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”.









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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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Planning for Breed Improvement; a sound basis for action

Planning for Breed Improvement

At the October 2017 Kennel Club Breed Health Coordinator Symposium, Dr. Katy Evans gave an update on the progress being made to create Breed Health and Conservation Plans. Katy is Health Research Manager in the KC’s Health Team and has been leading this project which is working on plans for 17 breeds initially. Many of these are nearing completion and there will be a further 30 breeds involved in the second phase.

The KC says the purpose of these BHCPs is “to ensure that 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.”

We shouldn’t underestimate the huge amount of work that is required to create these BHCPs, so it is critical that they are developed in collaboration with Breed Health Coordinators and Breed Club communities. Their input is important but their buy-in and commitment to the actions proposed is essential.

Development of working BHCPs is a four stage process:

  1. Identify concerns
  2. Prioritise
  3. Implement actions
  4. Monitor and review

Show me the numbers

In order to identify concerns about each breed, the first stage draws on a wide range of available data and evidence. Information sources include published scientific papers, the 2004 and 2014 KC Health Surveys, registration and population data (including the genetic diversity analyses published in 2015), BreedWatch reports submitted by show judges and Annual Health Reports submitted by each breed. The evidence-base is further enhanced by results from the VetCompass project, insurance data from Agria in Sweden and the UK and screening data from official KC/BVA schemes (e.g. hips, elbows and eyes). Many breed clubs have conducted their own health surveys and have commissioned research projects into particular health conditions, so these can also form part of the evidence-base. Where DNA tests are available, further data can be obtained on trends in Clear, Carrier and Affected mutation test results.

The result of all this desk research should be an incontrovertible picture of what’s going on in each breed. For some breeds, this might be the first time they have seen the wealth of evidence presented in one place. It will also be an amazing resource for Breed Health Coordinators to use. When they are challenged by breeders who say “we don’t have a problem”, they will be able to confirm or disprove this. Similarly, when their breed is criticised by campaigners or the media, they will have the evidence at their fingertips to respond with confidence.

First things first

The prioritisation stage of the process should be relatively straightforward given the weight of evidence that will be available. The two main factors that need to be considered are prevalence and impact.

I know from our experience in collecting data on Dachshund health conditions that it will be virtually impossible to agree a single prevalence figure. Different survey methods, sample sizes and sample demographics potentially result in different figures for prevalence. That’s not necessarily a problem as long as you understand how the result was arrived at (and that’s an area of expertise that Katy certainly brings to this project).

It’s likely to be more difficult to arrive at a quantifiable estimate of impact because this involves a number of criteria including age of onset and length of time a dog may suffer, how easy the condition is to treat and whether it recurs, the degree of pain and suffering caused, whether any treatment is available and what it involves (including cost). In 2009, Asher et al proposed a Generic Illness Severity Index for Dogs [GISID]. The scale was based on similar severity indices from human medicine and comprises four dimensions, each of which is scored on a five-point scale:

  • Prognosis – to reflect whether the disease is chronic or acute
  • Treatment – to include factors related to the medical, surgical and side-effects of treatment
  • Complications – to show the potential for other impacts associated with treatment
  • Behaviour – to show the effect on the dog’s quality of life

By scoring a disease against each of the four scales, the severity of different conditions can be compared, albeit with a degree of subjectivity. A condition such as Gastric Torsion (Bloat) would score near the maximum severity on the GISID scale, whereas Deafness would score much lower. We have used this as a way of focusing attention on particular conditions in our Dachshund Health Plans.

Prioritisation will be done in collaboration with Breed Health Coordinators and breed clubs. I expect there will also need to be some involvement of researchers and veterinary experts. I would also expect that temperament and behavioural issues might need to be included in some breeds.

Plans are nothing, planning is everything

We all know there are no quick fixes for improving breed health but I can’t believe there’s a single breed that has nothing to do or that can do nothing. In some cases, the immediate actions will be to commission more research or to collect more data. Given the wealth of information I expect will be collated from stage 1, “more research” and “more data” should not be used as delaying tactics to kick meaningful action into the long grass. This is particularly relevant for the first 17 breeds which include BreedWatch Category 3 breeds with visible health conditions.

The actions we need to see emerging from BHCPs must be designed to cause behavioural change. They will probably need to be supply side and demand side changes. Breeders will almost certainly need to change their behaviour, for example in their decisions about health testing and in choosing which dogs to mate. Judges may need to change their behaviour, as may vets. Buyer behaviour will almost inevitably have to change as well, as will that of influencers such as advertisers.

A model for this “whole systems” approach to planning for breed improvement is already emerging in the Brachycephalic breeds. The KC’s Working Group is a multi-stakeholder group looking at practical actions that can be taken on both supply and demand.

Readers of my previous articles will realise I’m about to get on my Change Management Hobby Horse!

The plans in each BHCP must address 5 key enablers of change:

  • Pressure for change – why change is needed
  • Vision for improvement – what success looks like
  • Capacity for change – time and resources to make it happen
  • Practical first steps – what will be done in the next 3, 6, 9, 12 months, to build some momentum
  • Recognition and reinforcement – how positive changes will be celebrated and how “resistance” will be addressed

What this boils down to is creating specific plans for communication, education, training and recognition with target groups and individuals (stakeholders!). There may also need to be plans to change rules, regulations, legislation, standards and processes.

