clubs have influence over a higher proportion of breeders. The Labrador/Cocker effect may also be related to the split of working, show and pet breeders, making it more difficult to reach a more diverse group of owners. It may also be the case that, in breeds where multiple DNA tests exist, like Labradors (5 tests according to the KC) and Cockers (4 tests), it is more difficult to persuade breeders to make use of what might be seen as “yet another test”.

Another consideration related to uptake of a test is breeders’ perception of the need to use it. The severity of the condition, its age of onset and how widespread affected dogs are in the population are all factors that individual breeders will consider when prioritising whether or not to use a test. In some cases, breeders simply don’t want to know despite the seriousness of a condition and prefer to bury their heads in the sand. All of this gets me back on my change management hobby-horse; it’s important to communicate much more than just the launch or availability of a new test.

Wider implications?

In some cases, the launch of a new test could actually make things worse in a breed. The paper notes the evidence of selection – breeders intentionally avoiding producing affected puppies. In some breeds we have seen unhelpful selection strategies such as Affecteds or Carriers being removed from the breeding population completely, when they could quite safely be mated to Clear dogs. Another unhelpful approach is when people rush to use the small number of Clear stud dogs available and we may end up with the so-called Popular Sire Syndrome and all the adverse consequences that go with that. So, while DNA tests do indeed have the potential to prevent the breeding of more affected puppies, breeders must consider the bigger picture of genetic diversity. Reducing the gene pool makes it even more likely that hitherto unseen recessive mutations will “pop up” as undesirable health problems.

There are over 700 inherited disorders and traits in dogs, of which around 300 have a genetically simple mode of inheritance and around 150 available DNA tests. This tells us that we should not rely on DNA testing to solve the “problem” of diseases in pedigree dogs.

This new paper therefore gives the KC and breed clubs an opportunity to educate (or re-educate) owners and breeders on how DNA tests can be used within an overall breed health strategy. As well as celebrating the fantastic work done by so many committed breed enthusiasts, the messaging needs to be wider than “DNA testing improves dog health”.

I also wonder to what extent this paper might cause the KC to review its policies on the registration system, particularly given that there have long been calls for responsible breeders to be recognised for their commitment. It’s no good saying that’s what the ABS is for when so many good breeders have chosen not to join. Last year, Our Dogs wrote “A Manifesto for Change”, directed at the KC Board. Among other things, it said there was a need to address (or justify clearly) long-standing issues related to the registration system such as the ABS, DNA identification and the requirements for health testing. I hope the Lewis & Mellersh paper provides part of the evidence-base for those discussions.

An international approach to breed health improvement

This year, the International Partnership for Dogs will be holding its 4th workshop. Our Kennel Club is hosting the event which will take place from 30th May to 1st June, near Windsor. The Kennel Club was a founding partner of the IPFD since its inception in 2014 and hosted the first ever meeting of the IPFD Board that same year. Kennel Club Secretary, Caroline Kisko, is the Vice Chairman of the IPFD and our KC also provides the secretariat for board meetings.

A major goal of the International Dog Health Workshops (IDHW) is to promote collaboration and networking. This begins with the reception on the Thursday evening and continues throughout the next 2 days. All attendees are expected to share expertise/experiences and to participate actively in discussions in breakout sessions.

I attended the 3rd IDHW in Paris in 2017 and was privileged to be invited to make a short presentation on our work in the Dachshund Breed Council to develop and implement a breed health strategy. I also took part in the breed-specific health strategies workshop and this year I have been asked to help with the design and facilitation of that part of the programme.

As with previous IDHWs, the majority of time is spent in interaction: limited plenary talks have been chosen to highlight Themes; most time is spent in smaller group breakout sessions.

There are 5 main themes being tackled this year:

1)   The concept of ‘Breed’ and how it influences health and welfare in dogs. How attitudes to the definition and understanding of breed affect actions for health; the history and future of outcrossing; public perception; conservation vs. development of breeds; the role/ influences of breed standards; judging for health/function not just appearance; experience in other species.

2)   Supply and Demand. The reality of sourcing – national vs. registered/pedigree populations; commercial breeding: the reality; new developments in health and welfare management; ‘rescues’ / marketing; the role of different stakeholders.

