Breeds as genetic pools – more thoughts from Sponenberg’s book

In March, I wrote a brief review of my Christmas reading: Managing breeds for a secure future by Sponenberg, Martin and Beranger. I discussed what a “breed” is and some of the challenges we face in ensuring breeds are sustainable. This month, I want to share some of the other important concepts covered in the book such as how to define the characteristics of an individual breed.

Which dogs should be included in a breed?

This is an interesting and challenging question for many breeders and the various discussions about Colour Not Recognised (CNR) registrations is a topical example. Sponenberg suggests that a combination of phenotype, history and genetic analysis is the best way to ensure the right animals are correctly included as members of a breed. It is unwise and unsafe to make decisions based on just one of these factors.

Breed experts can usually evaluate an individual dog’s phenotype and determine if it is a typical representative of its breed. This is a useful way to bring working examples into a narrow show gene pool, for example. The subjectivity of this evaluation can be reduced by developing a matrix of characteristics based on Breed Standard criteria, against which a dog can be assessed. The history of a candidate dog should also be considered; the more that is known about its ancestors, the easier it will be to classify it or reject it. This does, of course, depend on the availability of suitable records and it’s not unknown for breeders to have introduced some “new blood” into what was otherwise a purebred dog! These days, the availability of DNA profiling techniques provides a further way to identify the origins of an individual dog. The work of Elaine Ostrander and her colleagues in classifying dogs into clades, where their common ancestors can be traced, is a useful addition to our collective knowledge in this area. We also need to be aware that just because a particular dog may exhibit recessively inherited traits (e.g. coat colour, pattern, type) doesn’t mean that it is the result of fraudulent outcrossing. If a recessive mutation has existed in a breed from its early days, it is entirely predictable that the recessive phenotype will “pop up” eventually, even if this does come as an unwelcome surprise to current-day breed purists. Political agendas to exclude these animals from the “breed” are, at best, misguided and fly in the face of inherent breed genetics.

Dog breeds are typically defined based on a combination of history, genetics and politics. Breeds within a group are interesting examples of how and where decisions have been made to split “breeds”. For example, the Dachshunds are one breed with (in the UK) 6 varieties. Many of the small terriers share similarities, as do the various retrievers and, to an outsider, the boundaries between some breeds might appear to be rather arbitrary.

3 tiers in the gene pool

3 tiersUnderstanding how a breed is organised as a “genetic pool” is important if we are interested in their management and conservation. For most pedigree dogs with closed stud books, there is a 3-level structure to the gene pool. 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. A more “open” system would see stud dogs from the elite tier used on bitches in both the other tiers. More importantly, in an open model, suitable quality bitches would be brought into the elite tier from the lower tiers and would provide for more genetic diversity across the entire breed.

I have written previously about the potential benefits of breeding from puppies in “pet homes” and in an open system, clever breeders in the elite tier would be open to buying-in dogs or bitches from the lower tiers.

Bloodlines and sub-groups within a breed

Bloodlines and varieties within a breed may be useful additional sources of genetic diversity. Bloodlines are usually linked to a particular breeder or kennel and may be historically distinct or exhibit a distinct type within an overall breed. The risk, of course, is that certain bloodlines become “flavour of the month”, maybe as a result of show success and this can lead to the genetically unhelpful strategy of breeders flocking to use a so-called Popular Sire. The genetic diversity of a breed then becomes swamped by a particular bloodline and little or nothing of other bloodlines may survive.

In some breeds, varieties exist, separated only by a single gene difference (e.g. the 3 coats in Dachshunds). Often they share the same foundation history but have been separated for the (arbitrary) purposes of showing. In the case of Dachshunds, the KC’s decision to allow “recessive coated” puppies to be registered as per their coat is entirely logical and addresses the anomaly of having to register them as per their parents’ coat type. Decisions to subdivide breeds into varieties does inevitably mean the gene pool will be narrower and breed conservation will be more challenging than if all varieties were considered to be one breed.

Managing bloodlines and varieties is important but can be complicated by politics and economics. Breeders may be more motivated by income from stud fees and puppy sales, rather than the overall good of the breed. Owners of stud dogs that are used solely within the elite gene pool need to be aware of the risks of the Popular Sire effect but, equally, they can have a positive impact by upgrading a variety of bitches in the multiplier (pet/hobby breeder) tier.

