Let’s start with “Why?”

As we enter a New Year, it is timely to step back and reflect on what our aspirations are for our breed(s), not just in 2022 but in the longer term. Everyone in a canine leadership role or a position of influence has the potential to make a positive impact on their breed’s health and welfare.

Before you all rush off to “do something”, take 20 minutes to watch Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “How great leaders inspire action” (https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action).

Probably the most important take-away from this talk is Sinek’s “Golden Circles”. These are 3 concentric circles (like a bullseye target) with “Why?” at the centre, “How?” at the next layer out and “”What?” as the outer circle. This is really, really, important when I challenge you to think about what are your aspirations for your breed. You have to start by answering the “Why?” question, not by leaping to actions which are at the “What?” level.

I’ve written previously about the concept of Preservation Breeders who strive for “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”. These breeders probably have an overarching goal of securing a viable future for their breed. That’s a great starting point for thinking about possible answers to the “Why?” question for your breed. Answers to the “Why?” question need to be framed in terms of what you expect will be better at some point in the future.

There aren’t that many things most of us would want to include in our aspirations:

  • Reducing the loss of genetic diversity that comes from closed stud books
  • Improving health and welfare by reducing the prevalence and/or severity of diseases
  • Reducing exaggerated conformational traits that may adversely impact on a dog’s health or might drift away from what would be considered typical
  • Ensuring behaviour and temperament continues to reflect the breed’s original purpose

Breeds as genetic pools

When we start to think about “How” we might achieve any of these objectives, we must consider the population structure of our breed. Sponenberg’s book “Managing breeds for a secure future” describes 3 tiers in every population. 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.

Dogs in all 3 tiers have “pedigrees” but breeders in the elite tier invariably look down on those in the commercial tier, both in terms of the value of the pedigree and the “quality” of the dogs. Around the world, registries take different views over what they will allow to be registered and, for many of the commercial breeders, they may see little value in a KC registration. Our UK Kennel Club also has the option to use the Unverified Pedigree route to bring dogs into the registry. This can be useful to add genetic diversity, for example to bring unregistered working lines into the gene pool.

It’s clear that where you draw the boundaries around what can and can’t be registered will impact on the size of the gene pool available and, therefore, the options available to preserve a viable breed for future generations.

Down in the weeds

In this article, I have focused on the “How?”, related to genetic diversity because it is so important and it impacts on many other issues we might want to address in pedigree dogs.

Eventually though, we have to get down into the weeds and identify specific actions that can be taken to move us towards our aspirations for our breed. Typically, this will include the development and use of a range of DNA or clinical screening programmes as well as advice for breeders on how to interpret their results. We have to be careful to avoid believing that “health tested means healthy” or arbitrarily removing a dog from the breeding population on the basis of a single screening result. From a buyer or owner’s perspective, other factors such as longevity and temperament are important, not to mention all the possible health conditions for which no screening programme exists.

Other actions might include revising Breed Standards but this should not be done simply to reflect current fashions for type or conformation. It’s also worth remembering the 3 tiers in the gene pool and the fact that Breed Standards probably only have much relevance for those in the elite tier (the show world). Of course, that’s not to say we shouldn’t be striving to educate buyers and breeders in the other tiers about what a typical, healthy specimen of our breed should look like or behave like.

Your New Year’s resolution

All of us should have a “Why?” for our breed if we are serious about its future. That “Why?” should describe what we want to improve before we even start discussing what we think needs to be done. What is the most important thing that needs to be improved in your breed? Then, what’s the single best action that you could take in 2022 that will be of benefit to your breed(s)? Remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (Lao Tzu).

What did Breed Clubs ever do for pedigree dog health? – a Dachshund perspective

My article for the 2022 Our Dogs Annual.

What did breed clubs ever do for pedigree dog health? – A Dachshund perspective

There are an estimated 9-10 million dogs in the UK and, of those, about a third are registered at the Kennel Club. The KC registers about 250,000 puppies each year but there are probably a similar number of pedigree dogs bred but not KC registered. The balance of the UK dog population comprises crossbreeds, including the increasingly popular doodles and poos.

