You don’t know what you don’t know!

It’s well-known that when you ask people to rate their driving skills, the majority say they are better than the average driver. Clearly, that’s impossible because, by definition, more than 50% of people can’t be “above average”. Apparently, it’s the same when it comes to dog breeders understanding of (even basic) genetics. A recent poll by Carol Beuchat on her Institute of Canine Biology Facebook Group asked people to rate their own understanding of genetic management and that of other people in their breed. On a scale of 1 to 5, most people rated themselves at 3 or more, while rating their breed peers below average (lots of 1s).

This might be another example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect which I have mentioned before. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. Essentially, some people do not possess the skills needed to recognise their own incompetence. This leads them to overestimate their own capabilities. Charles Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

At the other end of the spectrum, Dunning and Kruger found that highly competent people held more realistic views of their own knowledge and capabilities. Additionally, these experts actually tended to underestimate their own abilities relative to how others did.

Carol went on to explain in her blog why this lack of knowledge about genetic management is such a problem for pedigree dogs. She says: Inbreeding in dogs is FAR higher than in any other mammal, wild or domestic. Inbreeding of wild animal populations is usually in the very low single digits. Breeders of livestock begin to panic as inbreeding approaches 10% because the negative effects are so significant. In fact, they worry about every percentage point of increase.

In a closed gene pool, inbreeding can only increase over generations and the gene pool can only get smaller. With that comes the inevitable consequences of inbreeding depression such as reduced longevity, smaller litter sizes and the appearance of more inherited diseases associated with deleterious mutations.

Breeding strategy

Tom Lewis, formerly the KC’s geneticist, published a paper in 2015 showing data on changes in inbreeding coefficients across numerous KC registered breeds. The data show that breeders are choosing inbreeding as their preferred strategy and, although the data show some evidence of reductions in breed average COI, this is mostly due to the effect of imported dogs with few generations of pedigree data. The data also show COI to be lower than reality because the KC’s pedigree information used in the study only goes back as far as 1980 and therefore excludes breed founders.

In her blog, Carol says there are 2 problems that need to be fixed: firstly, “the significant inbreeding problem that severely imperils essentially every breed”. Then, “we need to breed sustainably” which requires an understanding of the tools used for the management of other animal populations. Clearly, there is much we could learn from the worlds of farm animal production and zoological conservation.

Beyond the Tipping Point?

In some breeds, not only do they face the genetic challenges described above but they also have phenotypic issues associated with exaggerated conformation. You may recall my article last year about the seminar I ran for the Whippet Breed Council. I described the poll we ran for the attendees and their number one concern about the breed for a viable future was conformation and exaggeration. Their number two issue was genetic diversity including inbreeding and popular sires, i.e. everything I have described in the first part of this article.

To me, it was quite surprising that conformation and exaggeration was seen as such a hot topic in Whippets. I’m no expert on the breed, but they don’t strike me as one of the breeds that ought to be overly concerned about that issue. Closer to home, I’m much more concerned about exaggeration in my own breed, Dachshunds. Our Breed Standard was amended last year to make it even more explicit that excessive length of body and a lack of ground clearance were highly undesirable traits. Our health committee produced a paper illustrating a range of types from unacceptably long, heavy and low, through to excessively tall and leggy.

The concept of Tipping Points is, I believe, really useful when considering exaggerated conformation. It is evident from what we see getting awarded in the showring that different judges vary in their view of what is acceptable. The Kennel Club’s Breed Watch programme should be a way to help judges (and exhibitors) recognise the point where exaggeration tips over into visible points of concern, including those with obvious health implications.

Typical dogs

We are also now seeing such discussions about tipping points in published research papers. For example, a paper was published in December 2021 titled: French Bulldogs differ to other dogs in the UK in propensity for many common disorders: a VetCompass study. In it, is this sentence: “In support of a view that French Bulldogs have diverged substantially from the mainstream of dogs in the UK and, are in many respects, no longer even a typical dog, is reflected in their higher differences in disorder propensity.”

I’ve had several interesting conversations about exaggeration recently with vets. Some of those centred around the five welfare needs of dogs which I wrote about in February. We also talked about the dangers of vets (and others) using terms like “normal for a xxx” (insert a breed’s name). The worry here is that we are starting from the perspective of what has become normalised in a particular breed, rather than remembering these should be dogs first. This leads to the question of whether there is a tipping point beyond which a particular breed can no longer be considered to be viable as a dog. When you see pictures of the grossly exaggerated “toadline bulldogs”, it’s pretty clear that a line has been crossed.

For an interesting discussion on exaggeration, listen to Dr Sean McCormack’s wildlife podcast featuring Rowena Packer and Alison Skipper:

One person suggested to me that judges’ education should ignore canine conformation and movement and learning should start with looking at horses. That way, judges would learn about virtues and faults without the hindrance of considering what might be “normal for a breed”. I can’t help thinking there is an urgent need for a robust discussion about tipping points and for breeders and judges to go back to basics in defining where we should draw the line on what is acceptable.


Legislation and court cases: who’s next?

Unless you’ve been living on another planet, readers will be fully aware of the recent court case in Norway and the ruling that the breeding of English Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels contravenes Section 25 of the Norwegian Animal Welfare Act. The Norwegian Kennel Club is reviewing the judgement but has recommended, in the meantime, that breeding of both these breeds should be put on hold. We understand the NKK is considering an appeal, and we have not yet seen the full judgement translated into English.

