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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The Karlton Index: a victim of its own success?

biog pic200-166Many Breed Health Coordinators have been waiting expectantly for Philippa Robinson to publish the results of her KarltonIndex (KI) review for 2017.

Like me, they are no doubt disappointed to have read the following announcement on the KI Facebook page recently: “I have to extend sincere apologies to everyone waiting for an update on the Karlton Index. A combination of masses more health activity and breed health information means that it takes far longer to assess each breed than ever it did back in 2013. For this, the breed communities should be very much applauded. This, together with an unexpected personal family health scare has resulted in yet another delay. However, with regard to the Karlton Index assessment, I have to conclude and accept that the project just does not have the resources currently to fulfil this. Consequently, I am going to reconfigure the whole process and will report back first to the breed communities who have recently been cooperative and interactive with the work, and then wider groups.”

Background

I have written about the KI before but, for those not familiar with it, here’s a quick bit of background. Philippa Robinson picked up her pedigree puppy, Alfie, in November 2002, having done years of research into what breed to have and which breeder to buy from. Her experience of finally getting the dog of her dreams only to have it shattered by ill-health, familial disease and heartbreak, is the motivation behind all of her campaigning.

Set up in Alfie’s memory, The Karlton Index was launched in March 2011 with the hope of bringing something constructive and helpful to the heated debates around dog welfare. Philippa brought tried and tested tools from the world of business, a world in which she had excelled for three decades, and applied them to activities related to dog health. The framework is designed to explore how people can engage with, collaborate on, and discuss dog health more objectively. The first I knew of it was when someone emailed me to say there was an article in Dogs Monthly announcing the Dachshund breed was “Top Dog” in a review of breeds. With my background in business improvement, the framework appealed and made complete sense to me as a potential way to accelerate the work being done to improve pedigree dogs’ health.

The Karlton Index measured all UK breeds for the first time in 2011, then again in 2013. I was delighted to find our breed once again rated as Top Dog against some very worthy peers including the Irish Wolfhounds, Flatcoated Retrievers, Otterhounds, Leonbergers and English Springers.

In collaborating with Breed Clubs, Philippa quickly learned that most breeds are blessed with breeders of passion and commitment, individuals who make it their life’s work to develop and nurture the best for their dogs. Working alongside breed ambassadors like that and ensuring that those individuals receive the credit, the support and the encouragement they deserve has now become a central pillar to The Karlton Index. Giving due recognition for the hard work achieved in many breeds culminated in the inaugural Breed Health Awards 2013, with the generous support of the Kennel Club Charitable Trust.

Philippa would, I’m sure, be the first to admit that her work completely changed her perceptions of where the root causes of breed health problems lie. She remains an active campaigner for canine welfare but her interests and influence go far beyond the role of Breed Clubs and the KC.

Progress and successes

Having spoken with her recently, I know how disappointed she is that she has not been able to complete her 2017 analysis in the timescale she had hoped. Being a “glass-half-full” person, my take on it is not disappointment but delight. That fact that, in just 6 years, there is so much more information that Philippa has had to review is a measure of the progress that has been made. This is particularly true when you realise that Philippa was only reviewing a sample of 20 breeds this year, not the full list of KC recognised breeds. There must be a remarkable amount of activity being implemented by these breeds and, I’d hazard a guess, the same is true in many of the breeds not in this small sample. Of course, the real test is whether or not there is any progress being made in the health of the dogs.

The KI assesses progress in four areas: Leadership, Communication, Participation and Impact. Arguably, only “Impact” matters. In reality, without the enablers (Leadership and Communication), there would be no Participation and then no Impact.

I make no secret of the fact I am an enthusiast of the KI approach. I would be, irrespective of what score my breed had achieved. I have used similar approaches in my work to help numerous organisations improve their performance. I am, therefore, keen to see what options Philippa comes up with to reconfigure the KI process. I won’t attempt to pre-empt the outcomes of this but I will comment on a couple of things I think would be really helpful to see for the future.