There is a clear role for breed clubs and councils to ensure all breeders and potential breeders are aware of the state of their breed. That oversight should extend across all 3 tiers and they should not simply be obsessed with what is happening within the show community.

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Happy, healthy dogs: breeders and owners want the same thing!

Best of Health

Sometimes, it’s easy to lose sight of what we’re all striving for. With vocal and polarised “camps”, the noise we hear often boils down to “ban x breed” at one end of the spectrum and “breed x is perfectly healthy” at the other. These positions are sometimes exacerbated by cherry-picking of data and evidence to prove a point or reinforce a position. What we all have in common is a desire to breed and own happy, healthy dogs, whatever our chosen breed might be.

I’ve written before that improving canine health and welfare requires a whole-systems approach. This is difficult because people with particular interests (or prejudices) are often only interested in proposing “simple” solutions to what is actually a complex problem. Another reason it is difficult is that there are too few tools and techniques that are widely understood for people to use in order to get a better understanding of the problem and to evaluate potential solutions.

I was therefore particularly interested to read a paper published in the Canine Genetics and Epidemiology Journal last month. The paper is open access and, although it includes some complicated analytical techniques, is well worth a read because of the novel approach it discusses. “Assessing the relative importance of health and conformation traits in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel” asked a sample of breeders, judges and owners to assess the relative importance of health and conformation traits when selecting a Cavalier. The study was carried out by a team in Belgium (Wijnrocx, François, Goos, Buys and Janssens) with support from the Belgian Cavalier Club and the Cavaliers for Life Foundation.

By way of background, the plain English summary of the paper says: When selecting a future breeding dog, different disease characteristics and other traits have to be balanced against one another, which makes it a complicated task. In the case of selecting for a large number of traits, the exclusion of all affected animals might be very inefficient, since this may reduce the genetic diversity in a population or breed. A solution could be the use of a selection index, in which all traits of interest are combined into one single value according to their relative weight.

Attributes and choices

Wijnrocx et al chose Mitral Valve Disease, Syringomyelia and Eye Disease as important health conditions in Cavaliers that breeders/owners might be concerned about. They also chose a set of conformational attributes that might influence people’s choice of a Cavalier: Coat Colour, Eye Shape and Muzzle Length. Finally, they included 2 attributes that buyers and breeders would, typically, also consider: Price and Level of Inbreeding. These factors were identified and agreed through consultation with experts and key stakeholders. Clearly, many more factors could have been identified for inclusion in the research but there is a balance to be struck in order not to over-complicate the choices or to make them too burdensome for respondents. Even still, with the number of attributes in this study, the questionnaire was limited to 17 choice sets of 2 alternatives. Respondents were asked to choose between 2 different dogs that they would prefer to use as a breeding animal, given the various attributes.

The initial analysis showed that all the attributes were statistically significant, i.e. they mattered to the respondents, EXCEPT for price. Price was then excluded from the final modelling/analysis. Interestingly, the choices showed there to be no differences in preferences between breeders or owners. Both groups chose Syringomyelia (SM) and Mitral Valve Disease (MVD) as their top 2 traits to consider when buying a Cavalier. Incidentally, the choices they were presented with for SM and MVD were: (a) Tested and present, (b) Not tested or (c) Tested and free. Unsurprisingly, the respondents attributed a higher value to “tested and free” than the other 2 options. SM was prioritised above MVD, followed by Eye Disease. SM was more than twice as important as MVD and 5 times more important than Eye Disease, which possibly reflects the publicity given to the condition as well as respondents’ awareness of its welfare impact and the costs of veterinary diagnosis and treatment.

Respondents’ views of the level of inbreeding in their choices showed that they were concerned with levels over 6%. I checked the KC’s health website and discovered that the average Inbreeding Coefficient for Cavaliers is currently reported as 6.3%. So, breeding litters below this average would have been considered a positive factor by this survey’s respondents.

