Outrage helps nobody – “Will my puppies make me rich?”

I have written previously about the International Partnership for Dogs’ paper “A call for respectful dialogue, collaboration, and collective actions”, published in 2020. In it, IPFD Chief Executive Brenda Bonnett described the polarised positions of different groups on the issue of pedigree dog health (and welfare). She discussed how, at each end of the spectrum, people are expressing views diametrically opposed to each other, for example ranging from “some breeds should be banned”, through to “it’s a war against pedigree dogs and we need to fight back”. Somewhere (in the middle?) there are people trying to work hard, using available data and sound science, to find ways to address the complex problems that we find in the world of pedigree dogs. Those problems aren’t just health matters, some of which can be addressed with scientific, genetic and veterinary knowledge. Some of the most difficult challenges are the behavioural change ones; how to get breeders, buyers, vets, judges and others to behave in ways that work to the benefit of dog health.

Clickbait programme title

Last year, when it was announced that a TV production company would be making a film for the online channel BBC3, there was outrage. The cause of that outrage was the clickbait working title “Will my puppies make me rich?”. Unusually, in this case, the outrage was equally distributed across the spectrum of those in the dog world, including those campaigning for improved pedigree dog health and, of course, the show world. Stories appeared in the canine press as well as national press, all expressing horror at the suggestion that a film could be made that would encourage people into breeding dogs purely for profit. In addition to letters being written to the producers and BBC3 Controller, there was also an online petition (if I recall correctly).

As you might expect, the Kennel Club’s public affairs team, along with other dog welfare charities, contacted the producers to offer advice and to try to steer the programme makers in a less sensational direction. I was soon made aware that my breed, Dachshunds, were to be featured in the film. At that time, the angle was young people breeding Dachshunds and young people buying them. Clearly, that had the potential to add to our woes in the breed, particularly for Mini Smooths where registrations have grown from 3450 in 2015 to 10369 last year and no sign of their popularity declining.

On behalf of our Breed Council, I contacted the producers to offer our help with information on the breed and to try to engage with them in a way that might lead to a storyline that might be less damaging for our breed. I suspect that our emails came as something of a surprise to them as the tone was one of collaboration, rather than outrage and criticism. Consequently, I had several conversations with them and they were really interested in finding out more about breeder and buyer motivations for Dachshunds, as well as the health and ownership aspects of the breed. BBC3’s target audience is younger people (than your average dog club committee member!) and I was able to direct them to some younger breeders as well as representatives of our breed rescues.

Luckily for us, one of our Health Committee is a breeder, exhibitor and veterinary student and she ticked lots of boxes for the producers. I was really pleased to hear when they confirmed that they would be interviewing Bryony and thought she was an ideal person to include in the programme, being young, knowledgeable and undergoing vet training. Win win for all of us.

Undercover storyline

The programme hit our screens (albeit online) in mid-July but, disappointingly, I heard just before its launch that Bryony’s interview had been cut. While filming, they had discovered various canine fertility clinics and a more “juicy” storyline of illegal practices when they went undercover. 

So, sadly, we didn’t get the opportunity to see a member of our Health Committee sharing her knowledge on Dachshund breeding. However, a member of the Red Foundation (Dachshund Rescue) did get a few minutes of airtime and managed to get across to the young couple looking to buy a Dachshund some key messages about doing their research and the hard work needed to train a puppy. The presenter, a vet, briefly discussed our breed’s major health issue, Intervertebral Disc Disease but it was disappointing that there was nothing stronger about this from a buyer and owner’s perspective. It would have been brilliant if somebody could have mentioned our IVDD Screening Programme which was formally adopted by the KC earlier this year.

In the end, the young couple who originally wanted to get a Dachshund puppy took on an RSPCA foster puppy. We didn’t get to see whether it was a breed or a crossbreed, for legal reasons associated with a pending investigation and potential court case. Was that a good outcome for our breed? Possibly. It was one less buyer who had perhaps realised the breed was not the one for them and their lifestyle. Whether the messaging in the film was strong enough for other young buyers to recognise the responsibilities that go with buying a Dachshund, I doubt. Thankfully, we didn’t get to see anyone breeding Dachshunds and, some of the breeders we did see, made it clear how easy it is for things to go wrong and for it to become a very expensive exercise. Overall, I’m not convinced the programme will have any impact on the breeding of Dachshunds or their popularity. 