Firstly, the KI has amassed a wealth of information on good practices in breed health improvement. This is well-aligned with the aims of the International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD). The IPFD website is becoming the go-to place for international examples of good practice. Indeed, many of the plans emerging from this year’s International Dog Health Workshop, held in Paris, referred to the use of dogwellnet.com as the obvious repository for sharing knowledge. If there was some way for UK good practices identified by the KI to be shared using this same channel, it could be a win-win as well as reducing duplication of effort.

Secondly, in 2013 we saw the inaugural Breed Health Awards and, last year, the first Breed Health Coordinator of the Year Award. Both of these are excellent ways to showcase the fantastic work being done to improve breed health. Pedigree dogs and their health continue to be in the public spotlight and there are many vocal critics who seem not to be aware of the sheer amount of good work being done (by volunteers). What better way to shape the story than to have a range of awards from an evidence-based model to celebrate progress and achievements? We need to recognise the many unsung heroes who work tirelessly to protect the futures of their breeds.

I’ll end this month by thanking Philippa for her vision in establishing the KI and also congratulate those breed clubs who have been collaborating with her in recent months. It is so encouraging to hear about the great work being done within many breeds; long may it continue.

International collaboration on dog health – part 2

Previously, I wrote about the Breed-specific Health Strategies workstream that I participated in at the third International Dog Health Workshop. This month, I’m sharing some of the discussions from the other workstreams.

Show me the numbers

This group emphasised the importance of asking “why collect this data?” so that it would be clear how the answers could actually make a difference. Picking up on breed trends and eco-epidemiology (recycling of datasets) could also increase the speed at which improvements could actually be realised. Some of the issues flagged by this group included:

  • the need to prioritise data requirements
  • the importance of a unique ID for every dog
  • the potential value of national registration systems to include non-pedigree dogs, although there are clearly cultural issues affecting compliance levels

The group felt that one of the biggest scandals is not mining the available data and they agreed to work together to catalogue data resources within their network and to coordinate objectives across multiple studies (e.g. breed and disorder). They would aim to publish whatever is possible and look to promote fair-access collaboration internationally and inter-disciplinarily.

Dogwellnet.com could act as a dating agency, matching research questions with data owners and analysts. There is always a risk of balancing steering vs. funding; those who fund projects may want particular answers.

The lack of a standard nomenclature hampers collaboration, with various systems already in place (e.g. VeNom, SnoMed, Petscan, Agria). However, there is the potential to establish “jigsaw projects” with linked databases.

It is always important to understand the uses and limitations of data and to be clear about what analytical methods are appropriate. Ultimately, data should be used to enable change and improvement; the focus should be on dissemination, not just on research.

Extremes in conformation

This workstream focused on brachycephalics and everyone agreed this is the most severe and significant problem related to extremes of conformation in dogs.

However, there is still a need to gather accurate data to quantify the issues in dogs from different sources: KC-registered dogs vs. puppy-farmed dogs. Whatever the source, increasing popularity means more dogs are suffering, even though the evidence suggests many owners don’t realise this. Often, owners see the symptoms as “normal for the breed” (or worse, as “cute”).

Buyers need more information in order to make informed choices; vets have a key role to play here in educating their clients and have to work more closely with Kennel Clubs on this.

Campaigns such as CRUFFA have been instrumental in flagging the issues of flat-faced dogs to advertisers and the media. This awareness-raising needs to continue as it has the potential to reverse (or, at least slow) the trend in popularity of these at-risk breeds.

Overall, an aim to move the mean “health score” so that the population improves is a valid goal and there are options to consider, such as the breeding of new, less extreme, brachy types (retro-pugs) or even cross-breeding. All of this does require a suitable way to measure progress, of course!

The team focused on Brachycephalics and confirmed an action to revisit FCI Breed Standards to clarify wording and to ensure breed-specific instructions are available for 4 priority breeds. They also agreed sub-groups to exchange data, research and implementation. The latter included media communications and effective ways to change buyer/owner/breeder behaviours.

