Where do Breed Health Strategies come from?

It might sound like a daft question to ask where Breed Health Strategies come from but I think it is of fundamental importance for those of us in breed club leadership roles. It’s also not something that just Breed Health Coordinators should be concerned about.

Here in the UK, the Kennel Club has been supporting breeds to develop Breed Health and Conservation Plans (BHCPs). In the Nordic Countries, these breed strategy documents are abbreviated as RAS and JTO. Whatever they are called, they summarise the current state of a particular breed, drawing on a wide range of evidence ranging from registration statistics and breed health survey results to peer-reviewed research reports and insurance claims data. They also summarise agreed action plans to address the identified priorities.

You might conclude that it is Kennel Clubs and Breed Clubs that are driving the need for, and development of, breed improvement strategies. I think we should step back and recognise that there are actually 2 potential driving forces behind this. Firstly, it might be driven by our own clear vision of the value of doing it or, alternatively, there might be pressure on us to do this. It boils down to are you doing it because you want to or because you are told to; i.e. is it a proactive or reactive approach.

Driven by stakeholders?

I hate having to use the term Stakeholders, but it does describe the range of individuals and groups who have an interest in improving the health of pedigree dogs. They include governments, kennel clubs, breed clubs, vets, researchers, breeders, owners, buyers and campaigners (and probably more!).

Kennel Clubs and breed clubs have 2 main choices: either they take the lead and develop evidence-based strategies for health improvement or they will have something forced upon them. If they take the lead, they can shape the direction each breed takes, based on the best available research evidence. If they don’t, they will be at the mercy of others who may be promoting simple solutions to what are actually complex problems. The danger is that, if KC and breed club leadership isn’t proactive enough, we will end up responding to badly-framed legislation (maybe including bans on particular breeds) and a constant barrage of anti-pedigree publicity (like we see in the press every Crufts).

Kennel Clubs in the Nordic countries have been at the forefront of developing breed-specific health strategies and that has undoubtedly enabled them to set the agenda for promoting pedigree dogs. However, even they have not been immune from pressure brought to bear by the veterinary profession which has expressed grave concerns about some of the Brachycephalic breeds. Here, in the UK, the formation of the Brachycephalic Working Group is a great example of our KC and breed club representatives engaging positively with others who are campaigning to improve the health of dogs in these breeds.

I have no doubt that, however proactive we might be, the pace of change will never be fast enough for some people. The late Philippa Robinson, who campaigned for breed health improvement on so many fronts, often used the phrase “trendlines, not headlines”. By this, she meant we should be looking for the evidence of underlying trends that demonstrate improvement and not simply cherry-picking attention-grabbing headlines. She also meant that those of us trying to drive improvement shouldn’t allow ourselves to be overly distracted by headlines. Someone will always be looking to grab the headlines and, with a world of social media, the tendency to try to distill a complex story down to a tweet of 140 characters is not going away any time soon.

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

The influence of the show ring

Judges and exhibitors have a role to play, too. Most Breed Standards have been modified to ensure exaggeration is discouraged. Further work still needs to be done, in some cases, but I doubt that changing a few Breed Standards will have much impact on dog health. Too many of the puppies in popular breeds such as Bulldogs, Pugs and French Bulldogs are bred by people who wouldn’t know what a Breed Standard was, even if it smacked them in the face.

The KC asks Championship Show judges to submit reports on any visible concerns for Breed Watch Category 2 and 3 breeds (and this is an option open to judges of Category 1 breeds with no visible points of concern). Our KC has regularly argued that the show ring can have a strong (positive) influence on the health of pedigree dogs. That is true but it is easily undermined if judges reward and promote dogs that have either visible faults or obvious exaggerations.

Breed clubs have to take the lead

Kennel Clubs have limited resources and have to prioritise where they invest their time and money. Here, BHCPs were prioritised for the Breed Watch Category 3 (formerly “High Profile”) breeds. At last year’s Breed Health Coordinator Symposium, Bill Lambert told us that there was a “model” BHCP which any breed could use as a template. Effectively, he said breed clubs don’t have to wait for the KC to begin the work of developing a strategy for any particular breed. He fired the starting pistol and gave permission, if anyone needed it, for all of us to take the initiative.