Collaboration works

I do think the programme was constructive and another helpful insight into some of the things going on in the world of dog breeding and buying. Probably most importantly, it was aimed at a young audience, presented by a young vet and included young breeders and buyers. That demographic is typically influenced by their peers so that fact it wasn’t shown on terrestrial TV and seen by us older folk, doesn’t matter that much.

The learning point for me is that collaboration works and is likely to be a more constructive approach than mere outrage. It’s far easier to share facts and evidence if you start from the perspective of there’s an opportunity to work together to improve things. Outrage rarely enables a conversation based on science and evidence, and often starts with the assumption that the other party is “wrong” and you are “right”. 

There is nothing more foolish, nothing more given to outrage than a useless mob.


An inspirational lecture?

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

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

3 Horizons for managing change

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

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

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

Horizon 1: Business as usual

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

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

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

Horizon 3: The future we want to create

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

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

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

Horizon 2: Innovations and new activities

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

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

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

There is always an emerging third horizon

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

Breed health improvement: Finding the balance

I was pleased to be invited by the Whippet Breed Council to present a webinar at the end of February as part of their current online education programme. I had to smile when it was first advertised and billed as “an evening with Ian Seath”. I couldn’t help thinking that second prize was “2 evenings with Ian Seath”. Nevertheless, over 80 people signed up to attend. The webinar was titled “Breed Health Improvement: finding the balance” and my invitation was prompted, apparently, by reading the interview Gay Robertson wrote for the Kennel Gazette.

The plan was to talk about approaches to breed health improvement and why every breed needs a health strategy. The Whippet Breed Health and Conservation Plan is still under development with the Kennel Club but there is useful data already available from previous health surveys. The challenge is knowing where it will be best for breeders to put their effort. The presentation covered areas where it might be useful to focus attention and discussed how breeders can make use of DNA tests and clinical screening programmes, as well as some of the pitfalls to be aware of. There was an opportunity for a question and answer discussion after my presentation.

Here are my slides.

2020: A dream or nightmare year for pedigree dog health?

At the start of 2020, I wrote in Our Dogs that it would be a good time to set a 10-year vision for dog health. There was a neat symmetry about creating a vision for 2030. It was also probably a realistic timeframe to think about because changing the health of a breed inevitably takes time. For example, with Lafora Disease in Miniature Wire Dachshunds, it took us 9 years to reduce the proportion of litters at risk of containing puppies affected from 55% to 2%. That includes the time to develop a viable DNA test, to influence breeders to use it, and to reduce the mutation frequency in the population.

My New Year challenge for Breed Health Coordinators (BHCs) was to define what they wanted to achieve in their breed by 2030. It doesn’t matter whether you call these your Goals or Objectives. The important thing is to describe what will have improved in 10 years’ time. For most breeds, there will probably only be 3 or 4 objectives. For my breed, Dachshunds, we want to reduce back disease (IVDD) prevalence, improve eye health and reduce the rate of loss of genetic diversity. There are other things we would like to achieve but it doesn’t make sense to set 10 or 12 objectives.

There aren’t that many things that any breed might want to improve. Generically, they are likely to be several of the following:

  • Reduce the prevalence of particular health conditions
  • Improve temperament, behaviour, or working traits
  • Reduce the effects of low genetic diversity
  • Reduce conformational exaggerations

You obviously have to be realistic about how much improvement you can achieve. If we were able to halve the prevalence of Dachshund IVDD in 10 years, that would be significant progress, albeit probably not enough. We have data on breed average Coefficients of Inbreeding so it’s possible to set targets for these as well. Of course, if we could reduce overall levels of inbreeding, we would automatically reduce the risk of diseases caused by recessive mutations. Reducing conformational exaggerations is also likely to result in health improvements.