The “baby-face” factor

I was surprised to see that Eye Shape was scored as the third highest attribute (above Inbreeding) with the preference being for a “prominent” eye (the other choices being “small” and “wall-eyed”). This would seem to tie in with other research into buyer behaviour that suggests people are attracted to baby-like features when looking for a pet (hence the popularity of many of the brachycephalic breeds). The worry, of course, from a health and welfare perspective is that a preference for a prominent eye might result in dogs at risk of some eye diseases or of damaging their eyes. Muzzle length and coat colour were the lowest rated attributes.

While it would be easy to say that the findings of this study and the researchers’ conclusions are unsurprising and/or predictable, I think it’s an interesting approach to try to quantify a range of people’s opinions and place an order of priority on traits. Breeders have always had to juggle multiple traits when making their breeding decisions and, these days, the issues of genetic diversity and complex diseases make those decisions even more difficult and important. The authors describe this as “a first investigation in the rational thoughts of breeders and owners towards some non-economic traits such as desired conformation or beauty traits in the selection of a CKCS“. The work could be extended to include other traits but I’m not convinced that this would shed more light on what’s really important for the health of the dogs. It might be possible, eventually, to create a Selection Index for each dog that would be a measure of its value in the gene pool but the authors acknowledge that Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) would also need to be known for each trait as well as some estimate of genetic correlation.

Priorities and practical steps

The reason this sort of analysis is important is that there are no simple answers to complex problems and, therefore, there will always be a need to identify and prioritise potential trade-offs when looking for solutions. The biggest risk of cherry-picking “simple” solutions is that they actually make things worse as a result of either unintended or unanticipated consequences. Techniques such as the choice experiment described in the Wijnrocx paper could be really useful to help develop a consensus on priorities and practical steps that can be taken to improve the health of dogs.

My closing thought for this month, with apologies to Eliyahu Goldratt: “The world of pedigree dogs is awash with ill-considered solutions to ill-defined problems”.

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Making sure the obvious really is obvious!

Some people are caught out and surprised at the “unintended consequences” of a decision or action to improve breed health. For others, these are entirely predictable outcomes which are merely minor blips on the journey towards a more significant strategic goal. The world of breed health improvement has plenty of examples and, this month, I want to discuss some of these and see if we can draw any conclusions about why “the obvious” may not be so obvious to some people.

The term “unintended consequences” originated in the world of social sciences and first appeared as “unanticipated consequences”. It is credited to Robert Merton in 1936 when he described the possible causes of unanticipated consequences as ignorance, error, over-riding of long-term interest by immediate interest and self-defeating prophecy.

Of course, it is important to recognise that “unintended” is different from “unanticipated”. It is perfectly possible that a decision in relation to breed health, such as introducing a new DNA test, could result in consequences that, while unintended, are not unanticipated! Anticipating the consequences of a particular policy decision or course of action should be a core responsibility of the people making the decision or taking the action.

Consequences grid
A good example of unanticipated AND unintended consequences is the introduction of the Cord1 PRA DNA test for Miniature Longhaired Dachshunds around 2005. Breeders had long known there was a problem with PRA and had diligently used the BVA/KC/ISDS Eye Scheme to identify clinical problems in their dogs. Breed Clubs regularly ran eye-testing sessions and the results were published by the KC as the condition was on Schedule A (inherited diseases). The development of the DNA test led to a commercially available “solution” which gave breeders the possibility of eliminating the risk of dogs going blind at a young age. Unfortunately, it also meant most breeders stopped doing the clinical eye screening test.

However, back in the day, very few breeders understood much about genetics and even less about genetic diversity. The language of Clear, Carrier and Affected was new to them, as were terms like homozygous and heterozygous. Jeff Sampson and Cathryn Mellersh did some amazing work educating breeders and trying to help them understand how to interpret and use DNA test results for individual matings as well as the wider implications for the breed. Despite this, messages like “it’s OK to breed with Carriers and Affecteds as long as you use a Clear dog” really didn’t sink in. What we saw, instead, was the stigmatisation of Affected dogs (and to some extent, Carriers) to the point where these dogs were removed from the breeding population. The unintended consequences were that the gene pool was further depleted and there was more selection pressure on Clear Stud Dogs, adding to the Popular Sire Syndrome and its associated risks. Being one of the first DNA tests, these were also probably unanticipated consequences; there was very little history to learn from and most messages were either not heard or not understood.