At the heart of the KC’s approach to canine health is the Dog Health Group which acts as a scientific and veterinary panel to develop strategy and oversee its implementation. It has 4 sub-groups:

  • Genetics and health screening
  • Breed Standards and conformation
  • Activities, health and welfare
  • Assured Breeder Scheme

The KC also regulates Breed Clubs which operate either nationally or regionally across the UK for each of the 200+ breeds recognised by the KC. Some breeds also have Breed Councils which are overarching bodies that coordinate the work of multiple clubs in a breed. For example, in Dachshunds, our Breed Council represents the interests of 15 breed clubs.

Breed Clubs vary widely in their approach to health and welfare in their breed but many of them will be involved in fundraising for research projects, raising awareness and educating  buyers and owners, carrying out health surveys, and supporting health screening programmes.

Health improvement strategies:

Breed Health and Conservation Plans (BHCP) are key documents being developed by the KC with each breed. 113 breeds now have a BHCP and these cover 79% of all KC registrations. A Breed Health and Conservation Plan is the tangible output of the work done by a breed to define its position, identify improvements and set out its plans.

BHCPs summarise breed history and the current state of the breed as evidenced by peer-reviewed research, insurance data, health surveys and information from the KC’s registry (such as health screening results and genetic diversity). These documents also describe the actions planned by the KC and the breed clubs to address priority concerns.

I have 2 “golden rules” for breed health improvement:

  • There should be no action without evidence
  • There can be no evidence without data

BHCPs include data, evidence and action planning. The challenge for most breeds is not “Are we improving?” but “How fast are we improving?” and “Can we prove it?”.

It is important to recognise that there is a wide diversity of voices and polarised opinions on the health of pedigree dogs. Any improvement action has to be seen in that context. In my opinion, this means breed health improvement is not a conformation problem or a genetics problem, or a veterinary problem. It’s a change management and continuous improvement problem. If we can’t get people to change their behaviour, we will never solve dog health problems. Behaviour change is required from breeders, buyers, owners, vets, campaigners and many others.

Dachshunds: what we have achieved and how we have done it:

There are 2 main achievements that I want to focus on:

  • The virtual elimination of Lafora Disease in Mini Wire Dachshunds
  • Encouraging signs that we are reducing the prevalence of Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)

In 2012, around 55% of litters of Mini Wires were at risk of having puppies affected by Lafora Disease (an inherited form of myoclonic epilepsy). This has now been reduced to less than 5% as a result of our education programmes and the use of DNA testing.

The Wirehaired Dachshund Club took the lead by funding research and establishing subsidised DNA screening programmes. Our breed clubs raised over £35,000 to support this programme. All the screening results were published in a publicly accessible database that included details of each dog’s parents. Screening events were run at vet practices in England and we ran a series of educational seminars for breeders and owners. We persuaded the KC to include Lafora Screening as a Requirement in their Assured Breeder Scheme and set the expectation for screening in breed clubs’ Codes of Ethics. Breeders who produced litters with affected puppies or who had not screened their dogs were sent advisory letters by the Wire Club. Every 3 months we published the results of the screening programme and continue to do so, demonstrating what we have achieved.

It is typically quoted that 1 in 4 Dachshunds will suffer IVDD to some extent during their life, ranging from mild symptoms to life-changing paralysis. For many owners, the choice has often been surgery or euthanasia. The prevalence of IVDD actually varies quite significantly across the 6 varieties of Dachshund, with the smooth-coated varieties most likely to be affected. We now have survey data from around 15,000 Dachshunds over a 7 year period that suggests IVDD prevalence is decreasing. Obviously, we would like to believe that our efforts to educate breeders and owners has contributed to this, for example by applying the learning from our survey of lifestyle factors in 2015. One of our surprise findings was that early neutering doubled the risk of IVDD and that finding has been replicated in our 2018 and 2021 surveys.

