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


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!












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.”












Dealing with “alternative facts” and the post-truth world

It’s pretty clear from what’s happened in recent months that we’re living in what’s being labelled a “post-truth world” where personal opinions and “alternative facts” are used as the basis of policy-making.

I’ve written before about analysis paralysis and the dangers of waiting for the perfect set of data before taking action to address breed health issues (you’ll be waiting a very long time!). Surely, there has to be a middle ground where we can develop plans and implement improvement actions that are evidence-based but where we can be agile enough to change course if new evidence emerges.

Breed Health Coordinators know only too well how hard it can be to have a sensible conversation with a breeder who “has never seen this issue in 25 years of breeding” and therefore believes it cannot possibly be something of concern. BHCs are constantly trying to explain (in plain English) that data from surveys describes what is happening in a population and that may be very different to what’s happening to the health of an individual dog. 

One way to build a case to demonstrate action may be needed (or not needed) is to triangulate in on the evidence from several sources. So, for example, the Swedish Agria and VetCompass databases provide a large quantity of data on multiple conditions and thousands of dogs. Individual breed surveys, including the KC’s 2004 and 2014 surveys provide additional data, but typically covering fewer dogs and from different owner samples. A third source is published research papers, many of which focus on very specific health conditions and there will invariably be many of these studies published over the years. A simple search on Google Scholar will find hundreds; for example I found over 350 papers on IVDD in Dachshunds. You can even create an alert so that you get sent an email every time a new paper is published related to a keyword you choose.

Of course, one thing everyone needs to understand is the difference between “data” and “evidence”. 

I could tell you that as many as 1 in 4 Dachshunds is likely to have some degree of back problem during its life. That’s data, but on its own it doesn’t have much validity or reliability unless you know something about its context. What was the sample size, how was the data collected and what is it going to be used for? Data can exist on its own but is pretty useless without context.

Evidence, however, can only exist to support a theory, an opinion or an argument. So, if in my opinion too many Dachshunds have back problems, I need to provide some data to support that opinion. That data comes from research, including routine health surveillance.

If you want to improve something, you need to have evidence to support a case for taking action. In the case of Dachshunds there is evidence to show that the more calcifications you can count in X-rays of a dog’s spine around 24 months of age, the more likely it is to suffer IVDD and its offspring will also be at more risk. There is lots of data to back up that evidence, published in peer-reviewed papers, and that’s why we launched a new X-ray screening programme in November last year.

My 2 Golden Rules for Breed Health Improvement are:

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

An important point here is that the people expected to implement the action (e.g. owners who we want to screen their dogs) don’t need to understand the data but they do need to believe the evidence. So, those of us who love getting our hands dirty with the data need to become better at storytelling. We need to present the evidence in easy-to-digest formats: infographics are one way, as are success stories from other breeds or other countries.

The UK’s National Statistician John Pullinger recently wrote that there is a huge opportunity for statistics in the post-truth world. He said there is great potential to mobilise the power of data to help us make better decisions. But, he points out that with people spending ever more time getting their news from social media channels, we risk connecting only with those with similar views to our own and never encounter those who think differently. This can mean we fall prey to those who choose to support their own opinions with “alternative facts”.

Government is supposed to follow the principles of evidence-based policy-making. The whole point of this approach is that government asks Civil Servants to review and analyse the available data before drafting legislation. They should also be analysing the counterfactuals – what would happen in the absence of the policy or legislation. Both human and veterinary medicine should also be developing evidence-based practice and we need to be doing this with breed health improvement too. 

Evidence-based practice is designed to avoid policies being developed either as a knee-jerk reaction to circumstances (exactly what happened with the Dangerous Dogs Act) or on the basis of a politician’s personal agenda or ministerial whim.

Politicians and those in positions of power, such as ministers, are notoriously bad at asking for data and evidence, let alone using them to inform decisions. Steve Dean also noted this in one of his Our Dogs articles on the outcomes of the EFRACom review of canine welfare issues. His article “Poor research and little science” discussed the lack of critical information to support the committee’s views and recommendations. He concluded by saying “attempting to impose sanctions on the majority, to deal with a disreputable minority, is a repetitive misdemeanor of governing bodies“.