A goal without a plan is just a wish

In the UK, we have Breed Health and Conservation Plans (BHCP) which are agreed with the Kennel Club and published by many breed clubs. A BHCP pulls together a wide range of information about a breed and, through discussion with breed representatives, leads to an action plan for improvement. Some UK breeds reviewed and updated their plans in 2019 and 2020 so are now into their second action plan.

The KC Health team is now working with the third cohort of breeds to produce their BHCPs and, to accelerate the process, issued a template to all the remaining breeds so their BHCs and Health Committees could make a start on the task. It’s probably quite daunting at first glance but, for many breeds, much of the information is already in the public domain (e.g. registration trends and health survey results). As usual, the challenge for all the volunteers working on breed health is how to find the time to do it. However, it’s worth noting that, for most breeds, there is already a solid evidence-base which should make it easy to reach a consensus on what their health improvement priorities should be.

An international focus on legislation

During 2020, we saw that the topic of pedigree dog health is truly an international concern. The legislation affecting brachycephalic breeds in the Netherlands has probably been the most high profile but there have been similar moves in France, Germany, and Finland. The proposed German legislation has had a focus of conversations on social media related to the amount of exercise dogs must be given and the potential difficulty of policing any such legislation. However, an aspect that should concern us is the threat to ban dogs with “extreme exaggeration” from participating in dog shows. We can be pretty sure that it won’t just be the brachycephalic breeds that are targeted; short-legged breeds including the Dachshunds are also likely to be within the scope of these proposals.

It’s evident from what has happened in the Netherlands that data and evidence have made very little difference to the framing of the legislation affecting brachycephalic breeds. Despite the case presented by the Raad van Beheer (Dutch KC), their government seems to have been persuaded by a small group of vets at Utrecht University that legislation based on measuring the craniofacial ratio is a suitable tool to improve breed health.

Dr Brenda Bonnett, CEO of the International Partnership for Dogs said “For many years, lecturing about breed-specific issues in dogs, even before the existence of IPFD, in discussions with the breeding community, veterinarians and others, it was becoming self-evident that if concerns were not addressed by the dog community, society would likely impose ‘solutions’ on them. This is coming to fruition in many areas, and society and the media wants to move at a much faster pace than many in the pedigreed dog world.”

Shortly after the announcement of the proposed French legislation, our Kennel Club hosted a webcast on the subject of Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS). KC Chairman Tony Allcock chaired a discussion panel that discussed some of the issues facing brachycephalic breeds and the role the KC is playing in addressing BOAS through the Respiratory Function Grading Scheme (RFGS) developed at Cambridge University. It’s important to recognise that the RFGS is just one strand of work being done here in the UK and it was also useful to hear about the role of the Brachycephalic Working Group during the webcast. This multi-stakeholder group has taken a wide-ranging approach to address the brachycephalic issue, encompassing both the supply side (i.e. breeders) and demand side (i.e. buyers).

Evidence and collaboration

The increasing internationalisation of breed health reinforces the case for the existence of the International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD). Their independent, non-political, position has always been grounded in a combination of evidence and collaboration. Their latest initiative is GRIHP – Globally Relevant Integrated Health Profiles – which has the potential to shape a more balanced conversation about pedigree dog health.

The IPFD website says: A Globally Relevant Integrated Health Profile (GRIHP) describes the Big Picture of health on (all) conditions that are of interest within a breed and is intended to inform owners, breeders, and those counseling them. Health Strategies are breed-specific recommendations and requirements developed by Health Strategy Providers (HSPs) including, e.g. kennel clubs, breed clubs, and veterinary organizations. Health strategies may encompass detailed descriptions of breed history and development, evidence/ statistics on conditions of interest, health/temperament screening suggestions or official programs, and more, depending on the breed, the HSP, the country, and/or specific organisations.

