Make it not be true

Since publishing the call for respectful dialogue, collaboration and collective actions, Brenda Bonnett CEO of the International Partnership for Dogs has written several blog posts discussing the challenges facing the pedigree dog world. In particular, she has described the need for “tough talk” as well as “open dialogue”, based on what she calls evidence-based reality.

For example, at the recent Embark breed health summit she said “You can’t just say ‘I care about health and longevity but I’m selecting for a big head and a beautiful coat’ and think you are going to get health and longevity.” This came from a panel discussion at the summit and, out of context, it might seem rather blunt but it is entirely factual. Herein lies the dilemma; are pedigree dog breeders serious about the viability and preservation of their breed, or are they more interested in winning awards at dog shows? Clearly, it’s not an “either-or” choice but, all too often, actions don’t match the words.

In another part of the discussion, someone asked: “How do we deal with these people who attack pedigree dogs and say they are unhealthy?”. Ryan Boyko, the CEO and co-founder of Embark Veterinary, Inc. very thoughtfully said “Make it not be true?”. This was not intended as criticism but a practical comment on the need to realise the criticism of pedigree dogs cannot be addressed as if it is a marketing problem; it’s a “product problem”. There’s a well-known phrase from the world of marketing – perfuming the pig – which means making superficial or cosmetic changes to a product in a futile effort to disguise its fundamental failings. Ryan’s point is that until there is evidence that actions by breeders, owners, breed clubs, kennel clubs and vets demonstrably shows the health of pedigree dogs has been improved, it’s no surprise that there will be criticism.

Why is it so difficult to talk about?

In a recent conversation with Brenda Bonnett, I was reflecting on why it is so difficult to get breeders to acknowledge health issues, let alone support health improvement initiatives. It struck me that where there are complex conditions with no simple DNA test to help breeders, there is often a wall of silence and a desire to sweep problems under the carpet. 

There are plenty of examples of breeds with these sorts of situations and health conditions such as epilepsy, cancers, spinal disorders, heart disease and breathing problems. Many of these issues are serious for the dogs but, equally, they can be traumatic (and expensive) for the owners. From a breeder’s perspective, these conditions are a nightmare because, often, they are prevalent right across a breed, leaving people with few options to “breed away” from problem lines. Add to that the fact that many of the health screening tests for these conditions only identify risk, and therefore there is no definitive way to ensure a litter of puppies won’t be affected. In some cases, the existence of these conditions could threaten a lifetime’s work for established breeders and that’s pretty hard to face up to for most people.

As an example of a positive outcome, in Miniature Wirehaired Dachshunds it was known from the 1990s that the breed suffered a form of epilepsy known as Lafora’s Disease. It’s a distressing condition that typically begins around 5 years of age but its severity and symptoms are quite variable so some affected dogs can live to 10 or older. In the early days, with no test available, there was little more than anecdotal evidence of a problem and, as with epilepsy in many breeds, it wasn’t something that breeders wanted to talk about, let alone admit to. Eventually, a DNA test was developed (one of the first for any form of epilepsy) and it became possible to quantify the scale of the problem through a sampling exercise organised by the Wirehaired Dachshund Club. The club put all the results into the public domain in an online open registry. From that point on there was no denying the problem but, importantly, there was a way out of it by careful use of the DNA test to avoid breeding more affected puppies. The breed has moved from a point where around 55% of litters had at-risk puppies in 2012 to now, when 98% of litters are safe.

10 steps to improvement

Some dedicated breeders of another breed with an epilepsy problem in the USA have taken an interesting approach to encourage openness and action. The Australian Shepherd Health and Genetics Institute was set up as a not-for-profit in 2002 to increase and share knowledge about the genetics and inherited diseases in the breed. Specifically, they have set up a “10-steps” programme for breeders to express their dedication to the breeding of healthy Australian Shepherds. Their website also lists breeders who have signed-up to the 10-steps; there’s a small fee ($10-15). There isn’t space in this article to reproduce the 10-steps in detail but they are principles for breeders to subscribe and cover:

  • Open and honest sharing of accurate health information
  • Disclosing health issues in public registries
  • Notifying puppy buyers/owners of any emerging issues
  • Supporting other breeders who disclose health information
  • Supporting research by providing biological samples
  • Using available, recommended health screening programmes (DNA and clinical)

This approach also avoids the compliance focus that is the basis of typical quality assurance schemes, puppy contracts or welfare legislation.

This is an interesting approach which goes beyond most UK Breed Club Codes of Ethics which usually mirror the mandatory elements specified by the Kennel Club. Our Dachshund Code of Ethics, for example, does go beyond the basics and includes statements on the responsibilities of stud dog owners and recommendations for health screening of imports and exports.