Politicians and animal welfare campaigners too often look for simple solutions to complex problems. The last thing they want to do is to look at the data or evidence because, often, these would undermine the rationale for their current “pet policy”. As a consequence, they end up implementing the wrong solution to the wrong problem which is what has happened with the Dangerous Dogs Act. They also end up with unintended consequences and even more bad publicity!

The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin blames pervasive misinformation in part on “single-study syndrome,” in which agenda-driven fringe groups promote studies supporting a predetermined position — no matter how questionable the research behind them may be.

We mustn’t fall into that trap with breed health improvement. We need just enough data and evidence-based policy-making.

I’ll end with a quote from Jill Abramson writing in the Guardian: “Alternative facts are just lies, whatever Kellyanne Conway (advisor to Donald Trump) says”.








20 reasons why improving breed health is so difficult

“Cognitive Bias” is a term that captures a multitude of reasons why it’s so hard to get people to see the need for improvement, let alone make the necessary changes that will improve the health of dogs. It’s also referred to as”Cognitive Dissonance”.

Breeders and exhibitors make many decisions every day about thei dogs. Everyone likes to think these are rational, but maybe things aren’t quite that simple.

Here are 20 types of Cognitive Bias which I read about in “Business Insider” and have interpreted for canine health.

1. Anchoring Bias: People rely on the first piece of information they hear. In a conversation about a particular health condition, the first person to comment on its prevalence sets the scene for everyone else’s views on the problem. “I’ve never seen it in 30 years of breeding” will anchor everyone in a mindset that it really can’t be an issue.

2. Availability Heuristic: People overestimate the importance of information that is available to them. Someone might argue that Cavaliers are not prone to heart disease because they know of a dog that lived to 15 with no disease.

3. Bandwagon Effect: The probability of one person adopting a view increases based on the number of other people who also hold that view. This is one reason why some stud dogs end up being so-called Popular Sires.

4. Blind-spot Bias: Failing to recognise your own cognitive biases, is a bias in itself. The classic manifestation is Kennel Blindness (“My dogs no longer have any faults”).

5. Choice-supportive Bias: When you choose something, you usually feel positive about it, even if you know it has problems. Choosing a stud dog to mate with your bitch often comes with this bias.

6. Clustering Illusion: This is the tendency to see patterns in random events, like the idea that red dogs of a particular breed are more likely to be aggressive.

7. Confirmation Bias: We tend to listen more to information that confirms our existing perceptions. This is perhaps one of the reasons why it is so hard to have a rational conversation about outcrossing as a means to improve genetic diversity and health.

8. Conservatism Bias: This is where people are slow to accept new evidence, for example the VetCompass data that shows, on average, crossbreed dogs live longer than pedigree dogs.

9. Information Bias: This is the tendency to seek more information rather than taking action. How much more data do people need before they get the message that high levels of inbreeding increase the risks of harmful mutations emerging and reduced levels of fertility. I’ve said before ‘if you wait for the perfect set of data, you will wait a very long time’. Sometimes, it’s easier to make a decision with less information.

10. Ostrich Effect: This is the decision to ignore dangerous or negative information by burying your head in the sand, like an ostrich. People who have invested time and effort in building a “line” of dogs are likely to be less inclined to acknowledge diseases or problems that can be traced back to their pedigrees.

11. Outcome Bias: Judging a decision based on the outcome, rather than on how the decision was made. Just because you bred a “healthy” dog with a Coefficient of Inbreeding of 30% doesn’t mean it was a smart decision.

12. Overconfidence: Some people are too confident about their abilities and this causes them to take greater risks. Experts are more prone to this bias than lay people, since they are more convinced they are right. Experienced breeders might believe they can “safely” mate two merle (dapple) dogs and not end up with deaf or blind puppies.

13. Placebo Effect: This is when simply believing something will have an effect causes it to have that effect. According to a study by Conzemius & Evans, a caregiver placebo effect by both dog owners and vets was common in the evaluation of patient response to treatment for osteoarthritis. Half the owners whose dogs received placebos stated that their dog’s lameness was improved during the study.

14. Pro-innovation Bias: People with new ideas often over-value their usefulness and under-value their limitations. Just because a new DNA test has been developed, doesn’t mean it’s important to use it, particularly if the mutation frequency is extremely low, or if the welfare impacts of the condition are minimal.