Clearly, an individual breed club community isn’t going to have the time or expertise that Dr Katy Evans brought to the initial batch of BHCPs. But, we all have people who are passionate about their breed and there is a wealth of readily accessible evidence. Somehow, we have to create the capacity and capability at breed level. There are plenty of simple first steps that many breeds are already taking to demonstrate their commitment to improving the health of their dogs. It’s a shame we no longer have Philippa Robinson’s KarltonIndex Awards to recognise, celebrate and reinforce all this good work.

I also feel strongly that breed clubs should be putting their BHCP out in the public domain. The content is mostly information that is already in the public domain. Publishing a single reference point of available evidence clearly demonstrates the culture of openness and honesty about breed health that we should all be encouraging. What have we got to hide?

If we don’t take the lead to create and publish evidence-based breed health strategies because we want to do this, we will have them “done to us”. We almost certainly won’t like these and they will quite likely include requirements that actually have unintended consequences that may make things worse for the dogs.

I’ll be leading the Breed Health Strategies workshop stream at next month’s International Dog Health Workshop here in the UK; co-hosted by the Kennel Club and IPFD. I’ll be reporting on behalf of Our Dogs so look out for daily tweets (@sunsongian) and a full report in the paper.

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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 to get the best out of your Breed Health and Conservation Plan

Plans are nothing, planning is everything” – Gen. Dwight D Eisenhower

I expect most readers will be aware of the Kennel Club’s programme to develop Breed Health and Conservation Plans. This was launched in 2016 to ensure that, for every breed, all health concerns are identified through evidence-based criteria, and that breeders are provided with useful information and resources to support them in making balanced breeding decisions that make health a priority.

The first group of breeds included those in Breed Watch Category 3 (previously known as “high-profile breeds”, plus GSDs, Cavaliers and English Setters). We’ve heard relatively little about their BHCPs from the clubs and councils associated with them, so it’s difficult to know if and how they are working.

My breed, Dachshunds, is included in the second batch of breeds and I thought it might be useful to share our experience of the process and how we intend to make use of our BHCP.

Stage 1: Evidence gathering

Dr Katy Evans is the KC’s lead person on this project and her first task for each breed is to identify and review the published evidence of the state of the breed. The key inputs to this are:

  • The KC’s own health surveys (2004 & 2014)
  • Insurance data from Agria in the UK and Sweden
  • Genetic diversity data from the KC’s 2015 study led by Dr Tom Lewis
  • KC registration data
  • BVA screening programme data (e.g. eyes, hips, elbows), where such programmes exist
  • DNA test results, where tests exist
  • Reports from the RVC’s VetCompass project
  • Eye test data from OFA in the USA
  • Any data from health surveys carried out by the breed, itself
  • Peer-reviewed scientific papers
  • Results of any current research programmes initiated by the breed

This is a massive exercise to search for, collate and distil the evidence into a first draft paper for the breed to consider. Breed clubs owe a great debt of gratitude to Katy and her colleagues because, for the first time, we have all the available evidence relating to our breed in one place.

It is a “single source of the truth” for each breed. That doesn’t mean, however, that the summary report will give your breed the definitive prevalence for any particular health condition. You need to see the evidence base as the big picture which helps you to triangulate in on points of concern.

Stage 2: Prioritise

Findings from stage 1 are used collaboratively to provide clear indications of the most significant health conditions in each breed, in terms of prevalence and impact. This is the point where breed clubs and councils need to engage with the BHCP process. From a breed’s perspective, their Breed Health Coordinator (BHC) is the key point of contact between the breed and the KC. Every breed has to appoint a BHC and, often, there will also be a Health Committee. Both the BHC role and Health Committee are appointed to serve your breed and, in the case of Dachshunds, ours are accountable to our Breed Council. They act on our behalf, are accountable to the Council and are expected to put the interest of the dogs as their first priority (not politics).

We were invited to meet the KC team in July and 6 of our 10 Health Committee members were able to attend. This might sound, to some, like a lot of people to attend this meeting but I firmly believe that the breadth of experience among our delegates was invaluable for 2 reasons. Firstly, the discussions we had and the decisions we made were based on a wide range of knowledge across our 6 Dachshund varieties. No one person can know everything about the breed nor remember the history of how we got to where we are today. Secondly, the decisions made have to be a consensus because we, the Health Committee, have to justify the BHCP to everyone else in the breed. The quality of decision-making by our team far outweighs anything that any one of us could achieve, on our own.