3)   Breed-Specific Health Strategies: By breed, nationally and internationally. Defining and sharing tools to support the work of breed clubs.

4)   Genetic Testing for Dogs: Selection, evaluation and application of genetic testing: building expert resources for genetic counselling / IPFD Harmonization of Genetic Testing for Dogs (HGTD) initiative; coordinating across stakeholder groups; latest developments in genetics and genomics.

5)   Exaggerations and Extremes in Dog Conformation:

a)   Health, welfare and breeding considerations; review of national and international efforts, on all fronts (consumers, show world, breeders, judges, vets, etc) since 2012 – what has been achieved?; brachycephalics; other existing and emerging issues; overcoming polarization and conflict, resolving science and emotion.

b)   Education and Communication – Past practices may not have achieved desired outcomes. What are tools and techniques to promote human behaviour change? What can we learn from other fields?

“In God we trust, everyone else must bring data” – Dr. Edwards Deming

In 2017, one of the themes was “Show me the numbers” and some people might wonder why this has been dropped for 2019. It was obvious from the discussions within that theme in 2017 that it was actually cross-cutting, meaning it was a key aspect running through all the other themes. So, we can take it as read that improvement in any of the themes on the 2019 agenda will have to be underpinned by the availability of good data and evidence.

The format of this year’s workshop is slightly different from 2017; there are 4 interactive plenary sessions taking up a large part of the agenda on 31st May. These include short presentations by renowned experts from around the world. Nick Blaney, who heads up our KC’s Dog Health Group is among the speakers.

All change please!

I’ll be particularly interested to hear the presentation by Suzanne Rogers who is a Director of a consultancy: Human Behaviour Change for Animals (HBCA). I’m pleased to see she will be speaking about communication to promote change. When I spoke in 2017, I started by saying that dog health improvement was not a scientific, veterinary or genetic problem. My view was (and still is) that dog health improvement is a continuous improvement and change management problem. It is something we have to work on continuously and we can expect to see incremental improvement (rather than step-change) only if people behave differently. By “people”, I mean owners, breeders, exhibitors, judges, vets and everyone who directly impacts on the dog system. That is why it’s a change management issue. It’s also no good each of those groups acting independently in their own silos without thinking about how they could be collaborating with others in the system. The Brachycephalic Working Group is one example where a multi-stakeholder approach has been taken in order to produce a plan that has a broad consensus of support. We’ve seen too many campaigns by individuals and groups that simply alienate the people who have the potential to make improvements happen. That is still happening and it feels like lessons aren’t being learnt. I therefore hope Suzanne will be able to bring some new thinking to this year’s workshop. The HBCA website lists 4 pillars for change: the process of change; the psychology of change; the environment for change; and ownership of change. The importance of these has, in my opinion, not been sufficiently well recognised, understood or addressed in many breed health improvement efforts.  

Breed-specific health strategies

At the 3rd IDHW, participants in this theme agreed that effective and sustainable implementation of health strategies requires innovative solutions to many different challenges. Provision of sufficient reliable information was agreed as critical, for both situational assessment as well as health screening and DNA testing of dogs. Considering the design of breed health strategies, the group agreed that it was important to identify and balance the major issues for each individual breed and give guidelines on how priorities could be determined for each, while still allowing breeders discretion to make their own decisions within an overall framework of requirements and recommendations.

The general conclusion was that there is no “one size fits all” solution for developing breed-specific health strategies and that the most effective interventions would need to be adapted according to the specific context of each breed, nationally and internationally.

This year, the activities for this theme will include:

  • Clarifying what we mean by a breed health strategy, by reference to currently available examples
  • Understanding the challenges facing breed clubs, such as how to get started with a breed strategy, how to maintain momentum and how to accelerate progress
  • The role of Kennel Clubs in the wider context (national and international), such as advocating for breeds, influencing legislation and providing resources for clubs and breeders
  • Identifying and sharing currently available resources and tools to address these issues
  • Identifying gaps in current capabilities (approaches, resources, tools) and how these might be addressed

It’s a lot of ground to cover in the 3 working sessions but, if 2017 is anything to go by, participants will bring a high level of knowledge and energy and leave with a clear sense of the priorities and tasks to be undertaken over the next 2 years.