15. Recency: The latest information you receive is often weighed more heavily than older information. Conformational exaggerations seen in the ring today may be admired and rewarded, rather than remembering a breed’s original purpose and type.

16. Salience: This is the tendency to focus on the most easily recognisable features of a situation. For example, in Dachshunds it is much easier for breeders to focus on eradicating cord1 PRA where there is a DNA test than on reducing back disease which is a complex condition, with no “simple” test. The fact that, statistically, Dachshunds are more likely to suffer from back problems than to go blind, may be overlooked just because a test is available for PRA.

17. Selective Perception: This is where we allow our expectations to influence how we perceive the world. If we “know” that a particular line of dogs is prone to a particular health condition, we tend to look for more examples to prove that case, rather than looking more widely across the breed. We end up with “Mrs Miggins’ dogs produce xyz disease”.

18. Stereotyping: This is where we expect a particular situation without having any real evidence. Just because one of Mrs Miggins’ dogs is aggressive, doesn’t mean all her dogs have a bad temperament. People tend to over-use and abuse the limited evidence available.

19. Survivorship Bias: This is an error that comes from focusing only on surviving examples. For example, we might think that Mrs Miggins’ dogs are long-lived, because we haven’t heard of any of her dogs that have died at an unusually young age.

20. Zero-risk Bias: Sociologists have found that we love certainty, even if it’s counter-productive. That’s why many breeders are obsessed with “health-testing” and the continual search for new tests. They should, instead, be focused on the root cause of the problem which is closed stud books and high levels of inbreeding.

All of these cognitive biases are potential stumbling blocks that affect our behaviour and they can prevent us from acting in the best interests of our dogs and our breeds.

However, if we are aware of them, we can turn some of them to our advantage. The way we present information; how we communicate good practices; how we reward and reinforce improved canine health; all these can nudge people in the right direction.














Brachycephalics: Making the move from data to improvement?

It’s been interesting following the information emerging from the various discussions on brachycephalic breeds. We’ve heard from vets calling for action to address the health issues, including via online petitions. The Kennel Club in Norway has set out its proposals for improvement and our own KC has convened a working group. There’s also the CRUFFA campaign to discourage the use of images of flat-faced animals in advertising and the media. All this follows on from the RVC’s “Building better Brachycephalics” day in 2013.

If you’ve not seen them, it’s well worth heading to vet Pete Wedderburn’s Facebook page to watch the videos he live-streamed of the various (excellent) presentations made at the first meeting chaired by Steve Dean at Clarges Street. From comments in one of the videos, it appears that it came as a surprise to some attendees that the meeting was being live-streamed by Pete. The presentations made by the scientists clearly summarised the evidence for the breadth and scale of the health problems facing brachycephalic breeds, both at individual dog level and at population level. The evidence is indisputable and the work done by David Sargan and his colleagues at Cambridge University means there are now practical ways to measure and score the health impacts in individual dogs.

The focus of that first meeting was very much on data and “the science”, with less of a discussion of the factors that have (a) led breeders to produce health-compromised dogs or (b) caused such a massive increase in demand from the puppy-buying public. The demand issue is clearly an area of focus for the CRUFFA campaign.

There was a second meeting at the KC at the end of July, but I believe Pete wasn’t present, so there are no videos to watch. In addition to the scientists, these KC meetings have included Breed Health Coordinators such as Penny Rankine-Parsons (FBs) and Vicky Collins-Nattrass (Bulldogs), both of whom have been incredibly proactive in their breed health improvement work.

At the end of the first meeting, participants were asked to go away and draw up an A4 page of actions they felt could/should be taken. Apparently, they were asked not to put “change the Breed Standards” at the top of their lists. Pinning the blame, and focusing the actions, on the KC and show communities is far too narrow a perspective if we want to improve the health of these dogs. Overall, the good news is the brachycephalic problem is moving into solution mode.

Complicated or Complex?

What interests me is how this will be managed as a Change Programme. Doing the data analysis and the science may be complicated but there are some world-class people working on these aspects. However, making change happen is complex (rather than complicated) and, the knowledge and skills needed are totally different, particularly when it comes to changing buying behaviours in the wider population.