We are following a similar approach to Lafora with IVDD but uptake of our screening programme has been slower than we would have hoped for. Many breeders do not understand how a risk-based programme works; it’s not as clear-cut as results from DNA testing which we had for Lafora Disease. IVDD screening is now an ABS Recommendation and the KC and Dachshund Health UK are each offering £100 subsidies to encourage adoption by breeders. IVDD is a complex, multifactorial condition, so our preventative work includes education on lifestyle factors such as exercise, obesity and neutering. We have a dedicated IVDD website (www.dachshund-ivdd.uk) and have an owner support group on Facebook. We are also supporting an important research project at Cambridge Vet School looking at conservative (non-surgical) treatment of severe IVDD cases (Grades 4 & 5). Early results suggest conservative management can be a viable alternative to surgery, with many dogs recovering almost completely after 12 weeks.

Our analysis of IVDD data from 3 surveys shows encouraging (statistically significant) signs that IVDD prevalence is reducing. We still have a long way to go, though.

There are 4 elements of a breed-specific health strategy that we adopt:

  • Leadership – setting the direction and creating the environment for improvement
  • Planning – collecting, analysing and reporting data and evidence to prioritise our work
  • Engagement – communicating with breeders, buyers, owners, vets and other groups who can help us
  • Improvement – implementing actions to drive improvement, such as screening programmes

Our achievements in reducing the incidence of Lafora Disease and IVDD is a good demonstration of how we have applied these 4 elements. We’re not the only breed making progress and the annual International Canine Health Award for Breed Health Coordinator of the Year demonstrates the energy and passion being expended across numerous breeds.

In conclusion, if Breed Club communities focus on what really matters for the future viability of their breed, we can actually make quantifiable progress. Sadly, an awful lot of energy gets wasted on peripheral issues that really are of little significance to either the dogs or their owners. I’ll end with one of my favourite quotations from Chris Hadfield, Astronaut:

You can’t change the bricks, and together, you still have to build a wall.

Ian J Seath ian@sunsong.co.uk 

We’ll only make progress by working together

I was invited to speak at the 2021 British Veterinary Orthopaedic Association (BVOA) conference and did so on November 19th. When I accepted the invitation in July, it seemed a long way off and my brief was to give a give a breed club perspective of canine health. This was a 3-day conference and was face-to-face, having not been able to run in 2020. 

The conference was fully booked with around 130 delegates and, apparently, they had to turn away 40 people simply because the venue was full at 130. When I arrived, I realised that I was probably the only person there who didn’t have a veterinary qualification. A few delegates put me right on that by saying these weren’t just vets, they were orthopaedic vets. I’m not quite sure how different that made this audience or whether a group of cardiologists would also have been rather different! Whatever, I didn’t get much sleep the night before my presentation, wondering quite how it would go down with this audience.

To make things even more challenging, my presentation followed one from Dr Dan O’Neill (Royal Veterinary College) who runs the VetCompass project. Dan’s an epidemiologist and anyone who has heard him speak will know how engaging and interesting he is to listen to.

I had spoken with a few of the delegates about their knowledge of the Kennel Club and Breed Clubs and it was pretty clear that most people would probably know very little about the role of these in improving the health of pedigree dogs. To that extent, I had a blank canvas to work with.

I don’t like making presentations that are simply a one-way download of content from a set of slides and my (early morning) session needed to generate some discussion for the Q&A panel later in the morning. I started by asking if there were any Dachshund owners in the room and just one hand went up. Asking about whether any of them had been presented with a Dachshund at their surgery in the past 2 weeks raised about 10% of hands. Surprisingly, when I asked if any of them were aware of the Kennel Club’s Dachshund IVDD screening programme (which only launched in May this year), many more hands went up. That was great to see and my talk would be followed by Dr Mark Lowrie who is one of the IVDD programme scrutineers, so we’d have 100% awareness by the end of the morning.

The UK canine landscape

I began my presentation by discussing the UK canine landscape and where the KC sits within that. Depending on whose estimate you go with, there are about 9-10 million dogs in the UK. The KC registers about 250,000 p.a. So that probably means there are 3 million KC registered pedigree dogs living in the UK. Estimates also suggest there’s a similar number of non-registered pedigree dogs. These are bred and owned outside the KC system, with no involvement in KC-regulated activities. The balance are crossbreeds (known to be growing in popularity) and mongrels. Despite what we might think about the importance of the show world, size-wise, it involves just a tiny fraction of UK dog owners, maybe 0.3% of owners.