You can find out more about IDHW4 here: https://doghealthworkshop2019.co.uk/

How long will my dog live? – cautionary comments by Dr Brenda Bonnett

I am grateful to Dr Brenda Bonnett for the following comments on my blog post “How long will my dog live?“. Brenda is an epidemiologist and CEO of the International Partnership for Dogs.

Thanks for an informative overview of this paper.  As an epidemiologist, however, I think a few cautions should be added.  Owner-reported mortality frequently lists ‘old-age’ as a cause of death, whereas this is essentially never listed by veterinarians or clinical data.  To me, what that designation means is that the dog achieved an age that approximated the owner’s expectation, and of course that would vary across breeds and owners.  Where breeds have a lower median age at death, owners might be more likely to pursue veterinary care, thereby resulting in a diagnosis.  This could confuse a comparison across breeds.  Not to discount the information, but just to suggest a little caution in its interpretation. 

A more important caution is in the use of proportional mortality.  As this value does not account for the actual rate of death or the base population, using it to compare across breeds is very risky. Let me give you one example from Swedish insurance statistics on deaths before 10 years of age in a population of millions of dog-years-at-risk, and reflecting almost 40% of all dogs in Sweden.  Bernese Mountain Dogs, Flat-coated Retrievers and Golden retrievers all had as their #1 cause of death Lymphosarcoma (a type of cancer).  So, if one had looked at proportional mortality, that was the highest cause.  On that basis, on might be tempted to say that these breeds were similar for this cause of death.  However, when one looks at the rates of death, and compares them as relative risk, the picture is very different as seen in the graphic below.  Essentially, very few Goldens died before 10 years of age, but among those who did, lymposarcoma was the most likely cause. It is fairly obvious that the importance of cancer as a cause of death before 10 years of age is very different for these breeds.  So – proportional mortality can be useful within a breed, but it is very dangerous to use it to compare across breeds.

Again – not to detract from the useful information in the paper, just to caution us all on how we apply it.

Longevity study – how long will my dog live?

How long will my dog live?

It seems a long time ago, but in 2014 the KC ran its pedigree dogs breed health survey with an online survey that attracted just under 50,000 responses. Among these were 5663 reports of dogs that had died. Now, that set of mortality data has been analysed and published in an Open Access paper: “Longevity and mortality in Kennel Club registered dog breeds in the UK in 2014”. The co-authors are Tom Lewis, Bonnie Wiles, Aimee Llewellyn-Zaidi, Katy Evans and Dan O’Neill; names that will be familiar to many readers.

There are some interesting findings in the paper and I’d like to share a few of those, this month.

The most commonly reported causes of death were old age (13.8%), unspecified cancer (8.7%) and heart failure (4.9%); with 5.1% of deaths reported as unknown cause. Overall median age at death was 10.33 years. Breeds varied widely in median longevity overall from the West Highland Terrier (12.71 years) to the Dobermann Pinscher (7.67 years). There was also wide variation in the prevalence of some common causes of death among breeds, and in median longevity across the causes of death.

What do dogs die of?

All dogs are going to die of something (!) so it’s perhaps good news to find that owners reported “old age” as the most common cause of death. Interestingly, “old age” as reported by the owners ranged from just under 6 years old to just over 22 years old. The median age of death under the “old age”category was 13.7 years.

At the recent Breed Health Coordinator Symposium, Dr Mike Starkey told us that 1 in 4 dogs will be affected by cancer so it’s probably not surprising to see Cancer (of unspecified types) as the second highest cause of death. The median age of cancer deaths was just over 10 years, again suggesting it is as most people would expect, a condition of older age. The range for age of death due to cancers was very wide: 2 months to 21 years.

What do different breeds die of?

It’s well-known that canine longevity varies considerably depending on the size of the breed; giant breeds have shorter lifespans while smaller breeds tend to live longer. Of particular interest to me was a previous VetCompass study that showed Miniature Dachshunds to be among the longest-lived breeds. This breed was subsequently chosen to be a long-lived representative in a genome-wide association study that Cathryn Mellersh (AHT) and other colleagues conducted to compare the genomes of long and short-lived breeds.

The latest paper shows data for “Within Breed Proportional Mortality” (WBPM). This is a way to look at the relative differences between the various causes of death for each breed where there were sufficient reports. (Unfortunately, from my personal point of view there were too few Dachshund reports to be included in this analysis).