Fast forward 10+ years and we have data from our 2015 Breed Health Survey of 2000 Dachshunds that shows Miniature Longhaired Dachshunds have several health issues seen with higher prevalence than in the other 5 varieties of Dachshund. They have, for example, four times the rate of Idiopathic Epilepsy and a clinical eye examination of a sample of dogs showed around three quarters had some degree of Distichiasis. Over the past year we have also had a cluster of reports of early-onset lymphomas which our Health Committee is concerned about. When the KC published its Genetic Diversity reports in 2015 we concluded “Declining registrations and the overall trend in COI, when taken with extensive use of “popular sires”, are points of concern for the Miniature Long-haired variety”.

How to reduce negative unintended consequences

Learning from your own, or other people’s, past experience is one of the key ways to avoid or anticipate negative unintended consequences. When the Wirehaired Dachshund Club launched the DNA test for Lafora Disease in 2010, they had the benefit of learning from the Cord1 PRA experience. They recruited around 100 dogs for a heavily subsidised initial screening exercise and made the results public immediately. It was entirely predictable that some breeders would choose not to participate because of the decision to publish the results. The club felt it was important to be open and transparent about the extent of the problem in the breed. Other, new tactics were also employed, again learning from experience. Communication of the need for screening was directed at owners and potential owners, as well as at breeders. This helped to create “demand side” pressure for Lafora-screened litters. Publishing the data on the proportion of “safe” and “unsafe” litters every quarter from the Breed Records Supplement provided further evidence of progress and was a good way to recognise what was being achieved.

A second aspect of avoiding or anticipating unintended consequences is to understand the systemic impact of a decision and potential perverse responses. The “system” for canine health improvement is complex and I’ve written about this before. Decisions made in isolation invariably impact on other parts of the system. Those who cannot think systemically are doomed to make “simple” decisions that result in unintended adverse consequences. This is the realm of U-turns! Perverse responses are not that unusual. With the Lafora DNA test, we had people denying that there was a problem in Mini Wires, despite the evidence from test results showing 10% of dogs were “Affected”. Another perverse response from some people was to challenge the validity and reliability of the test. In both these cases, the team managing the Lafora screening programme responded with a series of “myth-busters”. These were short, evidence-based, statements explaining the facts and debunking the myths.

Keep the end goal in mind

We anticipated these things would happen and had responses in place so that they made only a minor impact on our overall goal of stopping the breeding of Lafora-affected puppies.

Interestingly, we also had some pleasant surprises when the Lafora test was launched. A number of Mini Wire pet owners started campaigning for wider adoption of the test by breeders. They added to the credibility of our communications with their down-to-earth stories of what it was like living with a Lafora-affected dog.

In November 2016, the Dachshund Breed Council launched an X-ray screening programme for Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) which is the most significant health challenge we face. The range of reactions to this new programme are pretty much what we anticipated and we realise this will be a much longer-term project than either Cord1 PRA or Lafora Disease screening. One surprise though, has been an unintended consequence of breeders having a decade of experience with DNA tests: the expectation that a screening programme can give a “definitive” answer. X-ray screening for complex diseases (e.g. Hips, Elbows, IVDD) can never give the same “Clear” or “Affected” answer as a DNA test for a simple, recessive mutation. We will therefore have to work hard to communicate the science behind IVDD screening and how the results can be used to reduce IVDD risk.

In conclusion, in the world of breed health improvement, “the obvious” may not be so obvious to some people if they repeat the mistakes of the past, don’t think about the wider system and take a short-term, self-interest, perspective when making decisions.

I’ll end with a quote that is usually attributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

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.

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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!

 

New systems approach needed to improve dog health

The following article is reprinted with permission from Dog World (published 14/5/15).

MANY, if not most, canine health and welfare problems are linked to people, their behaviour and attitudes. And the issues surrounding such problems are far more complex than have been argued in recent years.

  So said Philippa Robinson at the British Small Animals Veterinary Association’s recent congress, adding that ‘finger pointing’ was no longer helpful and blame counter-productive.

  She suggested a new approach to combat health problems in pedigree dogs, and said the demand for and supply of them needed to be understood for things to change.

  All the agencies and stakeholders involved needed to work together to clarify what health and welfare messages were needed, she said.