Stage 3: Action planning

The process we followed at the meeting enabled us to arrive at a consensus and to agree priorities for action. Katy Evans led the discussions and took us through all the content she had collated. Although this might sound like a rather linear and dry approach, the discussions it generated were not “down in the weeds”. We had all had copies of the evidence to review prior to the meeting which meant we were able to make connections between the different areas as we worked through them in the meeting.

So, for example, a single paper on Colour Dilution Alopecia (CDA) led to a wide-ranging discussion covering Colour Not Recognised registrations (CDA occurs in Blue Dachshunds), the massive increase in popularity of Mini Smooth Dachshunds and the need for better data on skin conditions, in general. There were no surprises for us here but we have agreed actions on data collection in our forthcoming breed survey, actions for the KC to look at our list of registration colours, and actions for all of us to educate the Dachshund-buying public on the breed to try to shift demand away from Mini Smooths towards other varieties.

I think the fact that, as a breed, we have been very proactive in gathering data and working on improvements gave us a head start when developing actions for our BHCP. Nevertheless, we have been able to identify further work that will accelerate the rate of progress in current focus areas as well as initiate new actions in other areas. Some of those actions include:

  • Adding a recommendation to the ABS for IVDD Screening
  • Refining the content of our forthcoming Cancer and Health Survey to capture data on conditions identified in the BHCP
  • Adding Distichiasis as a point of concern under BreedWatch
  • Publishing guidance for judges, breeders and exhibitors on exaggerated conformation (length of body & ground clearance)

All of these will need to be publicised through appropriate channels to reach breeders, owners and judges.

Tips for other breeds

If your breed has not yet been through the BHCP process, I’d recommend the following, based on our learning:

  • Take a team of experienced breeders/owners to the planning meeting; they don’t need to be on your Health Committee but they do need to be advocates for improving your breed
  • Do your homework prior to the meeting by reading and reflecting on the evidence base presented by the KC; go with an open mind
  • Keep the big picture in mind; obsessing about single health conditions and DNA testing is not a recipe for long-term improvement when a lack of genetic diversity is probably the major challenge facing most pedigree dog breeds
  • Have a plan for communicating your actions; the BHCP document itself may not be the best format for sharing information widely to different audiences

I’ll end with a quote from Peter Drucker (Management Guru) – “Eventually, plans must degenerate into hard work”.









Breeds as genetic pools – more thoughts from Sponenberg’s book

In March, I wrote a brief review of my Christmas reading: Managing breeds for a secure future by Sponenberg, Martin and Beranger. I discussed what a “breed” is and some of the challenges we face in ensuring breeds are sustainable. This month, I want to share some of the other important concepts covered in the book such as how to define the characteristics of an individual breed.

Which dogs should be included in a breed?

This is an interesting and challenging question for many breeders and the various discussions about Colour Not Recognised (CNR) registrations is a topical example. Sponenberg suggests that a combination of phenotype, history and genetic analysis is the best way to ensure the right animals are correctly included as members of a breed. It is unwise and unsafe to make decisions based on just one of these factors.

Breed experts can usually evaluate an individual dog’s phenotype and determine if it is a typical representative of its breed. This is a useful way to bring working examples into a narrow show gene pool, for example. The subjectivity of this evaluation can be reduced by developing a matrix of characteristics based on Breed Standard criteria, against which a dog can be assessed. The history of a candidate dog should also be considered; the more that is known about its ancestors, the easier it will be to classify it or reject it. This does, of course, depend on the availability of suitable records and it’s not unknown for breeders to have introduced some “new blood” into what was otherwise a purebred dog! These days, the availability of DNA profiling techniques provides a further way to identify the origins of an individual dog. The work of Elaine Ostrander and her colleagues in classifying dogs into clades, where their common ancestors can be traced, is a useful addition to our collective knowledge in this area. We also need to be aware that just because a particular dog may exhibit recessively inherited traits (e.g. coat colour, pattern, type) doesn’t mean that it is the result of fraudulent outcrossing. If a recessive mutation has existed in a breed from its early days, it is entirely predictable that the recessive phenotype will “pop up” eventually, even if this does come as an unwelcome surprise to current-day breed purists. Political agendas to exclude these animals from the “breed” are, at best, misguided and fly in the face of inherent breed genetics.