This is where the paper gets really interesting. The data shows, for example that the WBPM for “old age” ranged from 3.85% in Bernese Mountain Dogs to 25.0% in Bearded Collies. In other words, significantly fewer BMDs die of old age than Bearded Collies. The WBPM for ‘cancer – unspecified’ ranged from 0.00% in Gordon Setters to 19.56% in Flat Coated Retrievers. The WBPM for ‘heart failure’ ranged from 0.00% in Whippets to 19.82% in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. Again, these reflect what most people know about cancer risk in FCRs and heart disease in Cavaliers. The analysis also shows that Border Terriers had the highest WBPM for dying as a result of road traffic accidents.

This WBPM data enabled the authors to identify how individual breeds’ causes of death compared with the Overall Proportional Mortality (OPM) based on reports for all the dogs in the survey. Boxers and FCRs were the 2 breeds less likely to die of old age compared with the OPM. Cavaliers were less likely to die of cancers, compared with the OPM, but, as you would expect, were more likely to die of heart conditions. If your breed is among the 25 analysed in this way, it’s well worth looking at the data to see how it compares with your own experience.

Healthspan vs. Lifespan

Healthspan is an interesting concept that has become quite topical. A dog’s healthspan is the length of time it is healthy, not just alive. The paper says “Although death may be postponed by improved healthcare, extended longevity by itself does not necessarily imply an improved or even a good quality of life, so a delicate balancing act exists between longevity and acceptable quality of life.” This leads to challenging ethical debates about whether a shorter but healthy lifespan with a short, rapid decline to death, might be preferable to a longer life with long periods of illness and a slow decline to death. There is, inevitably, a difficult decision to be made by owners, with vets, about treatment options to prolong life, quality of life and when might be the right time to consider euthanasia.

The concept of healthspan means that longevity almost certainly means different things in different breeds. A giant breed would, typically, be expected to die younger than a toy breed but as long as the dog was healthy during that lifespan, most people would not consider there to be welfare issues. Conversely, long-lived breeds should not necessarily be considered as being “healthier”, particularly if much of their lifespan is subject to a debilitating illness.

4 categories of breed

The authors merged the results of longevity by breed with Within Breed Proportional Mortality (WBPM) and came up with 4 categories of breed:

  1. Long-lived with no specific cause of death at a raised proportional mortality (e.g. WHW Terrier, Bearded Collie, Gordon Setter)
  2. Long-lived with at least one cause of death at a raised proportional mortality (e.g. Labrador, Golden Retriever, Border Collie)
  3. Short-lived with no specific cause of death at a raised proportional mortality (e.g. GSD, Whippet)
  4. Short-lived with at least one cause of death at a raised proportional mortality (e.g. Flat Coated Retriever, Dobermann)Category 4 breeds are short-lived with serious, breed-specific, life-limiting conditions. Categories 1 and 3 are breeds where there is a wide variation in longevity associated with factors that apply across all dogs (such as size) and there is no obvious disease that accounts for death.

The paper concludes: “This study has identified individual breeds that have both a low median lifespan and also a high proportional mortality for one or more specific causes of death. Breeds with this combination are highlighted with potential welfare concerns that may need to be addressed.”

If your breed is one of the 25 breeds with causes of death with more than 50 reports, the paper is well worth reading and reflecting on what actions your breed clubs might need to be taking.


Please also read the comments by Dr Brenda Bonnett on this paper.

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Blue is the colour; CNR is the name…

Blue is the colour; CNR is the name…

Recently, we had the misfortune to discover that Johanna Konta (Tennis player) has bought a Blue Dachshund and was proudly sharing pictures on her Instagram page. The picture received over 4000 “Likes” and generated lots of discussion among Dachshund Facebook Group members.