Education and Communication

This workstream took as its particular focus the issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) related to the over-prescription of antibiotics. They agreed the establishment of an AMR network would be valuable, together with the development of global guidelines for vets and breeders, based on data to support the utility and achievement of particular approaches.

More “stories” about the dangers of overuse of antibiotics are needed, to counter the numerous anecdotes about the importance of prescribing them (e.g. to get bitches in whelp).

As with many such programmes, the challenges are cash, data, geography, politics and buy-in.

DNA test harmonisation

There are currently no Quality Assurance processes in place for DNA tests. (Almost) anyone can set up a lab and offer DNA testing. The IPFD harmonisation project will establish a framework to validate providers and tests, and in Phase 2 will develop support around genetic counselling.

A web-based resource is under development and will be available via dogwellnet.com. This project is already well underway with IPFD having appointed a project director (Aimee Llewellyn) and building an early proof of concept on the dogwellnet website. Evaluation of the range of available tests using a template of questions will be a priority and further funding to ensure sustainability of the system will also be important, given the rapid rate of change and development in the genetic testing field.

Behaviour and welfare

This workstream stated that “socialisation” was a subset of “welfare” and started in utero. They felt there was a need for positive messages and these could be a way to add value to the sale of well-bred dogs. The 5 Freedoms would be a logical framework upon which to base these marketing messages.

The group confirmed the need for more positive messaging to the general public regarding pedigree dogs and breeding of dogs. Their action plan included identifying currently available messaging on the importance of socialisation and to develop any new resources that might be needed to fill any gaps. In the longer term, they felt it may be necessary to conduct further research into what might be needed to ensure breeders and owners are aware of effective approaches during pregnancy and early weeks of a puppy’s life.

Kennel Clubs could include socialisation as part of their breeding requirements, where they have schemes in place. As with several of the other workstreams, a lack of data and funding were identified as key barriers. In addition, a challenge here is how to reach all the puppy producers, particularly if they lie outside the sphere of influence of Kennel Clubs.

The workshop wrapped-up with thanks to the organisers, hosts and facilitators as well as all the participants who had collaborated over the 2 days.

I really enjoyed the workshop and picked up new ideas to share with Dachshund colleagues and other Breed Health Coordinators. I didn’t really know what to expect as this was the first IDH Workshop I have attended but I made some useful contacts and have a better understanding of what the challenges are around the world as well as some of the good practices that are already available “off the shelf”.

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3rd International Dog Health Workshop – reflections on breed health strategy development

IPFD_IDHW2017

It would be very easy to view this event run by the International Partnership for Dogs as a talking shop for those of us actively involved in breed health improvement work. I’ve not attended the previous two events, so have nothing to compare it with but, overall, it was an impressive example of international and inter-disciplinary collaboration.

By inter-disciplinary I mean not just geneticists, vets and epidemiologists, but also breeders, owners and campaigners. Clearly, they are never all going to see eye to eye but this event majors on collaboration, with clear messages about what actions can be taken, even if it is by sub-groups of interested parties.

Whenever you get dog people in a room, they inevitably want to talk about their breed and their specific issues. They are passionate about their breed and really want to find practical ways to improve things. That’s something of a challenge in this type of workshop because it can probably never deal with specifics like one breed and one health condition. The real value is bringing these knowledgeable people together to share what works and to generate some energy to create new resources for others to use.

I had the privilege of making one of the plenary presentations and that was a nerve-wracking experience in front of an audience such as this. There were representatives of 17 Kennel Clubs, the FCI and world-renowned scientists as well as laypeople who “just” own dogs. Judging by the feedback, my session went down well. Quite how I was supposed to encapsulate the work our Dachshund Breed Council team has done in less than 15 minutes I don’t know. Nevertheless, I was able to give a flavour of our approach which combines everyone’s passion for the breed with some good data and some basic change management principles that I bring from my day-job as a management consultant. I am sure many of them found me something of an oddity; talking about my enthusiasm for data combined with ideas on how to enthuse people on health projects and change behaviours.