I suspect some breeders would find the 10-step statements challenging to subscribe to, particularly in breeds where there are complex health conditions and where breeding decisions are inevitably risk-based. 

What I particularly like about the 10-steps approach is the language it uses; each step is framed as a personal commitment such as; “I recognise…”, “I support…”, I work to…”, “I will…”, “I openly and publicly disclose…”. 

I’ll end with one of my favourite change management quotations from author Libba Ray: “And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time.”

An inspirational lecture?

I was recently invited to present what was to be billed as “an inspirational lecture” on the subject of breed health improvement, via a webinar. For those of you who can remember lectures at college or university, the concept of “inspirational lecture” may be something of an oxymoron. The idea of “death by PowerPoint” while glued to a Zoom screen probably isn’t the most exciting thing to look forward to.

I’ve written and presented several times on the subject of breed health improvement strategies, including some of the success stories from my own breed (Dachshunds) and the achievements of the KC’s Breed Health Coordinators. Invariably, I return to the subject of human behaviour change because that’s what is needed in order to improve dog health. There is a major challenge to achieve the necessary changes with such a diversity of views on “the problem” and “the solution”. Some people may not even acknowledge that there is a problem, while others are shouting that it’s somebody else causing the problem. Brenda Bonnett’s call for respectful dialogue, collaboration and collective action aimed to set the tone for accelerating the rate of progress.

3 Horizons for managing change

One of the examples I might use in my presentation is the “3 Horizons Model” which has been developed collaboratively over the past 15 years. It’s a useful way of thinking about how to make sense of complex problems and to explore innovative solutions in the face of uncertainty.

  • Horizon 1 considers what is not working, how can we help it to let go and leave well
  • Horizon 2 questions what is being born and how can we help it arrive
  • Horizon 3 asks what is being disruptive and how it can be harnessed

We look at each of these horizons but in the order 1, 3, 2. All 3 horizons have a role and are a way of thinking about the future and how we might get there.

Horizon 1: Business as usual

From a pedigree dog health perspective, our starting point in the model is that pedigree dogs (KC registered ones in particular) may have peaked in their popularity and are starting to decline as the world is changing. Pet owner demand has moved significantly towards designer cross-breeds (doodles and poos). There are challenges that some breeds are no longer “fit for purpose” and that the self-reinforcing behaviour of the past is no longer achieving good enough results. For example, the consequences of inbreeding (or line-breeding) are well-understood; genetic diversity is inevitably lost and the risk of deleterious mutations causing health problems increases. Similarly, breeding for a particular phenotype to win in the show-ring can lead to exaggerations that also adversely impact on a dog’s health.

It’s also important to ask if there is anything we would want to retain, rather than lose. Here, I would argue that the role of Kennel Clubs is (or should be) central to the future improvement of dog health. The most proactive Kennel Clubs have been the biggest investors in research, education and development of screening programmes. Similarly, many breed club communities have been actively working to preserve their breed for the future and improve its health. It’s hard to see how improvements in dog health would continue without Kennel Clubs and Breed Club involvement.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that while Horizon 1 is often described as “business as usual”, it’s also sometimes “a world in crisis”. The emerging brachycephalic and other animal legislation outside the UK could be that wake-up call. Occasionally, we need a good crisis to focus our minds on the need for change!

Horizon 3: The future we want to create

I suspect this is the horizon that few breed communities have discussed, let alone agreed on any answers. What do we want our breeds to look like in 10, 20 or 50 years? I’ve written before about Preservation Breeders and these really are points that need to be considered if we’re serious about a viable future. I wonder if we went back 50 or 100 years and asked the top breeders what their vision was for their breed in 2021 what their answers would be. 

I doubt there’s a generic, simple answer to this question about the future as each breed has a unique starting point. The answers might encompass one or more of the following: numbers being registered, reduction in health issues, more moderate conformation, improved temperaments and fewer genetic bottlenecks.

How can we help make our future aspirations arrive? If there are emerging good practices such as screening programmes, can we accelerate their take-up? We need to identify the breeders who are already embracing that future and give them recognition for the work they are doing. We also need to identify those who are working for a different future, perhaps those who are content with the current direction of travel. Brenda Bonnett suggested there may be some individuals or groups who might simply never want to collaborate in breed improvement initiatives. If that’s the case, how do we prevent their vision from derailing ours?

Horizon 2: Innovations and new activities

Here, we are looking for innovations and new activities that will temporarily support today’s situation and assist us in moving towards a viable future position. We should be looking for innovations that have been implemented successfully elsewhere. For example, the Nordic Kennel Clubs’ RAS and JTO breed strategy documents were triggers for our UK Breed Health and Conservation Plans.