  Mrs Robinson discussed the controversies surrounding inherited disease and how she joined the ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed campaign’ in 2007, a year before the documentary was broadcast.

  Mrs Robinson of the Karlton Index, which was launched to monitor and measure canine health, spoke of the three reports on pedigree dog which followed PDE, health including the Bateson enquiry, and the setting up of the Dog Advisory Council.

  After the Bateson report, she said, she began examining ‘how inert the Kennel Club had been on dog health’.

  “But the grip of the anti KC rhetoric began to loosen its grip on me,” she said. “An historical analysis of pedigree dog health reveals that the issues are far more complex than argued in either PDE or any of the three subsequent reports.”

  The KC had launched many initiatives regarding health and welfare including collaborative work with other parties, she said.

  Why had not other agencies taken a stand on canine health, she asked. And if they did speak out what had been the consequence?

  At that point, she said, she decided that canine health problems had not been caused by one stakeholder.

  To those present she recommended a ‘systems thinking’ approach, and looked at supply and demand of dogs and puppies, the fact they could be obtained from many different sources by people with different motives, levels of commitment and sense of duty. She talked about breed type rather than breed, and said she believed England was not a nation of dog lovers but one of dog breed lovers.

  “For whatever, complex, reason, we develop a fondness for specific types of dog,” she said. “This has resulted in each breed having very specific societal and cultural contexts.”

  She discussed the shape of the Bull Terrier’s skull, saying the breed Standard had not driven the change in shape or which dogs were awarded in the show ring.

  “Those factors may contribute to the changes of shape, undoubtedly, but the real influence I would argue is simply human preference,” she said.

  The KC could change the breed Standard to reflect the top shape of skull, she went on, and judges could begin to only award dogs with the top shape, but that would not stop people choosing the dog with the skull shape they preferred, even if it was detrimental to health.

  Mrs Robinson turned to brachycephalic breeds such as the French Bulldog saying that publicity about the breed’s health problems had had no effect on the explosion in its popularity, which was fed and encouraged by celebrity owners.

  “The French Bulldog has become a cultural icon,” she said. “It has been used to sell all sorts of merchandise, services and it is, of course, the current breed of choice for many a celebrity. This breed endorsement has not come from the KC, the show world or the breed club. Even combined, the KC, the show world, the breed club have precious few resources to counter that iconic status. They also have limited spheres of influence to change behaviours and attitudes among the wider population.”

  So how can health and welfare of the breed counter this cultural phenomenon, she asked.

  “Review the breed Standards? Introduce judicious health testing Remove untested dogs and affected dogs from the breeding programme?

  “Remove untested dogs from showing and remove untested dogs from the KC system altogether? Ensure that the public is armed with facts? Issue breeds with health warnings like cigarettes?”

  But the bigger picture needed to be considered, she said, the trends analysed and the points of intervention which would provide maximum leverage identified.

  Much had been done by the KC to improve the French Bulldog’s health, Mrs Robinson said, but most French Bulldogs were being bred away from that system by people who did not take part in health schemes.

  “Some are imported, most often illegally, to fulfil the demand created through the celebrity culture,” she said. “So without wider support of the stakeholder community, without the injection of resources from more than one stakeholder, all the valiant work will struggle to have an impact on the French Bulldog population as a whole.”

  How could the cultural phenomenon be changed, she asked. How could mind sets and contexts be changed? It had to be recognised that people make irrational choices because they are motivated by ‘a complex set of drivers’.

  The veterinary profession, welfare charities, scientists, academia, breeders, local authorities, the KC, welfare campaigners, the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, industry and the public need to work together, she said, to clarify what the health and welfare messages needed to be for each breed and breed type based on evidence and good data. The dynamics of the system which supplies dogs and puppies needed to be understood, as did the human behaviour which determined dog buying and acquiring decisions.

  Key messages needed to be delivered consistently across the board and by all parts of the system.

  “Finger pointing is no longer helpful and blame is counterproductive,” Mrs Robinson said.

  “Meaningful dialogue and courageous and creative action are the things we should be working on jointly.

  “The good news on that is courageous action and creative solutions such as VetCompass, estimated breeding values, genetics and breeder education can be really exciting projects in which to get involved. So let’s stop sniping and start sharing.”