I deliberately used the words “complicated” and “complex”. It is important to understand the difference between “complicated” and “complex” situations. The complicated context calls for investigating several options where there may be multiple “right answers” and is the domain of subject matter experts, like the scientists working on brachycephalic health. One of the dangers is that innovative suggestions made by non-experts may be overlooked, or dismissed. The voices of the Breed Health Coordinators with their wealth of practical experience need to be heard. Another risk in complicated situations is “analysis paralysis”; the tendency to keep searching for the perfect set of data, or the perfect answer to a problem, which means that very little gets implemented. Decision-making in complicated situations can take lots of time and there’s always a trade-off between finding the “right answer” and simply making a decision in order to make some progress.

When it comes to implementing changes to improve brachycephalics, the situation is complex; there are no right answers. We already know from the science that the issues are not even the same in the different brachycephalic breeds. David Sargan was reported on the BBC in response to the paper published on Bulldog genetic diversity and he said “we now have pretty strong evidence that there are still multiple genetic variations between those that do and those that don’t suffer from the disease (BOAS). But, we do not know whether this is also true for other aspects of conformation and appearance related diseases.”

There are bound to be many competing ideas and what will work is likely to emerge from a range of innovative approaches. There are lots of different people who have to be engaged and whose behaviours have to change. We shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of reaching and influencing the large number of breeders outside the KC/Breed Club communities. There will be a need to encourage dissent and diversity of ideas, as well as a willingness to “just try stuff” and see what works. That’s probably going to be uncomfortable for some people, particularly if they prefer working in a world of “right answers”, predictability and hierarchical decision-making.

We need to stop reacting to individual reports and look at the whole picture. Somebody needs to be joining the dots, otherwise we just add to the doom and gloom feeding frenzy in the press.

Agile or Big Bang?

What is the strategy for change with brachycephalics? Will it be exploratory and agile, or will it be a “big bang” launch and roll-out of a “package” of solutions? If it’s the former, then it would be perfectly valid to implement a change to a Breed Standard and see what happens. It’s a simple decision to make and it will either make an impact on its own, or not!

The trouble with that one, simple decision, is that we know it will not be enough on its own. But, it could be implemented quickly and could be seen as part of what Dave Brailsford, the Team GB Cycling Director, called the concept of marginal gains. Brailsford believed that if it was possible to make a 1% improvement in a whole host of areas, the cumulative gains would end up being hugely significant. The successes of Team GB and later Team Sky clearly demonstrate the power of this approach.

There were already a few ideas being touted around on social media before the second meeting hosted by the KC. Each of these has a cost and a potential value (or impact), so their relative merits need to be evaluated. The speed with which they could be implemented also needs to be agreed. Here’s my view of what a cost-value map might look like for a few of the ideas I read about. Green ideas could probably be implemented quickly, Orange ones would take longer and Red ones would be much longer-term.

Building Better Brachycephalics 2

The good thing is that the ideas cover both the supply side and demand side of the problem. They also contain a mixture of small changes and big changes. “Change the Breed Standards” is a small change, whereas “Educate the public” is a big change. The latter cannot actually be implemented; it needs to be broken down into doable activities like “run a series of campaigns on TV”, “get celebrity owners to talk about their pets’ health issues”, or “produce posters to display in all vets’ waiting rooms”.

What struck me about the lists of ideas I saw was just how few ideas there were. That’s possibly just a reflection of the mix of big and small ideas. Linus Pauling, the American scientist said “the best way to have a good idea, is to have lots of them”. There are certainly plenty of keyboard warriors willing to share their views online; how about building that into the solution-generation stage of the Brachycephalic improvement programme? Maybe there’s an opportunity to “crowdsource” more ideas. Just a thought!


4 simple steps for communicating canine science

A continual challenge is how best to communicate scientific concepts and reports to “ordinary breeders and exhibitors” so they can take appropriate action to improve the health of dogs. Getting the answer right is a key element of any Breed Improvement Strategy because, without effective communication, it’s highly unlikely that we will achieve the support and actions needed to make dogs’ lives better.

Albert Einstein is reported to have said “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”, so maybe we should be applying the “granny test” every time we try to communicate important health information. Of course, underpinning this quote is the assumption that your granny doesn’t have a PhD in Canine Genetics!