Blue is a colour that occurs legitimately in the genetics of Dachshunds but is a “Colour Not Recognised” (CNR) as far as Kennel Club registration is concerned. Our survey data suggests that between a third and half of Blue Dachshunds can suffer a skin condition – Colour Dilution Alopecia (CDA – and there is no DNA test for this condition). Hence, we have been working hard on social media to educate potential owners not to buy dilute coloured Dachshunds (we also have Isabella – sometimes referred to as “Lilac”). We also encourage owners of these dogs not to breed from them.Blue

In the past year there has been a significant increase in the number of dilute coloured Dachshunds being sold in the UK. The majority are being bred by French Bulldog and English Bulldog extreme-colour breeders; many using dogs imported from the USA or Eastern Europe, presumably as they see an opportunity to make significant money from “rare-coloured” Dachshunds.

I suppose we can be thankful that, unlike in some other breeds, blue hasn’t been introduced recently by cross-breeding from another breed.

The KC created a CNR Working Group to look at this issue because it has caused much concern among other breeds. I understand they are due to report soon. We raised the CDA and CNR issue with the KC when we met to discuss our Breed Health and Conservation Plan.

No simple solutions

The CNR issue is a classic example of what’s known as a “Wicked Problem”. Lots of people have lots of different views on, and interests in, the problem; it’s not the same problem in every breed; there is no single, simple solution and any actions have the potential to result in unintended consequences. This is the realm of Systems Thinking where lots of factors are interconnected. Logical, cause and effect (reductionist) thinking is unlikely to help us understand how the “CNR system” works nor how to intervene to improve things.

The first step in identifying how to change the system is to understand the forces at play. Wicked problems benefit from being examined in a more holistic way and one of the tools to do that is a Causal Loop Diagram (CLD). It’s a pictorial way to link variables (e.g. Demand for “rare” colours, Registration income) and to tell the story of what’s happening in the system. The example CLD tells the story of what might be happening in Dachshunds (it may be different in other breeds). CNR System Causal Loop Diagram PDF

cnr sd model

In the model, if 2 variables are linked with a “plus” arrow, it means they increase together (e.g. the more demand there is, the more dogs are bred). A “minus” arrow means that, as one variable increases, the other decreases (e.g. the better educated buyers are, the lower the demand for rare colours). This Causal Loop Diagram also shows us that there are 4 distinct perspectives on the CNR problem in Dachshunds:

  • Demand
  • Supply
  • KC Registration Policy
  • The health and welfare of Dachshunds

These perspectives help us to see that, if we want to change what happens as a result of the system, multiple actions will be needed.  

How to change the system

Once you can see the systemic forces at play, you can then consider the conditions that either enable or hinder change. That way, you can reduce the chances of cherry-picking “simple but wrong” solutions. We need to look for “leverage points” but it’s important to understand that some of these will have minimal impact or might actually make things worse.

There are plenty of models describing how to change systems and, generally, they highlight 3 levels at which interventions can be made. Of course, being a system, the interventions and the levels are interdependent.

The biggest leverage and impact usually results from challenging the system by understanding its goals, the mindsets that created it and the current narratives. For CNR Dachshunds, these could include:

  • Only register Breed Standard colours of dogs with a known pedigree vs. Register any dog that looks like a Dachshund, whatever its colour/pattern
  • Keep the breed “pure” vs. Recognise that cross-breeding has always happened
  • KC registration is “exclusive” vs. KC registration is “inclusive”
  • “Greeders” vs “Breeders”

The next most effective areas to look for leverage points are the relationships and the power dynamics in the system. These could include:

  • Groups working in isolation vs. Engaging with campaigners (e.g. RSPCA, DBRG, CRUFFA, CARIAD)
  • One-size fits all solutions vs. Open source, marginal gains solutions
  • Individual communication & education campaigns vs. Joined-up campaigns
  • The KC sets the registration rules vs. Collaborative rule-setting
  • The show community shapes the rules vs. Breeders, owners & others shape the rules

People who don’t think about the system tend to start by looking for actions which, typically, have the lowest leverage and impact. Often, these relate to the policies, practices and resources that exist in the system, such as:

  • Registration rules & “acceptable” colour lists
  • Registration pricing policies
  • Data sharing on numbers of CNR dogs and how many have health issues (vs. non-CNR)
  • Legislation on imports & enforcement of this
  • Licencing regulations
  • ABS rules & guidance
  • Breed Club Codes of Ethics
  • Availability of alternative registries
  • Colour/pattern clauses in Breed Standards
  • Breed Club resources for communication & education

Some, or many, will need to be changed, but only after addressing the higher-leverage issues. Starting with these is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope!