We also need to consider which current assumptions will be most challenged by change. These could be as simple as the requirement to have a DNA profile as evidence for registration as opposed to a pedigree system based on trust. Another current assumption that I have challenged in several previous articles is that “health tested means healthy”. We know it doesn’t and we need breeders and buyers to understand this.

We’re all aware of the pace of change of technology and there must be IT solutions that could help us. In the horse breeding world, we know there are e-passports that are proof of identity as well as providing records of health. These could be easily transferable to our world and would open up all sorts of possibilities not just for health improvement but maybe also for participation in canine activities.

There is always an emerging third horizon

Breed health improvement will be the emergent result of many things going on in the world of pedigree dogs and beyond that world. Some improvements will come as a result of our conscious intent and actions. Others will take us by surprise, whether we like them or not. The health of our pedigree breeds today, was once the third horizon, probably unplanned and largely unknown. We can either help to shape the 3 horizons or they will happen to us anyway. If we take the latter route, we may not like where we end up.

2021: Time to see the bigger picture

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that focusing on a few narrowly defined issues results in many undesirable consequences that could have been anticipated and avoided, had we remembered to ask about the bigger picture. The mainstream media’s obsession with reporting “cases”, “hospital admissions” and “deaths within 28 days of a positive covid test” meant that many people simply had no other contextual evidence upon which to base any judgements about the impact of coronavirus or the various intervention responses. We’ve seen exactly the same in the world of dog health. Three examples: In the Netherlands, new Brachycephalic legislation focuses on the cranio-facial ratio (CFR) as a means to mandate “healthier breeding”. In the UK, some breed communities are obsessing over colours and whether these should be registered by the Kennel Club. Finally, we continue to find breeders using the results of single DNA tests as the primary criterion for making breeding decisions.

These are just three examples of decisions and calls for action that fail to take account of the bigger picture. In the past, I’ve written about the importance of Systems Thinking; a way of considering how things are connected and how decisions in one part of a system can impact on other parts, sometimes in surprising ways.

As an example, back in March 2020, I wrote: What do we think Covid-19 will do to the downward trend in puppy registrations? The “obvious” conclusion would be that registrations will decline further as people face a period of uncertainty about their jobs and are unwilling to commit to the costs of buying and owning a dog. We now know that Covid-19 resulted in a boom in demand for, and supply of, puppies.

My Christmas reading last year was Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, fast and slow”. Kahneman is a psychologist and economist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on behavioural economics in 2002. Thinking, fast and slow is all about why people think what they do and why they make the decisions they make. Kahneman calls “thinking fast”, System 1, and “thinking slow”, System 2.  System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little effort and without voluntary control. System 2 requires mental effort and concentration. System 1 can result in simplistic solutions that actually make things worse.

Beware unintended consequences

It really isn’t too difficult to see how some of the 2020 dog health actions could actually make things worse. The Dutch CFR legislation may well stop brachycephalic breeding in the Netherlands but it may increase the importation of poorly-bred examples of these breeds from other countries. It may also drive breeding underground because it will do little to reduce the demand for these dogs. It’s already obvious that the legislation has fueled more polarising conversations and further divided groups who should have the same objective of improving canine health.

The Colour Not Recognised (CNR) – now “Non Breed Standard Colour” – debate here in the UK has led to calls for the KC not to register these dogs or to put them on a separate register where they are not permitted to be shown or bred from. The KC’s first Object (3.1.1), listed in the Red Book, is to promote in every way the general improvement of dogs. Object 3.1.2(b) is the registration of dogs. Although 3.1.2(a) refers to the classification of breeds, there is no mention of Breed Standards anywhere in the 7 Objects. The latest Dogs Trust UK welfare report suggests there are around 10 million dogs in the UK. With annual KC registrations of about 250k and an average lifespan of 10 years, there are probably around 2.5 million KC registered dogs in the UK; i.e. just 25% of the population. If we are looking at the bigger picture, do we really want to reduce the number of dogs that the KC registers? Along with that, do we want to reduce the number of dog owners the KC can influence so that dogs’ lives can be improved?

Readers will recall my earlier articles where I argued that “health tested does not mean healthy” and I really think breeders (and buyers) need to step back and see the bigger picture beyond the world of DNA tests and clinical screening programmes. This is particularly true for breeds that may have just 1 or 2 DNA tests for simple recessive mutations. Removing dogs from the breeding population where there is often already low genetic diversity, on the basis of one mutation, can only make things worse. Similarly, breeders flocking to use a few Clear stud dogs reinforces the Popular Sire issue, reduces genetic diversity and makes it more likely that further recessive mutations will become evident. Puppy buyers are equally at fault; they have been lured into believing that good breeders do every possible health test, irrespective of whether it is relevant or important in a particular breed, or the fact that there are no tests available for other potential diseases.