The main work at the event was done in 6 breakout groups, each of which had its own theme and a team of facilitators to help guide and shape the discussions. I worked in the “Breed-specific health strategies” team which came up with some practical actions that should create a series of resources for breed clubs and kennel clubs around the world.

What was fascinating to me, but probably shouldn’t have been surprising, was the impact of national cultures on which approaches will or will not work. For example, the Nordic countries are well advanced in developing Breed-specific strategies and have a culture where they can achieve high levels of regulation of, and compliance from, breeders. Others, like the Benelux and Southern European nations, would risk driving breeders away from their Kennel Club sphere of influence if they were as prescriptive. All this does, however, lead us to the definition of an interesting range of approaches and some understanding of where they might be useful and effective.

What I hope will emerge from this working group is five things:

  • a framework for defining the starting point for an individual breed (e.g. the characteristics that define the issues facing Cavaliers and how they differ from those affecting Bernese Mountain Dogs).
  • a set of templates for breed data collection, covering health, welfare, temperament and conformation. There is a model for this already available via the AKC and we also have a health surveys toolkit available in the UK.
  • a framework for summarising the range of options available to address health issues, together with some understanding of where and when each might be appropriate. This is needed to help give people practical solutions, but also to enable them to see why some may not work or what the unintended consequences might be. At the moment, it’s very easy for people to leap to solutions like “change the Breed Standard” or “do an outcross mating” without having defined the problem adequately.
  • a set of implementation guidelines and case studies which address some of the behavioural change issues many breeds currently face. These need to cover aspects such as education, communication, “nudging behaviour”, recognition and enforcement.
  • finally, some example templates for summarising Breed Improvement Strategies. The Swedish RAS framework is well-proven and, again, our KC has its Breed Health Improvement Strategy Guide.

If we can put all this together, it will be an amazing resource for people to use. We need tools that are practical and which don’t require years of delay while more data is collected or more research is conducted. That’s not to say these won’t be necessary in some cases, but, for many breeds, they need well-thought through actions, sooner, rather than later.

My definition of a “strategy” is an action plan with a rationale; this set of resources might just help accelerate the creation and importantly, the implementation, of strategies that benefit the dogs.

I have blogged separately throughout the weekend about what happened at the workshop and the plans developed in each of the 6 workstreams. Time will tell if the energy visible in Paris actually turns into actions.

Brenda Bonnett, CEO of IPFD did a fantastic job of designing this workshop and the French Kennel Club team brought it to life with a real passion. The next International Dog Health Workshop will take place in the UK in 2019. Paris will be a hard act to follow!

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The problem with facts

I’ve recently read an article “The problem with facts” by Tim Harford, an economist, which was originally published in the Financial Times. It rang so many bells for what we see happening in the canine world that I thought it would be interesting to share some of its key points this month.