Light at the end of the tunnel?

One of the other useful features of the Causal Loop Diagram is that we can identify 2 types of feedback loop. Reinforcing loops occur when an initial action is reinvested to create more of the same type of change. For example, the more a celebrity’s Instagram picture of a blue Dachshund is liked and shared, the more people see it and the more demand it creates for blue Dachshunds. Growth can’t continue forever so, wherever there is a reinforcing loop, there is typically a balancing loop to stabilise the system. However, this might not be as strong as the reinforcing loop or it might take time to kick-in. In our case, a balancing loop is owners finding their blue Dachshunds have health issues, which more people become aware of and which then reduces demand. Another balancing loop might be that unsuitable owners discover that Dachshunds were bred to work and aren’t suitable to live life as “fur-babies” or fashion accessories, and when they share their problems on social media other people become less likely to want one.

Behind every growth in demand is at least one reinforcing loop but there are also, invariably, balancing loops which come into play to resist further increases in demand. In the case of dog health and welfare, the question is whether those balancing loops kick-in soon enough to avoid a crisis for the dogs and their owners.

In a way, we’re lucky that the demand for, and supply of, blue and other “rare”coloured Dachshunds is still quite low compared with the CNR (and other colour) challenges facing the French Bulldogs, Bulldogs, Pugs and Staffordshire Bull Terriers (to name just 4 breeds). We have time to look at our particular CNR system and identify workable solutions. What works for us may well not work in other breeds and vice versa. However, we can and should all learn from each other.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”.
L. Mencken

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Philippa Robinson – a very special lady who will be sorely missed

Philippa RobinsonI am sad to share the news that Dog-ED co-founder Philippa Robinson passed away yesterday. She had bravely fought a battle with cancer for over a year and during that time continued to be an active campaigner for canine health and welfare.

Friends in the world of pedigree dogs will remember her Karlton Index project which she started in 2011 and which led to an awards ceremony sponsored by the Kennel Club in 2013. This recognised the range of fantastic work being done by breed club communities to improve the health of pedigree dogs.

The Karlton Index came about because of her experience of getting the dog of her dreams (Alfie; Kimmax Karlton), only to have it shattered by ill-health, familial disease and heartbreak. That was the motivation behind all of her campaigning. Set-up in Alfie’s memory, the Karlton Index was launched in March 2011 with the hope of bringing something constructive and helpful to the heated debates around dog welfare. Philippa brought tried and tested tools from the world of business, a world in which she had excelled for three decades, and applied them to activities related to dog health.

The ideas behind the KI appealed to me immediately and my first phone conversation confirmed this was a person who shared similar values to me and a common desire to improve the health of pedigree dogs. We struck-up a friendship and that developed into a partnership under the banner of Dog-ED.

2013-02-07 12.58.11Philippa would be the first to admit that her initial views were that the Kennel Club, breed clubs and breeders were just not doing what was needed to address the health issues in pedigree breeds. She certainly ruffled a few feathers in the early days; how dare a mere pet owner and worse, a management consultant, challenge the lack of effort being made to improve breed health! How dare she come out with a scoring system that highlighted dozens of breeds that scored ZERO. However, she was always willing to meet, talk, discuss alternative views and change her opinion accordingly. She became friends with many of the Kennel Club’s Breed Health Coordinators and, before she became ill, served on the KC’s ABS Health Sub-Committee.

There have been some lovely comments from Breed Health Coordinators who met her:

  • The dogs have lost a tireless champion
  • She looked to find the common ground which is so much rarer than it needs to be
  • What a vibrant and dynamic voice for good; a great loss and far too soon

The two of us were invited to speak at various meetings and workshops. She invariably introduced us as “an odd couple” because we were approaching the challenge of breed health improvement from a systems-thinking and change management perspective. This was quite different to the typical veterinary, epidemiology and breed club perspectives that prevailed.

biog pic2Philippa will be remembered for so much more than the Karlton Index, though. For her, it was always about doing the best for dogs and using her personal talents to bring people together to achieve that aim. She will be sorely missed.

I’m sure all of us whose lives she touched will be thinking of her partner Alex and the rest of her family at this very sad time. RIP Philippa.

[Top photo: courtesy of Bill Lambert]