What do we need to do differently?

Although I have often said that improving dog health is a complex problem and that simple solutions won’t work (on their own), it doesn’t mean that we need to be looking for complex (or even complicated) solutions. We simply need to step back and consider how any proposed solution might impact on the bigger picture. Questioning helps us join the dots and identify how a proposed solution fits in the wider system:

  • How much of a difference will this actually make to the overall problem?
  • What will it cost to implement this?
  • Can it be implemented practically for the target audience?
  • To what extent will this idea be considered acceptable by different groups affected? 
  • Are there any potential unintended or undesirable consequences?

We need to set aspirational goals for the future health of all dogs and recognise that these can’t be achieved overnight. We also need broad policy directions to guide our decision-making. These are probably the areas where different stakeholders need to collaborate, at least initially. Without this agreement from the different interest groups, the detailed proposals for actions will inevitably lead to polarised views and confrontational conversations. Please can we make it a New Year’s Resolution for dog health improvement to keep in mind the bigger picture of what we’re trying to achieve for the benefit of dogs? 

International Partnership for Dogs Calls for Collective Actions for Health and Welfare of Pedigree Dogs

Press Release:

The International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD) is calling on stakeholder groups – including dog show enthusiasts, kennel and breed clubs, legislators, dog owners, veterinarians, welfare advocates – from all regions and countries to come together to address issues currently impacting the health, welfare, and breeding of dogs.


Our article, Reframing Current Challenges Around Pedigree Dogs: A Call for Respectful Dialogue, Collaboration and Collective Actions (also available in Dutch, Finnish, French, German, and Spanish), responds to a wave of recent legislative actions, especially in Europe. Although primarily focused on brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds, regulations may eventually impact all pedigree and non-pedigree dogs.


“This is a call for each one of us to examine how our personal attitudes, attachments, and beliefs impact these discussions, says Dr. Brenda Bonnett, CEO, IPFD. “And it is a call to work collectively for what is truly in the best interest of dogs and the people who care for them.”


A key part of IPFD’s mission is to encourage, initiate, and facilitate collaboration among key stakeholders in the dog world to enhance dog health, well-being and welfare, and support human-dog interactions. “IPFD is a multi-stakeholder, international organization,” says Dr. Pekka Olson, IPFD Chair. “And it is perfectly positioned to encourage and facilitate open, respectful dialogue and collective actions in the best interest of both dogs and people.” Many of today’s challenges have been part of discussions at and actions from IPFD’s International Dog Health Workshops. The new IPFD International Working Group on Extreme Conformation in Dogs is one such initiative.


IPFD has compiled extensive resources to advance the conversation called for in this article. Together with collaborators from various sectors, we are creating a roadmap for the future, i.e. to help us to Think Globally, Act Locally.


“While we understand and respect the differences in attitudes and realities in different regions and across stakeholder groups, we also know there is common ground and shared purpose,” Bonnett adds. “Everyone who has any interest in dogs, pedigree dogs, and the world of ‘dogs and people’ is encouraged to become engaged in addressing challenges. This article and accompanying resources will support this process.”


The International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD) is a non-profit organization leading a global, multi-stakeholder effort to address issues affecting dog health, well-being, and welfare. Our main platform is DogWellNet.com. Our people include a Board comprised of individuals with respected international reputations, and a small but committed team of consultants in several countries. Volunteers from our Partners and Collaborator organizations and a network of experts are integral to what we do. 


Our Contributors, Partners, and Sponsors include national kennel clubs, international cynological organizations, groups with breed specific interests, educational/academic and professional organizations, and key players in the pet industry. Together we foster collaborative action to achieve our shared goals, support human-animal interactions, and benefit all dogs worldwide.  

For More Information:

Follow developments and find further resources on DogWellNet.com and learn about the IPFD.

Contact article author, Dr. Brenda N. Bonnett, CEO, IPFD, at Brenda.Bonnett@ipfdogs.com

General enquiries info@ipfdogs.com.

More data won’t improve dog health

At the end of the 4th International Dog Health Workshop, Dr Dan O’Neill said something along the lines of; “This is no longer about the dogs, it’s about the people”. Readers of this column will probably be tired of me getting on my Human Behaviour Change hobby-horse but that’s what Dan was alluding to; unless people change their behaviour, dog health won’t be improved.