We’ve all probably got tired of hearing the phrase “following the science” over the past 2 years but it’s highly relevant to the way the KC addresses health matters. I described the role of the Dog Health Group in setting overall strategy and its 4 subgroups that contribute specific expertise on aspects of canine genetics, epidemiology, health screening, health and welfare.

The role of Breed Clubs is more complicated and quite variable from breed to breed but there are recurring themes of activities the more proactive clubs get involved with. I was able to use the KC’s Health Strategy toolkit to illustrate the many things a “good” breed would be doing. 

The most practical demonstration of KC and Breed Club focus on health improvement is the development of Breed Health and Conservation Plans. Well over 100 BHCPs are now in place and these cover around 80% of KC breed registrations. I’ve written about the value of these before so I won’t cover that ground again but my point to the veterinary audience was that these are developed collaboratively by the KC and breed clubs in order to provide a single source of up-to-date evidence and plans for each breed. In the case of Dachshunds, we have taken the BHCP and customised it for a veterinary audience, highlighting the priority conditions and screening programmes we think vets should be aware of.

Diverse voices and polarised opinions

Of course, it’s important to recognise that there are many different views on canine health, particularly in relation to the role of Kennel Clubs, Breed Clubs and the show community. There are diverse voices and polarised opinions from many different interest groups, vets being just one.

On the first day of the conference there were presentations where comments were made about “couch potato” Labradors and they were contrasted with those used for working activities. It’s very easy for extreme examples of any pedigree breed to be used to condemn the whole of a breed and breeders. During the panel discussion in which I participated, I took the opportunity to explain the role of the KC’s Breed Standards and Conformation Group in collecting feedback from judges on visible points of concern (Breed Watch) and how Breed Standards are regularly reviewed.

During my talk, I touched on the topic of Human Behaviour Change and emphasised that it’s not just breeders and exhibitors whose behaviour might need to change, but also that of puppy buyers and vets. I used a couple of examples of what we have achieved in Dachshunds to illustrate how a systematic approach to health improvement, with appropriate human behaviour changes had delivered quantifiable benefits. The first example was how we have reduced the incidence of Lafora Disease in Miniature Wirehaired Dachshunds since 2012. That is an example where we have a DNA test for a simple recessive condition. The second example is the complex, multifactorial condition Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD). Here our improvement programme is based on a well-researched screening programme plus evidence on lifestyle factors that breeders, owners and vets can address to reduce IVDD risk.

I was pleased to get positive feedback on my presentation and I hope I helped raise awareness among this group of vets about how they can collaborate with the KC and breed club communities. I left them with a quote from astronaut Chris Hadfield: “You can’t change the bricks, and together, you still have to build a wall”. In other words, we are where we are but we’ll only make progress by working together.

COMPRAM: A model for collaboration

In October, I attended a webinar run by the Operational Research Society of which I am a member which I thought had some relevance to problems we are trying to solve in the world of pedigree dogs. The speaker was Professor Dorien De Tombe from the Netherlands who has developed a methodology for solving complex societal problems. Examples of complex societal problems include climate change, terrorism, urban planning, poverty. Healthcare issues such as obesity, malaria and SARS-COV2 are also included.

These are real-life problems with a high degree of complexity and with many different individuals, groups and organisations involved; often with conflicting agendas and where emotions can run high. One of the key points is that they are interdisciplinary problems and cannot, therefore, be solved by one particular set of experts or narrow interest groups that have their own “simple solution” in mind.

De Tombe’s COMPRAM model for dealing with these types of problems was endorsed by the OECD in 2006 when they advised governments to adopt the approach to handle problems that threaten global safety. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, and she pointed out that most governments failed to act in an appropriate way to deal with the complexity of SARS-COV2. The result, unsurprisingly, is a whole series of unanticipated and undesirable consequences (a topic I have written about before).