Dog breeds are typically defined based on a combination of history, genetics and politics. Breeds within a group are interesting examples of how and where decisions have been made to split “breeds”. For example, the Dachshunds are one breed with (in the UK) 6 varieties. Many of the small terriers share similarities, as do the various retrievers and, to an outsider, the boundaries between some breeds might appear to be rather arbitrary.

3 tiers in the gene pool

3 tiersUnderstanding how a breed is organised as a “genetic pool” is important if we are interested in their management and conservation. For most pedigree dogs with closed stud books, there is a 3-level structure to the gene pool. Firstly, there is what Sponenberg calls an “elite” tier; this is a relatively small proportion of the total breed. Most readers will recognise this as the show population which contains the most prized dogs. Generally, this is a closed group as far as introduction of new genetic material is concerned. Breeders produce replacements (the next generation) with no introductions from the other tiers. Next up is what is known as the “multiplier tier” made up of dogs of more average quality, but still recognisable and typical members of the breed. This tier is larger than the elite tier and, typically, breeders here use males from the elite tier to breed with their bitches and to “upgrade” their puppies. So, genes flow from the elite tier into the multiplier tier. Finally, there is a “commercial” tier which tends to be larger than the other 2 where the motivation of breeders is to make money from dogs as a product, rather than any interest in the quality or sustainability of the breed. The commercial tier usually buys in males from the multiplier tier to add to their pool of stud dogs. Overall, there is a flow of genetic material from the elite tier down through the multiplier tier and then into the commercial tier. There is little or no flow back to the elite tier and, over time, the dogs in this population become less genetically diverse. A more “open” system would see stud dogs from the elite tier used on bitches in both the other tiers. More importantly, in an open model, suitable quality bitches would be brought into the elite tier from the lower tiers and would provide for more genetic diversity across the entire breed.

I have written previously about the potential benefits of breeding from puppies in “pet homes” and in an open system, clever breeders in the elite tier would be open to buying-in dogs or bitches from the lower tiers.

Bloodlines and sub-groups within a breed

Bloodlines and varieties within a breed may be useful additional sources of genetic diversity. Bloodlines are usually linked to a particular breeder or kennel and may be historically distinct or exhibit a distinct type within an overall breed. The risk, of course, is that certain bloodlines become “flavour of the month”, maybe as a result of show success and this can lead to the genetically unhelpful strategy of breeders flocking to use a so-called Popular Sire. The genetic diversity of a breed then becomes swamped by a particular bloodline and little or nothing of other bloodlines may survive.

In some breeds, varieties exist, separated only by a single gene difference (e.g. the 3 coats in Dachshunds). Often they share the same foundation history but have been separated for the (arbitrary) purposes of showing. In the case of Dachshunds, the KC’s decision to allow “recessive coated” puppies to be registered as per their coat is entirely logical and addresses the anomaly of having to register them as per their parents’ coat type. Decisions to subdivide breeds into varieties does inevitably mean the gene pool will be narrower and breed conservation will be more challenging than if all varieties were considered to be one breed.

Managing bloodlines and varieties is important but can be complicated by politics and economics. Breeders may be more motivated by income from stud fees and puppy sales, rather than the overall good of the breed. Owners of stud dogs that are used solely within the elite gene pool need to be aware of the risks of the Popular Sire effect but, equally, they can have a positive impact by upgrading a variety of bitches in the multiplier (pet/hobby breeder) tier.

There is a clear role for breed clubs and councils to ensure all breeders and potential breeders are aware of the state of their breed. That oversight should extend across all 3 tiers and they should not simply be obsessed with what is happening within the show community.

The elephant in the room – a presentation on Breed Strategies to the Dog Breeding Reform Group

Earlier this month I was invited to make a presentation on Breed Improvement Strategies to the Dog Breeding Reform Group (DBRG). The DBRG is a registered charity that aims to promote humane behaviour towards animals by providing and supporting initiatives to improve dog welfare. It wants to be “a voice for dogs” and was founded by Carol Fowler who now chairs the group. Recently, they were the recipient of the CEVA Animal Welfare Award for Charity Team of the Year 2018.