A useful aspect of the GRIHP reports is that you can see which disease screening programmes are being implemented in different countries. This helps provide a consensus view of what breed clubs, kennel clubs, and breeders are currently focusing on. What it doesn’t necessarily tell us is whether these screening programmes are the most important ones; they might simply be the most readily available ones. Information on DNA tests is already collated by the IPFD. Their Harmonisation of Genetic Testing database now includes a “relevance rating” based on published research evidence to support the use of DNA tests in given breeds.

We certainly need to see more GRIHP reports for pedigree breeds. Not only will they present useful data but they also exemplify the good work being done, internationally, to improve the health of pedigree breeds.

A role for individual breeders

In the past year, I heard an increasing number of conversations and saw online discussions where the term “Preservation Breeder” has been used. This seems to have originated from the USA and there’s a useful YouTube video on the AKC Channel from the 2019 American Kennel Club Delegate Meeting. The presentation defines Preservation(ist) Breeders as those who are preserving breed type and chronicling their heritage and history over the decades and centuries through their individual AKC parent clubs.

The presentation describes “purposefully bred purebred dogs” that are “intentionally bred for predictable type, health and welfare” as opposed to randomly bred dogs that are “brought into this world with no predicated welfare for their existence”. There’s a strong emphasis on the fact that preservationists carry out health testing and a claim that research and the development of DNA markers make purebred dogs on track to be the healthiest colony in the world.

Some of the challenges described in the AKC video are equally relevant in the UK. “A sub-culture focused on exhibiting dogs, rather than breeding them” is interesting because I have also written about the negative consequences of breeder/exhibitors placing endorsements on their puppies. If show-breeders do not encourage others to breed, even if they are just for “pet homes”, the registered gene-pool will get smaller. Not only that, but none of us are getting any younger and an ageing population of exhibitors risks cutting off the next generation of enthusiasts and preservation breeders. We no longer have the big breeding kennels and the days of the many knowledgeable stockmen and women are surely long gone. The video also talks about a lack of breed club and breeder education; without a good understanding of canine genetics and breeding strategies, how can clubs make decisions or recommendations that will actually enable the preservation of their breeds?

I’ve written previously about breeds as genetic pools and this is a way of thinking that is particularly relevant for someone who wants to be considered as a preservation breeder. 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.

We can take advantage of genes from other sub-populations such as working dogs that could contribute to show populations (and vice versa), or by importing non-UK dogs, or by looking at genetic diversity that could come from different varieties of the same breed. Preservation breeders must strive to balance type, health, and temperament by clever population management.

So, if you want to be a Preservation Breeder, it’s clear that preserving the status quo is the wrong mindset. The legislative trends we saw during 2020 mean breeders can no longer bury their heads in the sand when it comes to conformational exaggerations that impact on dog health. We should reflect on how, in some breeds, conformation has moved beyond a tipping point where the rest of the world now believes legislation is the only way to ensure dogs can live healthy lives.

In conclusion, I have to ask, was 2020 a dream year for envisioning pedigree dog health over the next decade or was it simply the start of a nightmare that threatens pedigree dogs?

Polarising conversations: how can we bridge the gaps?

When I first became a management consultant, my new line manager told me on my induction day never to discuss sex, religion or politics when I was with a client. All of these topics have the potential to be polarising conversations, with differences of opinion prevalent and the potential to offend others. Polarisation seems to be a characteristic of politics, in particular, these days. In the world of dogs, we have a long list of polarising topics including raw feeding, vaccination and non-recognised colours, to name just 3.

Some people don’t discuss controversial topics in an effort to avoid the seemingly inevitable confrontations and hurt feelings. Others take delight in these conversations, particularly on social media where they can hide behind a keyboard and write things that they may not be prepared to say to someone’s face. At its worst, it degenerates into online trolls.

An article in Psychology Today (2018) suggests that polarities are not “problems” to be solved, but rather they are situations that must be handled. It said: The litmus test for whether or not you’re facing a problem or a polarity is found in the answer to the question, “Does this situation have a solution?” If it does, it’s a “problem;” if it doesn’t, it’s a “polarity.” “Polarities” can be frustrating divides because they are basically a pair of interdependent and mutually essential values that both must be considered when decisions are being made. If diverse ideas were just a “problem” to be solved, it would make things a lot simpler in many ways. Unfortunately, opposing perspectives are often polarities and these require a much more mature and responsible treatment.

