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]. 

 

Culture eats strategy for breakfast!

I’m not overly persuaded by the many comparisons of Covid19 testing and death rates in different countries. Statisticians David Spiegelhalter and Sylvia Richardson said recently:

…it’s tempting to link a country’s statistics to the measures they have taken to control the virus: for example, has Sweden’s more relaxed policy been as effective as lockdown? But countries differ in so many ways: basic demographics, compliance and social networks, testing capacity and policy, health service characteristics and so on.”

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We face a similar situation in the world of dog health; there are lots of
examples of comparisons made between different breeds. Our main interest has, inevitably, been focused on breed health in the UK but, for some breeds, there have also been international comparisons.

It’s perfectly valid and useful to make comparisons of the prevalence of particular diseases across different breeds. Many of these differences can be attributed to genetics and/or conformation. Indeed, the fact that we have created so many different breeds makes the pedigree dog a really useful resource in the search for the genes associated with diseases that may have parallels in humans.

International comparisons within breeds can also be useful and breeds such as Irish Wolfhounds and Bernese Mountain Dogs have extensive databases that can be used to investigate different health issues across the world. Increasingly, there is also genetic data from Genomewide Association Studies (GWAS) that is identifying different geographical clusters within breeds. This information could be used to address the lack of genetic diversity in some breed population sub-groups.

In my breed, Dachshunds, we are often (rightly) criticised for exaggerated length and shortness of leg and the claimed association of this with Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD). It is argued by some that we need to amend the Breed Standard to encourage shorter bodies and longer legs with more ground clearance, similar to that specified in the FCI Breed Standard. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that the prevalence of IVDD is little different between FCI registered Dachshunds and UK dogs. In fact, there is more variation in IVDD prevalence between the 6 Dachshund varieties despite the fact they all share the same Breed Standard. For those interested, Wires and Longs are the least likely to have IVDD and Smooths and Mini Smooths are about 4-5 times more likely to have it. The research into the conformational differences and their association with IVDD is also contradictory. Nevertheless, it is clear that some Dachshund breeders (and judges) need to remind themselves of the original function of the breed and the KC mantra of “fit for function”.

3 levels of benchmarking

When I run benchmarking skills workshops, we talk about 3 levels of benchmarking: Metrics, Process and Culture. Metrics tell you “what the performance is”; Process tells you “how that performance was achieved” and Culture tells you “why” those processes achieved the particular level of performance.

Just comparing the metrics (e.g. disease prevalence or mutation frequency) ignores processes (such as breeder education, testing protocols and recording systems) and the cultural issues such as leadership, teamwork, compliance and enforcement. 

There’s a quote I use in relation to organisation design: “All organisations are perfectly designed to get the results that they do”.

For breed health improvement: “all breeds are perfectly designed to get the health that they do”.

Whatever any government, kennel club, breed club or campaigning group says about its strategy for improving canine health and welfare, it’s worth remembering Peter Drucker’s quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

International resources

Benchmarking metrics is easy, but tells you very little about how to improve.  Benchmarking processes tells you how others do what they do.  Adding in an understanding of the “soft stuff” helps explain why they get the performance that they do and is probably the most difficult area to adopt/adapt for your own breed’s use.

Visitors to the International Partnership for Dogs website (dogwellnet.com) will find a wealth of resources supplied by Kennel Clubs and Breed Clubs from around the world. It is a unique resource of data and tools (metrics and processes) that have been freely given and then curated in a single, accessible format.

Among the data, you can find breed health survey results and information on registration statistics. Having led the Breed-specific Health Strategies workstream at the 4th International Dog Health Workshop, I’m particularly interested in the tools and techniques that are being collated. These include examples of Breed Health Strategy templates which any breed club could use to get a baseline picture of what’s going on in their breed. In the UK, these are our Breed Health and Conservation Plans. The KC has completed these for 51 breeds so far and each Breed Health Coordinator for the remaining breeds has been given a simplified self-completion template to help them make a start.

The IPFD has plans to develop a Health Strategies Database along similar lines to its existing Harmonisation of Genetic Testing database. This would be an interactive resource including health conditions where recommendations have been made by Health Strategy Providers (HSPs) including kennel and breed clubs and veterinary organisations. It will include information on prevalence, severity, screening tests/programmes, links to health data etc.

This would be supported by an IPFD Expert Panel who would provide collective opinions on key questions, e.g. the quality and utility of genetic tests, their application within breeds, geographical areas, etc. and in the context of the broader view of health in the breed.

It’s all about people!

Making these internationally-sourced resources available is great but their applicability will be very dependent on the cultural context in each breed and each country. For example, approaches that have been successfully applied in the Nordic countries where there are fewer breeders than in the UK may simply not be workable here. In the USA, things will be different again; we’ve seen from their Covid19 lockdown protests that some Americans don’t take kindly to being told what to do! 

I also think there would be some value in categorising the various types of breed health improvement intervention (processes) using human behaviour change principles. I’ve written before about Susan Michie’s (UCL) behaviour change wheel which identifies 7 policy categories and around 90 different types of behavioural change technique. We will only improve breed health if individuals’ behaviour changes (breeders, buyers, judges, vets etc.). Behaviour change research in the field of human health (e.g. smoking and obesity) suggests that successful change typically requires around 10 different techniques to be employed. Incidentally, this explains why the reliance on “breeder education” has been consistently unsuccessful.

Returning to my initial thoughts on Covid19, some readers will be aware that Susan Mitchie is one of the advisors to the government on behaviour change associated with the pandemic. So, if you are interested to understand what’s been done in the past few months to shape your behaviour, I’d recommend you do some reading on behaviour change techniques.