Several members and trustees were present at the International Dog Health Workshop (IDHW) held in Paris last year, so had already heard my 10-minute version of the Dachshund Breed Council’s improvement journey. Two had also been participants in the IDHW Breed Strategy workshop sessions. This was, therefore, an opportunity for me to talk in more general terms about what a strategy for improvement might include as well as describing our approach in the Dachshunds.

For me, it was also quite timely as our breed is about to meet with the Kennel Club’s Health Team to discuss the development of our Breed Health and Conservation Plan. We’re in the second batch of breeds; the first having included all the BreedWatch Category 1 breeds plus Cavaliers, Otterhounds, English Setters and GSDs. Dr Katy Evans has been leading on this for the KC and it’s a major project which will deliver a fantastic review of available evidence for each breed. I’ve also been working with Dr Brenda Bonnett and others who attended the IDHW to produce some resources on Breed Strategies which will eventually be shared via the IPFD website. I was, therefore, able to include some of that thinking in my presentation to the DBRG.

The language of improvement

There are already a variety of strategy documents produced by KCs around the world, notably the Nordic RAS documents. A strategy for a breed is broader than a plan for addressing a particular health issue. It may include any, or all, of the following: disease, genetic diversity, conformation, temperament and working ability. In my view, a strategy for a breed cannot be taken seriously unless it includes plans for implementation, including: Changing owners’ and breeders’ behaviours; Data collection, analysis and monitoring; Demand-side (buyer) actions.

In general, there are 3 levels which need to be defined in a strategy document:

  • Objectives – the specific improvements that a breed is aiming for (such as reducing the prevalence of particular conditions or increasing genetic diversity)
  • Strategies – the guidance on areas in which action needs to be taken (such as communication with breeders or participation in screening programmes)
  • Plans – the specific actions that will be taken (and by whom) for each of the strategic areas (such as creating educational materials or screening a sample of x dogs)

The danger is that the actions are defined in a way that is too vague for them to be implemented; for example “consider setting-up a DNA bank” or “look into the possibility of running a seminar”.

We published our first Dachshund Breed Strategy in 2013 so an update and publication of a Breed Health and Conservation Plan 5 years on seems like a good revision point. Our Health Committee uses the KC’s Health Strategy Guide which covers 4 elements: Leadership, Planning, Engagement and Improvement.

I didn’t really discuss Leadership much at the DBRG but it is evident that the direction given by our Health Committee in particular and Breed Clubs in general (through our Breed Council) is a significant factor in what we have achieved. Our policy has always been one of actions based on evidence and a determination to be open and collaborative.

Weighing the pig won’t make it fatter

One of the questions raised during the presentation was about data and research: how much is needed before action can be taken? I have previously written about the tactics of the tobacco industry to sponsor ever more research rather than to acknowledge that there was enough evidence that smoking is harmful to health. Similar tactics in the field of canine health improvement (“we need more data”) really just delay the inevitable need for action but, more importantly, result in more dogs being at risk for longer than they should. The well-known quote is “weighing the pig every day won’t make it fatter”.

With Dachshunds, we have more than enough data to tell us what our improvement priorities should be and our Health Committee agrees a current Top 3 plus a Watch List of other issues to be aware of. So, while we have done lots of data collection and analysis (and continue to have an online health and death survey), we invest more time and effort into actions that will lead to improvement.

In my presentation, I spoke about some of our communication, engagement and fundraising activities. Many of these wouldn’t have been possible without social media; we use a combination of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and our websites/blogs. We have 3 Pet Advisors on our Health Committee who spend huge amounts of time providing advice online and sharing links to our website advice pages. We are keen that the Breed Council’s pages are the “Go To” places for the most up-to-date information and advice about the breed.

Exaggerated by definition!

The elephant in the room was the shape of the Dachshund which, by definition, is an exaggerated breed when compared with a “normal” dog. It was great that Rowena Packer was present as she was co-author of a 2013 paper “How Long and Low Can You Go? Effect of Conformation on the Risk of Thoracolumbar Intervertebral Disc Extrusion in Domestic Dogs”. One of the conclusions in this research was that “selection for longer backs and miniaturisation should be discouraged in high-risk breeds to reduce IVDE risk”.