The underpinning story is the success of the tobacco companies in postponing the day of reckoning caused by the proven link between smoking and cancer. Harford says “The facts about smoking — indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources — did not carry the day. The indisputable facts were disputed. The unquestionable sources were questioned. Facts, it turns out, are important, but facts are not enough to win this kind of argument.”Agnotology is the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced and a whole field of study has been started by looking at what happened with Big Tobacco. I have written several times about the claim that we are now living in a post-truth world; agnotology has a lot to teach us about why that is the case and maybe what we can do to counter it.
Think about the claims that have been made about genetic disease in pedigree dogs and how they are more unhealthy than and don’t live as long as cross-breeds. More recently and more topically, we have had the focus on BOAS in brachycephalic breeds with some vets arguing that the only solution is to ban them altogether.
The danger comes if people adopt the 4-stage tactics of the tobacco industry. Stage 1: Engage with the critics and commission more research. It’s what I’ve described as the search for the perfect set of data. Unfortunately, you’ll be waiting a very long time before you get it and, in fact, you’ll never get it.
Stage 2: Complicate the question and sow doubt; for example by saying BOAS might have any number of causes and it’s understanding BOAS that matters, not the fact that these are brachycephalic dogs, bred with abnormally shaped skulls, some of whom have breathing difficulties.
Stage 3: Undermine serious research done by other experts. This involves cherry-picking the results that suit you and actively undermining the validity or reliability of other studies.
Stage 4: Point out that the health of pedigree dogs is a tired, old story and suggest the journalists and campaigners find something new and interesting to say (the problems of designer cross-breeds might be a good alternative for them to focus on?).
What leaders need to do
Those of us in leadership positions in the world of dogs have to avoid falling into these traps. It’s the dogs that matter. We do need to adopt Stage 1 above, but we need just enough research and just enough data to be able to come up with workable solutions that can be implemented. These may be small-scale improvements but, following Dave Brailsford’s 1% Principle, they can add up to something worthwhile.
I have little patience with those who adopt Stages 2, 3 and 4 above. They are simply time-wasting distractions that create a lot of heat but very little light.
Of course, the temptation might be to put even more emphasis on producing facts that prove the truth or disprove the lies. Tim Harford says the trouble with that approach is that “often, a simple untruth can see off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember”. The Brexit one-liner “We send £350 million to the EU every day” is a good, recent example. The myth kept being repeated and that’s what stuck in people’s minds.
The other problem is that facts may just be seen as boring. I’m preparing a seminar presentation on our new X-ray screening programme for back disease in Dachshunds and it would be very tempting to fill it with data on prevalence, risk and decades of research. I suspect that wouldn’t win many hearts and minds when what we want is more people to screen their dogs. More data and more research would simply be a distraction from the real message: too many Dachshunds have back problems and we now have a way to reduce that risk.
Another key challenge of trying to persuade people by giving them facts is that the truth can be threatening. One typical response to this is to “shoot the messenger” and we’ve seen some high-profile cases of that over recent months. Another possible reaction is that people respond in the opposite way to what we want them to do. Introducing any new health screening programme is likely to make some breeders worry that years of hard work establishing “their line” might show them up as having a serious problem. They might then choose not to screen at all, or to screen their dogs “privately” and not submit the results for publication in the official scheme. We know this has happened with hip and elbow scoring and no doubt it goes on with eye testing as well. This is known as the “backfire effect”. Anyone who feels anxious about a screening programme will subconsciously push back by focusing on all the reasons why they think screening is a bad idea. It’s the same with newly identified health conditions; people engage in motivated reasoning to explain away why it’s not really a big issue at all. Both these groups are much more likely to be swayed by someone arguing that “more research is needed” because it delays the need for them to change their behaviour. What it also does, of course, is delay the improvement of dogs’ health.
Curiosity is one answer
One possible answer, according to Harford, is to make people more “scientifically curious” rather than “scientifically literate”. Getting people to understand yet more facts can, as I’ve said, backfire. However, curious people are more likely to seek out new facts; they go looking for information to help them make an informed decision. Who are those curious people in the dog world when it comes to breed health improvement? They are the ones who book onto seminars, the ones who have signed-up to the Kennel Club Academy and the ones engaging in constructive discussion on the many canine Facebook Groups. I’d specifically include the Breed Health Coordinators in that key group of curious people. Most of them aren’t vets, geneticists or epidemiologists, yet they have soaked up a huge amount of knowledge in all these areas (and more) which they willingly and freely share with owners and breeders.
Thankfully, there are plenty of curious people out there. There are over 70 of them coming to our Dachshund seminar on April 2nd to learn about the breed, the genetics of coat and colour and our IVDD screening programme. I’m looking forward to a great day!
Finally, Frank Zappa’s quote seems highly relevant: “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.”

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