Is CNR a polarity or a problem?

Over the past couple of years, the Kennel Club has been working with breeds that were concerned about rising numbers of dogs being registered as “Colour Not Recognised” (CNR). This was also discussed in a forum meeting held at Stoneleigh in July 2019. There are some breeds where CNR colours/patterns exist naturally as a feature of the genetics of the breed. In others, it appears that new colours/patterns have been introduced as a result of cross-breeding because they were, historically, never evident in the breed. One of the problems originally raised was that it was impossible to identify and trace dogs’ colours in pedigrees if they were grouped under CNR and this undermined the purpose and integrity of the registration system. CNR also, apparently, gave a certain cachet to these dogs and made them more marketable by unscrupulous, commercial, breeders who have little concern for health or breed preservation. As a result of consultation, the approach reached has been to divide registration colours into “Breed Standard” and “Non Breed Standard”.

While the move to BS and NBS colour lists may have resolved some of the perceived problems, it has left a clear polarity: at one end of the spectrum is the view that NBS colours should not be registered at all and at the other is the view that the registration system exists to record pedigreed dogs. Arguably, that polarity has always existed and boils down to fundamental differences of opinion as to the definition of “the problem”.

How can we bridge the gaps?

Similar polarised positions exist across a range of dog health and welfare issues, including the health of brachycephalic breeds, breeding practices and approaches to dog training. 

The Psychology Today article says When you are speaking to someone who holds different values or holds a different political persuasion or has divergent ideas about major social justice issues or just sports and taxes, you just can’t “assume” that your view is right and their views are wrong. You have to accept that sometimes you’re going to have to “agree to disagree.”

I have written before about how giving people “more facts” is rarely successful as a means of influencing them. Scientists often default to a “deficit model” for communicating science. The assumption is that people don’t yet know enough about a topic such as breed health. The solution? Simply tell people the facts, thereby addressing their knowledge “deficit” and increasing their support for the science and the evidence. However, there is research evidence that people’s past experiences and underlying beliefs often act as a perceptual filter that can affect how they react to scientific data. If lecturing people won’t work, we need to take time to understand how the other person’s experiences and beliefs have shaped their current (opposite) views.

We know that people are resistant to persuasion when they feel pressured to admit their pre-existing knowledge and views are wrong. This is particularly so if it also challenges their self-identity and we have seen examples of this in the reactions of some breeders and judges to the emerging brachycephalic legislation outside the UK. The recent IPFD paper that called for open, respectful discussions said that “emotionally charged in-fighting or proclamations of being ‘at war’ with others weaken collective efforts to support the health and welfare of dogs”

Sometimes, engaging in personal conversations away from the polarising topic can be a useful starting point. A more empathetic approach is key to understanding how another person feels, no matter how different their views may be from our own. Active listening is one of the key tools for a constructive conversation. If you can begin to see the world through their eyes, you can then shape the conversation accordingly. 

Learning from journalists’ conversations

Some really interesting research was commissioned by the Solutions Journalism Network to look at ways in which journalists could cover controversial issues more effectively. Their goal was to help understand how to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in indignation. They concluded that, instead of focusing on each (or just one) “side” of a story, adding complexity and widening the conversation can actually be helpful. There are 5 powerful questions to ask:

  • Why is this personally important to you?
  • Which life experiences have shaped your views?
  • For those who disagree with you, what would you like them to understand about you?
  • What do you want to understand about those with whom you disagree?
  • Imagine that you got what you wanted in regards to this issue, how would your life change?

These days, it seems that people are so used to being combative, especially with someone who shares opposing views. They don’t expect you to listen to them, they expect a fight, not to be asked “can you tell me more?”. Perhaps counter-intuitively, by asking open questions and listening, better communication happens and we end up closer together instead of further apart.

Beware: prejudice is a great time-saver; it enables you to form opinions without having to gather the facts. [Anon.]