We aren’t the only community that faces this challenge, so maybe we should try to learn from those who (usually) make science accessible to the masses. The likes of Brian Cox, Alice Roberts and even comedian Dara O’Briain have become recognised TV personalities with their science programmes.

According to the 2014 IPSOS MORI survey of UK public attitudes to science, 72% of respondents said they thought it was important to know about science, compared with 57% in 1988. 90% thought scientists make a valuable contribution to society, but worryingly, a third thought scientists adjust their results to get the answers they want. It would be interesting to see what those responses would be from the dog show/breeder community who have been bombarded with science, genetics and health survey data over the past decade.

Journalists and the press love a good headline; “KC survey reveals apocalyptic drop in purebred dog longevity” hit the streets (or a blog) shortly after the KC published its 2014 Health Survey reports. A recent Vet Times blogger commented on the headline “Majority of pedigree dogs suffer no disease condition, survey shows”. The “majority” was 65%, which the blogger (a vet) rightly pointed out also meant that more than one third of the population did suffer from some disease. Poor communication of important science and data can have significant consequences. It can damage reputations or, at worst, it can lead to harmful decisions and actions. For example, the West African Ebola outbreak required really clear communication of scientific information to large numbers of people with diverse cultural backgrounds so they could take the best possible precautions.

A recent study of factors that caused articles about human vaccination to go viral on social media showed the most shared articles contained:

  • Statistics demonstrating the case being made, plus…
  • A bottom-line message with clear advice for the reader

Both factors had to be present for maximum impact. Articles that were just stories or without statistics, were least likely to be shared. Interestingly, articles that acknowledged both sides of an argument (such as acknowledging occasional adverse vaccine reactions) before coming out with a clear bottom-line message were also seen to have high credibility.

What can we do to improve our chances of people reading and understanding canine science?

I’d probably boil it down to two principles: Plain English and pictures!

According to a 1992 study by the US Department of Education, 90 million English-speaking adults have literacy skills in the lowest two levels. Plain English helps people understand canine science because the writing style is clear, concise and free from jargon. There are plenty of plain-English guidelines and techniques, such as using short sentences and the active voice. This is not the place to spell them out; they are widely available online. We also need to think about other aspects, such as making the message matter to the reader, explaining concepts using information they already know and deciding what details to leave out.

People tend to learn best when they are interested in something and when they can directly relate it to themselves. If we can answer the “what’s in it for them?” question, they are more likely to read and understand. So, increased genetic diversity means they are more likely to have bigger litters and fewer puppy deaths. A lower Coefficient of Inbreeding means they are less likely to find inherited diseases cropping up in their puppies.

It always helps to start with what is familiar and build new concepts from the known to the unknown. For example, most people know how uncomfortable it is to get an eyelash rubbing on their eye, so it’s an easy analogy to make when explaining the health impact of Entropion or Distichiasis. Some dogs have to live with these but they aren’t as quickly sorted as getting that eyelash out of your own eye. It might be simplistic, but it gets the point across.

Another danger when communicating scientific information is the tendency to include every last detail. Those who understand, or created the information, may think every detail is important. However, some things just aren’t as important when you’re trying to explain something that is new to the audience. This is a classic dilemma when trying to explain statistical significance to a lay audience. It’s probably perfectly adequate, for that audience, to say a result is statistically significant, but not important to quote Confidence Levels or p-values. However, it is important to ensure a lay audience understands that Correlation does not imply Causation. The well-publicised study of neutering in Golden Retrievers showed neutered dogs had double the occurrence of HD compared to entire dogs. The paper, rightly, did not say “Neutering causes HD”. Knowing what to leave out, is important. The aim is to help someone understand a difficult subject.

Plain English is not “dumbing-down”. It is about clear and effective communication, nothing less.

A picture paints a thousand words.

One of the ways to grab an audience’s attention is to use pictures and, increasingly, infographics are being used to present scientific data. Instead of telling your story using lots of words, you present your message in a more visual way, using eye-catching design elements. Many people love facts and figures, so if you can present them in a compelling way, you can really make an impact. The brain processes visuals faster than text; it’s easier to understand the effect of epilepsy by looking at a short video than by reading about it. Infographics are 30 times more likely to be read than a text article, according to one marketing study.

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