This follows on from legislation in the Netherlands in 2020 which prescribes criteria for breeding of brachycephalic dogs based on their craniofacial ratio (basically, how much length of muzzle they have).

The obvious questions arising are: could we see the same thing happening in the UK and which breed(s) will be next? The answer to the first question is “quite possibly”. There are plenty of people campaigning for certain breeds to be banned and calling for more stringent legislation (and enforcement) to protect dog health and welfare. 

The 2006 Animal Welfare Act introduced a new concept for pet owners and those responsible for domestic animals, e.g. breeders: Preventing animals suffering.

Section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act places a duty of care on people to ensure they take reasonable steps in all the circumstances to meet the welfare needs of their animals to the extent required by good practice. Breeders and owners must take positive steps to ensure they care for their animals properly and in particular must provide for the five welfare needs, which are:

  • need for a suitable environment
  • need for a suitable diet
  • need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • need to be housed with, or apart, from other animals
  • need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

It is this last point that is of particular relevance to breeders of pedigree dogs. However, a Position Paper from the Dog Breeding Reform Group says “Current UK legislation does not, however, afford effective protection to offspring, or provide penalties for irresponsible breeding leading to suffering.” Their paper specifically mentions brachycephalic breeds “Severe problems are frequently associated, for example, with ‘brachycephaly’, the occurrence of very flat muzzles, characteristic of breeds such as Pugs, English bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Boston Terriers.” Their paper goes on to say “There appears to be considerable uncertainty as to the potential for application of AWA Section 4 to breeding decisions affecting offspring.”

The revised animal welfare regulations from 2018 include the following which specifically applies to licensed breeders: No dog may be kept for breeding if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of its genotype, phenotype or state of health, that breeding from it could have a detrimental effect on its health or welfare or the health or welfare of its offspring.

The health issues associated with brachycephaly are well-documented but these are possibly also the breeds where Kennel Clubs and breed club communities have been most proactive in developing health schemes. The Cavalier breed which is included in the Norwegian judgement also has screening programmes (here in the UK) for heart disease and syringomyelia. The challenges with many such schemes are the take-up rate by the breed club community and the lack of reach of these to breeders outside that community (often “commercial breeders”). Arguably, the lack of pace and evidence of health improvement is what has led to the recent legislative changes.

What about Dachshunds?

The question I’ve been asked is: could Dachshunds be next on the list for court cases to ban breeding? There is no doubt that Dachshunds and other short-legged breeds could be in the spotlight for future welfare actions. The chondrodystrophic breeds have, by definition, exaggerated conformation. With that, comes some inherent health risks. Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is reported to be 10-12 times more common in Dachshunds than in “the average dog”. The usually quoted statistic is that 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 Dachshunds will suffer some degree of back disease during their life.

On that basis, it’s hard to argue that the breed doesn’t have a serious health issue that both breeders and buyers should be aware of. The devil is (as always) in the detail and it’s important to understand what’s behind the 1 in 4 statistic, especially when critics of the breed often focus on the Breed Standard as being a contributor to high IVDD prevalence.

Rowena Packer’s 2013 paper (How long and low can you get?) found that relatively longer dogs were at increased risk of IVDD. However, we did not find that same association in our owner-reported survey of 2000 dogs in 2015. Other studies have also been contradictory in their findings about conformational proportions and any association with IVDD. This should not surprise us as we also know that there are significantly different risks of IVDD between the 6 (UK) varieties of Dachshund. Our 2015 paper reported the Standard and Mini Smooth varieties having about 5 times the risk of the Standard Wire variety, for example. So, treating Dachshunds as one homogeneous breed with identical IVDD risks is clearly nonsense. Let’s also not forget that they are all bred and judged to the same Breed Standard.

All 4 of our Dachshund health surveys (2012-2021) showed one significant factor associated with increased IVDD risk. That is early neutering (under the age of 12 months in particular). A quick calculation shows that IVDD prevalence would have been reduced by a third for our 2015 and 2018 survey samples, had the neutered dogs been left entire.

Do it because you want to!

I’ve written before about the driving forces behind improving dog health (in any breed). There is a simple choice: do it because you want to (for the sake of the dogs) or do it because you’re told to (e.g. by legislation).

There is no doubt that Dachshunds could be in line for action similar to that in Norway. The behaviour and actions of individual breeders and owners are critically important if we want to safeguard our breed for the future and ensure the dogs are as healthy and long-lived as possible. We’re already seeing signs that IVDD prevalence is being reduced in the breed. This is likely a result of the evidence-based approach we’ve taken to advise buyers, owners and breeders of how to reduce IVDD risk. These include lifestyle factors such as exercise and avoiding early neutering, the implementation of a proven screening programme, and breeders selecting from dogs with a family history of good backs or using older healthy stud dogs. We have some evidence that our efforts are making a difference but we cannot be complacent.

Judges at dog shows also have a role to play by not rewarding dogs with extreme conformation (too long in the body and/or too short in the leg) and that’s part of the reason why we amended our Breed Standard last year. Exaggerated prize-winning dogs that clearly don’t fit the Breed Standard make us an easy target for our critics.

I’ll remind you of a quote from a presentation I made at the 4th International Dog Health Workshop: The challenge today is not ‘are you improving?’, rather it is ‘how fast are you improving and can you prove it?’.

And, finally: “If it’s a priority, you’ll find a way. If it isn’t, you’ll find an excuse.” (Jim Rohn, author).

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” (

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 ( 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