BHCP Stage 4 (Monitor) is easy! Check that the actions are being implemented and having the desired effect. If they aren’t, do something different.

I will end with a quote from management guru Peter Drucker: “Eventually, plans must degenerate into hard work”.

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Trust or trash? Just what can you believe?

The annual KC Breed Health Coordinator (BHC) Symposium was, for the first time, opened up to people who are not BHCs. As a result, around 200 people attended the event which featured a packed agenda of topics. There has already been an overview of the day published in Our Dogs (13/10/17) but, this month, I want to focus on one of the sessions I found particularly interesting.

Sniffing out the science – how to interpret information on dog health”, was presented by Dr Zoe Belshaw from the Centre for Evidence Based Veterinary Medicine at Nottingham University. I am an avid searcher for, and reader of, scientific papers and other published information on canine (and human) health and genetics. There are a couple of basic challenges; knowing where to look and knowing what to believe. Remember, we are increasingly living in a world where so-called Fake News pops up, especially via social media. Zoe’s presentation addressed both of the challenges. Let’s start with knowing what to believe.

Almost every day, new scientific papers are published or there’s a blog post (often cross-posted onto Facebook or Twitter) with a mix of data, evidence, insights and opinions. There is ALWAYS a risk of bias in these; every author brings their own agenda. As readers, we also bring our own biases and I’ve written before about Cognitive Dissonance. For example, many people simply look for information that supports their existing opinions and tend to reject anything that goes against that opinion.

Another reality of published information is that there may well be different conclusions drawn about the same issue. That might be a result of bias or it might be related to the methodology used by the author in their study. An obvious example would be the different results published by Dan O’Neill’s VetCompass project compared with results from a Breed Club’s Health Survey. The two sample populations are completely different. VetCompass data comes from first opinion vets using standard VeNom classification codes for different health conditions. Many breed surveys will not use those codes; they may use categories that reflect terms in common use by “ordinary” owners. The population being sampled is also likely to be different; mostly breeders and exhibitors. It might therefore not be surprising for VetCompass to find the most prevalent diagnoses are Otitis, Dental disease, Anal sac impaction and overgrown nails, whereas a breed survey may be more likely to find issues such as PRA, epilepsy or allergies. They are both “right”, based on the methodology and the sample. In my breed, our Health Committee has always taken the view that we need to triangulate in on priority health issues by using a variety of evidence sources. As we find new information from different sources, we can tweak our approach and our priorities. For example, we amended some of the categories and conditions we list in our ongoing health survey as a result of the 2014 KC survey.

The Trust Triangle

Zoe talked about the Trust Triangle which describes the different types of information you might come across and the levels of trust that can be associated with each.

Trust TriangleAt the bottom of the Trust Triangle are non-experts with opinions. Facebook and social media are awash with these! Journalists and experts with a commercial interest also fall into this category. Next comes expert opinion; these are people who are widely acknowledged to be experts in their field. Many of them will know an awful lot about a very narrow field of science. They too come with their biases and personal agendas but, mostly, they will have years of experience and scientific data to back up their opinions. Moving up the Trust Triangle, we find primary scientific research. This is made public via “papers”, the best of which will be peer-reviewed, rigorous, well-reported and independent. At the pinnacle of trustworthy published scientific research are papers that present systematic reviews of multiple other studies. These publications dissect and critique a set of primary research papers in order to arrive at “the best evidence” to support a particular case (or to disprove it). This is the sort of work that Zoe’s colleagues do at the Nottingham Centre for EBVM and they then publish what can be considered to be best practice for vets and clinicians to adopt. As with all science, “best practice” today could well change if new research evidence emerges. A topical example is vaccination protocols where advice from WSAVA should have moved vets away from “annual boosters” of core vaccines to a less frequent regime (no more frequent than every 3 years, generally) or the use of titre testing to assess levels of immunity.

One potential issue with the Trust Triangle is that, the higher up you go, the less accessible the information becomes and, often, it also becomes more difficult to interpret and understand. At the base of the triangle, keyboard warriors and instant experts often use language pitched at a level that you’d expect to find in the Daily Mail (or Beano). At the top of the triangle, the language is (rightly) riddled with scientific terminology and often supported by statistical analysis that is impenetrable to the ordinary dog owner or breeder. Those of us who are interested in this material may need help from subject matter experts to interpret it and clarify the meaning so we can share it with other owners. The KC’s Health team and other Breed Health Coordinators with science, veterinary or research backgrounds are invaluable in this respect. Most BHCs will also have built a network of trusted specialist advisors to whom they can turn for advice when a new paper is published. We should be hugely grateful that people like Cathryn Mellersh, Dan O’Neill, Clare Rusbridge and Sheila Crispin, to name but a few, are so generous with their time and support to our breeds.

There’s a useful resource which Zoe pointed us at to help decide if we should “Trust it or trash it” (trustortrash.org). This takes you through a series of questions to identify: who said it, when they said it and how they know it. She also gave examples of good ways and places to find the information we need to support the development of breed health improvement strategies. These include Google Scholar, RCVS Knowledge, PubMed, BestBETS for Vets and VetSRev.

As champions of breed health improvement, BHCs can make good use of social media to communicate with owners. It enables them to reach a wide audience, for example through breed-specific Facebook Groups. What they communicate, however, needs to be distilled from evidence sources higher up the Trust Triangle.

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