The link between body length and the risk of back disease (IVDD) is by no means clear and we know the causes are multifactorial, involving genetics and lifestyle factors. Some people think changing the Breed Standard will make a significant difference, but change it to what? The FCI Standard calls for a shorter-bodied and longer-legged Dachshund, yet the evidence suggests their prevalence of IVDD is little different to here in the UK. I’m not saying the Breed Standard shouldn’t be changed but it’s not going to lead to major changes in IVDD risk.

Our UK Standard was amended in 2008 to clarify the desired proportions and emphasise ground-clearance. 10 years on and we are still seeing dogs in the show-ring with legs that are far too short, overly-deep chests and long backs that are clearly nowhere near the Breed Standard proportions. These dogs are winning top honours as well so we have clearly failed to change the behaviours of judges and the breeding choices of exhibitors in the direction of less exaggerated dogs. Obviously, judges can only assess the dogs placed in front of them but they are doing us no favours if they don’t mention excessive length or lack of ground clearance in their critiques (assuming they actually know what the Breed Standard requires!).

While the evidence of links between body length, length of leg and IVDD may be uncertain, it is hard to argue that exaggerating the conformation of our breed is good for the dogs. The recent article in Our Dogs about the proposed Animal Welfare Regulations explained how some campaigners believe it could be used to ban the breeding of brachycephalics. This could apply equally to other breeds with exaggerated conformation and a high predisposition to illness. I wonder if it’s time we had a Chondrodystrophic Working Group along the lines of the Brachycephalic one.

Exhibitors (and judges) are a soft target for groups campaigning for improved dog health. We should be leading by example, otherwise, we get everything we deserve from our critics. So, while the conformation of Dachshunds may have been the “elephant in the room” at the recent DBRG meeting, I am pleased that groups such as DBRG are being proactive and challenging us to do better.

What is it they say about “statistics”?

There seem to be endless discussions about the evidence for or against the prevalence of health conditions in specific breeds of pedigree dogs. The “front line” of these battles over data has been among the Brachycephalic breeds in the past 12 months. Numerous other breeds crop up for debate with a predictable regularity (GSDs, Cavaliers, Dachshunds, BMD, Flatcoats – the list goes on).

To use that dreadful cliche, “at the end of the day”, there is no single RIGHT answer for the prevalence of any given condition, or conditions, in each breed. The published answers are very dependent on who is doing the research, what their objectives were, how they designed the study, what dogs were used as sources of data and, finally, how the data was analysed and presented.

This month, I want to focus on that latter aspect; how the data was “manipulated” and presented. However, with an eye on unanticipated consequences, please don’t use this article as a checklist of ways to spin your data. It would be better viewed as a starting point for being curious (sceptical?) about studies that are being published and data that is being presented.

What answer would you like?

Cherry-picking is probably the easiest way to spin data; simply select the results that support your case and ignore the rest. It is not unusual for research studies to come up with different answers to previously published material. For example, Packer et al (2012) studied the relationship between body length and back disease (IVDD) and concluded that the longer and lower the dog, the higher the odds of it having IVDD. That clearly plays to an agenda that links exaggerated conformation to health issues. A subsequent analysis of a much larger dataset collected by the Dachshund Breed Council also published by Packer et al (2015) did not reproduce those findings. It would be wrong to cherry-pick the latter study as a way of justifying exaggerated conformation (particularly when our Breed Standard calls for moderation in body length and asks for sufficient ground clearance).

The Cobra Effect occurs when an incentive produces the opposite result to the one intended (also known as “perverse incentive”). A classic example here would be the decision to publish the results of a screening programme to showcase dogs with, for example, good hips and to show an overall improvement in scores over time. If owners choose only to submit “good” scores for publication, the published results will give a false impression of the state of the breed.

False causality occurs when you assume that if 2 events occur together, one has caused the other. There is, for example, data that suggests Pugs with a higher Body Condition Score tend to have a higher risk of BOAS. It might be unwise to conclude that “being overweight causes BOAS”. It may be more appropriate to suggest that there is an association between being overweight and BOAS, and therefore good husbandry advice to owners would be to keep their dogs at an ideal body condition score. Having said that, we know that being overweight is generally unhealthy and leads to all sorts of adverse health outcomes!

Don’t be surprised by contradictory results

Sampling bias is a great argument for anyone who wants to challenge a set of results. In its purest sense, it means that the sample chosen is unrepresentative of the general population. For most canine studies, the reality is that particular sampling frames were chosen either deliberately or by default and the results will inevitably reflect that decision. The sample frame might be “pet dogs”, “show dogs”, “dogs seen at first opinion vets”, “dogs seen at referral practices” and so on. That’s one reason why it is perfectly possible for apparently contradictory results to be obtained.

There are other aspects of sampling bias which can affect the results obtained in a survey or research exercise. There may be Area Bias which means the geographic origin of the sample is not representative of the whole population. For example, our 2015 Dachshund Health survey includes data on about 90 Australian Dachshunds. This group has a high prevalence of skin conditions compared with UK dogs and this is likely to be an area bias related to climate and environment.

Self-selection bias is perhaps one of the most used “excuses” for results being challenged. The argument is usually along the lines of “people whose dogs have been ill are more likely to respond” or “you can’t rely on show people to report honestly, if at all”. Both of these might be true and would lead to biased samples and results.

Social desirability bias occurs when people don’t want to admit to doing something that is perceived to be socially undesirable or, in the case of their dogs, is undesirable for the dog. Typically, owner-reported estimates of a dog’s body condition underestimates the degree to which dogs are overweight and the amount they are fed. Similarly, owners may report an overestimate of the amount of exercise their dog gets; e.g. 40 minutes is rounded-up and reported as “an hour”.

Of course, adding in a sampling bias to your data collection is an important consideration if you want to lie or mislead with your study results!

Averages can hide a multitude of sins

Finally, the use of Summary Statistics can be misleading. Calculating an Arithmetic Mean (average) may hide a large amount of variation and/or multiple causes of that variation. Dachshunds are generally considered to be a long-lived breed and were used as one of the breeds in a recent GWAS project comparing the genomes of long and short-lived breeds. A look at the age of death (AoD) histogram for the breed shows a Mean AoD of 9 years but this is skewed by the number of deaths due to IVDD. On average, these IVDD dogs die at 6, whereas all other causes of death occur at an average age of 10.

Age_of_death_2010-12.png

The most worrying misuse of summary statistics I have come across is the choice of the denominator in the calculation of the mean. Say, for example, a large multi-breed population survey of 1,000,000 dogs explores a health condition which is known to be prevalent in particular breeds. The prevalence in the total population might be just 1% (10,000 dogs). If there are 20,000 examples of one breed and, of those, 1000 have the condition, it would be misleading to say the prevalence was 0.1% “among dogs”. The most meaningful calculation is to report that the prevalence is 5% “in that breed” or that it is 50 times more common in that breed than in dogs on average in the sample population of 1 million. We need to understand whether health conditions should be addressed at the level of dogs in general, or if they are breed-specific. Both types of issue exist and masking breed-specific issues by reporting population prevalence is simply avoidance and denial.

So, next time somebody shares some statistical analysis with you, approach it with curiosity and try to figure out if they have some ulterior motive to manipulate your opinion. It might just be their lies, damned lies and statistics (to quote Disraeli).

This article was inspired by “Data fallacies to avoid” published at http://www.datasciencecentral.com

Managing breeds for a secure future – what is a breed?

Managing breeds - bookSponenberg, Martin and Beranger’s “Managing breeds for a secure future” is now in its second edition (2017). It has been updated to reflect the emerging debates in animal breeding and includes domestic species such as dogs. The authors are academics but attempt to make the topics of breeding and genetics accessible to everyone. Its focus is on breeds and populations, not on genetics at the level of DNA and health screening with which most breeders should now be familiar.

The book explains strategies to help the survival of breeds of livestock and dogs. Nearly all the work was undertaken with the US Livestock Conservancy which is a globally respected source of information on rare breed conservation. Given that background, it is unsurprising that references to canine breed conservation are in the minority, compared with discussions related to cattle, sheep, horses and even chickens. That might be off-putting to many dog breeders who could see the book as an expensive purchase for relatively little dog-specific advice. However, the principles discussed in the book have wide applicability, irrespective of the species and it is worth a read.

So, with that background, I want to pick out a few topics from the book to discuss this month.

What is a breed?

Breeds are the way that domesticated species are divided into genetically different and useful subgroups. They are groups of animals that have significant and distinctive similarities that set them apart from other animals of the same species. However, a “breed” is actually quite difficult to define because of both biological and human factors. A biological definition might be a group of animals that is consistent enough in type to be grouped together and, when mated together, reproduces the same type. A human definition might be a group of animals deemed to be a breed by a governing authority, perhaps based on some regional or geographical boundaries. In practice, the book suggests that any useful definition of a “breed” is likely to have to take account of both the biological and human factors. Where to draw the line between “breed” and “non-breed” is somewhat arbitrary and is frequently a source of argument. Breeds only exist in domesticated species and not in wild ones.

Breeds should be readily identifiable genetic packages with each member of the breed being repeatable. Repeatability makes breeds predictable and this is one of the important factors that the KC emphasises when promoting the benefits of buying and owning pedigree dogs.

Those who argue for “breed purity” will inevitably make it more difficult to embrace genetic variability. There is a need for sufficient genetic variation within a breed otherwise there is little room for breeders to adopt meaningful conservation strategies.

Why are breeds important?

Each breed plays a particular role within any given environment and they are shaped by that environment. They serve as reservoirs of genetic diversity within a species and the authors assert that half of the biodiversity of most domesticated species is shared across breeds while the other half is unshared and contained within single breeds. Domesticated dogs share little with today’s wolves and their wild ancestors are now extinct. Losing a breed, therefore, means losing genetic diversity within a species. This is an interesting point given the calls from some quarters to “ban breeds” or to allow endangered breeds to wither away.

Creating and sustaining breeds over time

Breeds are formed by four main factors, in combination. These are foundation, isolation, natural selection and human selection. We know that many of our breeds come from a relatively small number of founders, usually chosen for their specific traits. Isolation further separates the founders from other animals, perhaps for reasons of geography or by definition of closed stud books. Natural selection which causes some genes to survive and others to fail (“survival of the fittest”) narrows the population further. Then along come breeders who impose their selection decisions to prioritise particular traits over time.

The authors describe breeds that are enrolled into a stud book as Standardised Breeds. These are specifically bred to conform to a Breed Standard and account for the wide variety of shapes and temperaments (phenotypes) we find across pedigree dog breeds today. Foundation, isolation and human selection are their defining factors. Many of today’s breeds were standardised in Europe and spread across the world during the era of colonisation. Even some breeds that originated outside Europe were actually standardised in Europe from a small number of imported founders.

Another type of breed is Landraces which are populations that are genetically related but that have been isolated to a local area; Basenjis are one example and Indian Pariah Dogs another. There are relatively few Landraces in dogs (Wikipedia lists 19) and they may be less uniform in appearance than standardised breeds. Most standardised breeds descend from earlier landraces, for example, the various Collie breeds which have more limited variation than their landrace ancestor, the working collie, which was primarily defined by its behaviour rather than its size, shape, coat or colour.

Bringing us right up-to-date with types of breed are the so-called Designer Breeds, defined by human selection from a chosen pool of founders. The authors describe these as having limited genetic consistency and limited predictability. They are therefore of little use as a genetic resource in the context of breed conservation.

Breeds fail to survive when either the biological or the political influences are ignored or mismanaged. Sustainability requires steady demand for a breed, which suggests that either a drop or a surge in demand would each be detrimental. We are seeing both of these changes in demand across a range of vulnerable breeds and the currently hyper-popular breeds. If we lose the custodians of our breeds; those people with years of knowledge and breeding expertise, we will surely lose those breeds as well.

In a future article, I’ll summarise some of the other topics from Sponenberg’s book such as how the boundaries of an individual breed may be defined and the concept of breeds as genetic pools. The book also discusses the role of breed clubs and the responsibilities of breeders, both of which are highly relevant to the challenges we face in the world of pedigree dogs.

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.Managing breeds - book