The point I want to make about data is that it’s necessary but not sufficient. I suspect that presenting data to owners, breeders and judges might persuade 5-10% of them to do something different. Presenting data just doesn’t motivate many people to change their behaviour. Why is that?

Fear of Maths

Many breeds are overwhelmed by data from research papers, surveys and insurance companies, some of which gets analysed and turned into reports, but all too often breed clubs and breeders simply don’t have the skills to get real insight from the data.

Perhaps some people are “scared of maths”; others may not have the time and yet others may not see data analysis and interpretation as important for breed health improvement. Plus, some people think that “numbers speak for themselves” and don’t bother to present data in a way that might be helpful to others.

Add to that the manipulation of data by the media and the political spin put on “official statistics” and it’s no wonder that health data can get a bad press. 

​Breed Health Coordinators, in particular, are grappling with ever more complex data to understand how to improve their breed’s health. We have EBVs, COIs, Medians, Means, Odds Ratios and Confidence Limits, to name just a few terms that litter our breed health reading material. Who can we turn to to make sense of the numbers, provide insight and guidance?

People just don’t “get risk”

We have seen clearly over the past few months of the Covid19 pandemic that the majority of the public simply do not understand risk. At the time of writing (July), the median Infection Fatality Rate for England was 1.3%. That figure, however, masks a huge range of risks, depending on how old you are. Nearly 1 in 5 infected over the age of 75 had died. Under the age of 25, fewer than 50 infected people had died. People in that younger age group have more chance of being killed in a car accident than from Covid19.

When it comes to risk in canine health, some people struggle to understand risk-based screening programmes such as those available for hips and elbows. These are complex, multifactorial diseases which means, statistically it’s possible for a dog with a good score, still to have bad hips. Similarly, mating 2 dogs with good hips could still result in puppies with clinically poor hips, or dogs with poor hips could produce a puppy with no problem. The probabilities are that dogs with better grades will produce puppies with better grades and vice versa. Unfortunately, many breeders want “definitive” answers just like they might get with a DNA test that gives a Clear, Carrier or Affected result.

In the recently developed Respiratory Function Grading Scheme launched by the KC for brachycephalic breeds, advice for breeders is based on a risk matrix. This enables breeders to identify combinations of a screened sire and dam that would minimise the risk of producing puppies at risk of BOAS. There are no certainties about the puppies’ BOAS status but, by selecting from lower risk combinations, over time, breed health will be improved. This principle applies to all the clinical screening programmes for complex conditions.

Alternative facts

One of the other challenges to getting people to make the move from data to action is that there may well be “alternative facts” that can be used to disprove the overwhelming evidence that exists. All that is needed is one research paper that contains data that apparently contradicts the prevailing evidence. It’s then easy to cherrypick from that paper and persuade others that all the other evidence is flawed. I came across an example of this recently where evidence from a paper on surgery for a health condition was being used to contradict screening evidence. The two data sets simply weren’t comparable.

It’s tempting for those with scientific training to think that more data and evidence is the answer but, all too often, this just results in responses such as:

  • My dogs have never suffered from that condition and I’ve had the breed for x decades
  • It’s only research, what we need are facts
  • It’s too soon to be making these decisions about breeding recommendations
  • It’s only a problem with the commercial and back-street breeders; our dogs are better/healthier

For many pedigree health issues we already have plenty of data so if people aren’t acting on that data by now, providing more data is unlikely to persuade them to change their behaviour.

The “science” that is missing is that of Human Behaviour Change and an analysis of the lack of action from a behavioural change perspective would lead to very different conclusions than “give them more data/evidence”. We need to understand which of 3 types of reasons are preventing people from taking action to improve canine health. 

Firstly, do they have the capability to change, including do they know why it is important and how to take action? Mostly, science has answered those questions, so a lack of action is less likely to be due to a capability gap.

Secondly, do they have the opportunity to take action? This includes, for example, whether people have the time or money to participate in screening programmes. More importantly, this is also affected by whether they see their peers taking action; if nobody else is worried about low genetic diversity, why should I be? Social norms are powerful influencers, so finding ways to incentivise early adopters are vitally important.

Finally, do they have the motivation to act to improve breed health? Are they worried about any adverse consequences if they don’t act? Do they feel they want to or need to act and do they believe it would be a good thing to do? There is plenty of evidence that some health issues have become normalised, both by owners and vets. “It’s normal for a (breed name)” or “They all do that” are clues that an issue has been normalised.

In conclusion, we should stop trying to beat people into submission with more data and put more emphasis on finding answers to why people can’t or won’t change.

 

To end on a slightly more humourous note, remember “A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.” [Paul Erdos].