You don’t have to look very far into the world of pedigree dogs to see that we too face a number of complex societal problems. Animal welfare, puppy farming and cruelty are obvious examples where “simple solutions” such as yet more legislation have consistently failed to make much of an impact. Similarly, the health of pedigree dogs including inherited diseases, genetic diversity and exaggerated conformation are also clearly complex. We can add into the mix some of the more current discussions about what should or should not be registered by the Kennel Club and we have a series of interconnected issues with widely diverging views on what “the solution” is.

Knowledge, power and emotions

De Tombe has been developing methodologies and tools for handling these sorts of complex problems since 1994. In fact, she avoids using the term “solving” and prefers to say “changing” because a solved problem for one person or group is often the start of a problem for other individuals or groups. All these problems have 3 main elements: knowledge, power and emotions

We know there are problems with pedigree dogs; lots of data has been collected and analysed and there is ongoing research to develop our knowledge further. Different individuals and groups have “power” and often also their own definitions of both the problem and a desired solution or end goal. We have seen that these complex problems result in high emotions; you only have to read the social media posts of dog owners, breeders, vets and campaigners to see this.

The process for handling these problems can be broken into 2 phases. In the first phase, the problem is defined. In the second phase, the problem is changed (solved). All too often, people who are emotionally invested in the problem leap straight to phase 2 and present their preferred menu of (what they believe are) solutions.

Problem definition is critical

My reflection on the De Tombe approach is that organisations such as the Kennel Club and the International Partnership for Dogs invest significant effort in working with the right people to define the various complex pedigree dog problems. 

Problem definition starts with becoming aware that there is a problem, asking questions about it and actively putting it on the agenda to be handled. In the case of the KC, the Dog Health Group and its 4 sub-groups are multi-disciplinary experts who can analyse data, exchange knowledge and begin to conceptualise the problem. The definition of a problem usually includes some historical perspectives (how did a breed originate, what did it look like, what were its genetic origins) as well as the current situation. It may also include a recognition that the current situation could become much worse if no action is taken.

To the rest of the world, perhaps this looks like delaying tactics or “kicking the can down the road” but the aim is two-fold; firstly to develop an expert understanding of a particular problem and secondly to build collaborative relationships with those who have the power to own and implement solutions.

Start with the end in mind

Changing the problem starts with considering the detailed data and evidence, plus defining the desired goal. The desired goal is the direction in which the experts or those involved in the problem would like to change the problem. Goals are about what we might want to improve, increase or reduce (e.g. increase longevity, reduce welfare harms). They are not what we might want to “do” (e.g. change the Breed Standards, make health testing mandatory, prevent particular dogs from being registered). Start with the end in mind!

In this second phase, other groups or individuals (beyond those experts who initially defined the problem) can come together to develop ways to handle the problem from the basis of good evidence. In the case of pedigree dogs, representatives of breed clubs are key people to involve. For health issues, each breed has a Health Coordinator and many also have health committees and the KC tries to work closely with these to formulate viable changes. The development of Breed Health and Conservation Plans is a good example of the collaborative approach taken. The Brachycephalic Working Group is another example of how a group of people with different views has been brought together to develop a consensus action plan. The 4 International Dog Health Workshops and, more recently, the IPFD’s DNA Test Reporting Workshop are further examples of how a collaborative approach can lead to practical and supported improvement actions. 

Pitfalls to avoid

There are many pitfalls in the process of handling complex problems. I’ve already mentioned the desire of some people to leap to solutions which they are passionate about before the problem or goal has even been defined.

Inviting the wrong people to participate in the process can also lead to inappropriate solutions if, for example, a small group of “loud voices” dominates the discussion. Groupthink is another team issue whereby poor quality analysis and decision-making goes unchallenged. Inviting “outside experts” to comment or play devil’s advocate can help avoid this.

It’s all too easy to end up with negative reactions to the solutions that are proposed and implemented. A key step in the De Tombe approach is for the decision-making team to take time to discuss the possible consequences and reactions before going ahead with them. Elijah Goldratt said “The world of business is awash with ill-considered solutions to ill-defined problems”

There are already some great examples of collaborative approaches to handle complex canine problems and we should always bear in mind that, for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong!