The Cynefin Model and leadership for breed health

We are living in strange times. I don’t want to say “unprecedented” as this has become rather over-used of late. People (mostly, irritating journalists) keep asking when it will end and why hasn’t enough been done. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty about the future and that’s largely driven by the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in. Yet, despite all this, we can’t drop the ball in our work on breed health improvement.

I’ve said many times that one of our biggest challenges is that too many people are looking for “simple” solutions to complex problems, such as:

  • A DNA test for Hip Dysplasia or Cancer
  • A change to Breed Standards to eliminate BOAS or IVDD
  • Mandatory “health testing” for puppy registrations (please re-read my article explaining why health testing does not mean healthy)

I sometimes use Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model to help my clients understand the different types of environment in which they have to make decisions. It’s also useful in the context of breed health improvement. Snowden described 4 main decision-making environments:

  • Simple (and he later renamed this as Obvious)
  • Complicated
  • Complex 
  • Chaotic

Cynefin.png

Rules and Good Practices

Hopefully, the work we are doing to improve breed health these days does not exist in a Chaotic environment. Looking back to 2008 when Pedigree Dogs Exposed was broadcast, we almost certainly found ourselves in a state of chaos and what was required was a rapid response. 

The Simple/Obvious world is the world of known-knowns. Here, we can create rules and follow procedures whenever we have to make a decision. In the world of dogs’ health and welfare, for example, the Kennel Club sets rules on the upper age (8) for breeding from a bitch and that owners consent to any caesarean operation being reported by their vet. Similarly, any Breed Watch Category 3 (formerly “High Profile Breeds”) have to be vet-checked and passed before being allowed to compete in Group competitions or have Champion status confirmed.

Some decisions are Complicated. We are dealing with known-unknowns but it’s an area where we can apply good practices. This is the domain of experts where we can analyse data and there’s usually at least one “right answer”. The development and application of Estimated Breeding Values would be a good example. Most of us have no idea how quantitative geneticists come up with EBVs but we can easily learn how to use the tools provided on the KC website. Another example is the analysis of breed health surveys which is often done by Breed Health Coordinators (or their statistician friends). Breeders and owners don’t need to know how the statistics are worked out; their interest is in the prevalence of certain health conditions or the associations between lifestyle factors and breed health. 

There are few “right answers”

The Complex world is characterised by many unknown-unknowns. In my very first “Best of Health” article in March 2014, I described these as “Wicked Problems” where we face a range of challenges that are both scientific/technical and cultural. There’s very rarely a definitive cause and effect linkage, there are few “right answers” and quite often changes result in unanticipated consequences elsewhere in the system. For example, introducing a new DNA test will almost certainly enable breeders to avoid producing puppies that will be clinically affected, but if they all flock to use a few Clear stud dogs or decide not to breed (safely) from Carriers, it’s inevitable that genetic diversity will be compromised. The end result could well be that new recessive mutations causing new health problems (surprisingly) appear and a breed ends up worse off than before the new DNA test was launched.

Navigating the complex world of canine health improvement requires great leadership. It’s no use having leaders who create rules and regulations, and then expect people to follow them, perhaps supported by a bit of education. These leaders need to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. They need to be able to see the bigger picture and how to “join the dots”. Their role is to wrangle the various different groups of interested individuals to take action. That might mean there need to be lots of different actions which, cumulatively, will make a difference to dog health. For most breed health issues, that means a series of actions designed to change buyer and breeder behaviours. It may also require behavioural changes by vets, judges, exhibitors, and even welfare campaigners.

Another challenge facing leaders is that, in some situations, there may simply not be a right answer (and certainly not a single, simple, answer). That will be difficult for some people to accept; they are usually the ones saying “all you need to do is…” or “the Kennel Club should just…”.

I summed up the role of breed health strategy leaders in an article last year as being a “choreographer”. I said: He or she was typically a “uniquely skilled and passionate individual” who was able to use their cross-cutting position and ability to see the bigger picture to help shape effective ways of working. They are often “door-openers” who can bring in, and connect, new skills and resources to help solve a complex problem.

The new “normal”

The value of the Cynefin Model is that it encourages leaders to recognise that there are no hard and fast rules for making decisions. Instead, we need to recognise the different environments within which those decisions need to be made. Currently, we are facing huge amounts of uncertainty and that’s something most people handle really badly. One study even showed that we probably hate uncertainty even more than we dislike crises and chaos. 

Uncertainty can lead to decision-paralysis and we have seen far too many examples of breed health decisions being “kicked down the road” with the excuse that we need more research data and evidence.

Whatever the new “normal” turns out to be, we will still need to keep focused on dealing with the complex world of canine health and welfare and coming up with practical solutions that genuinely make a difference for dogs.

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Dealing with the dog-health infodemic

Along with all the talk of the Coronavirus Pandemic, there has been a discussion of the parallel infodemic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) launched an online platform to combat misinformation and fake news which they described as an infodemic. It occurred to me that we could perhaps learn something from the WHO responses that would be applicable to the ways we tackle fake news and misinformation on dog health matters.

In the case of Coronavirus, misinformation was spread rapidly through social media channels and posed a threat to public health. “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the Munich Security Conference on February 15th.

There has always been misinformation associated with health issues but the challenge with social media is that it is amplified and goes faster and further than ever before. That’s just as true in the world of dog health and the task for those of us in breed health leadership positions is to make sure dog buyers, owners, and breeders will do the right thing to improve the health of their dogs. We have to go further than simply providing information; we have to provide information that drives them to act appropriately.

We have to ensure people have access to trustworthy information, for example through data sharing and publication of peer-reviewed research. However, we know that such information has to be tailored to the needs of different audiences. For breed clubs, that means making their websites and social media channels the “go to” places for anyone who wants to find out about the breed. 10 years ago, all a breed club needed was a website with (at least) a few pages describing the characteristics of the breed, how to find a reputable breeder and information on the main health issues and what was being done about these.

Back in 2011, the late Philippa Robinson published her first Karlton Index Report summarising the work breed clubs were doing in the field of health improvement. Her second report in 2013 found 15 breeds with no online information at all and she scored 62 breeds (1 in 3) at less than 10 points out of the maximum possible 100.

Mobile-friendly breed information

Today, numerous social media channels have overtaken static websites as the first port of call for many people. It’s not just the younger generation that is hooked to their mobile devices, there are plenty of silver surfers who are just as tech-savvy and whose access to information is primarily through a mobile device. That means as a minimum, your breed’s website needs to be mobile-friendly. I recently discovered that our “Tips for New Owners” web page which we had only just rebuilt in 2019, just wasn’t working on all mobile devices. Half the tips weren’t being displayed so I had to rebuild the page layout completely to make it work properly on phones.

All this points in the direction of breeds needing a social media strategy as part of their overall communication plans. Most breed clubs have a Facebook page these days and that’s obviously a useful channel for disseminating news. There are also, inevitably, numerous owners’ groups for most breeds and it makes sense for breed club and health committee members to join these so they can provide the best available advice in response to questions from buyers and owners.

Goodwill and volunteers

Of course, all that takes time and we are reliant on the goodwill of volunteers. The reality is that most breeds probably don’t have enough people with time to devote to offering help and pointing to the best advice across multiple social media channels and discussion groups. One way to address that is to develop a network of supporters and advocates who are “on message” and can act to amplify your messages. Your network could include nominated Pet Advisors (we have 3 on our Dachshund Health Committee) and subject matter experts such as vets or vet nurses. Another useful group to build bridges with is the Admins of pet owner  Facebook Groups. In some breeds, these people will have access to thousands of group members which is a far wider reach than most breed clubs can ever hope to achieve.

The other way is to make the provision of relevant information more efficient. Instead of providing a bespoke answer to every question, it’s far quicker simply to post a link to the relevant page on your website. That means, of course, you need to have pages with good quality information on the most frequently discussed topics. You could also build a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and direct people to those.

Another way to improve the efficiency of how you disseminate information is to connect your various social media channels so that a post on one channel automatically gets posted on other channels. Many blogs, for example, enable you to cross-post to Twitter and Facebook without having to create new posts on these additional channels.

The best source of up-to-date information

One of the approaches the WHO has taken to provide clear, simple advice on Covid-19 is to create a series of infographics that other people can use to provide accurate information. These can be downloaded from their Covid-19 website which is the single best source of up-to-date information. The breed health parallel is to have dedicated websites for specific health concerns instead of having this information “lost” in a general breed website. In Dachshunds, we have created a dedicated website for IVDD (back disease) information and this includes a series of infographics and FAQs. Other breeds might do something similar for Brachycephalic issues or there might be value in the various brachy breeds to collaborate on a single site.

“Mythbusters” can also be used to challenge the nonsense and fake news that so often does the rounds of social media. It is well-known that closely-held false beliefs can actually be harder to rectify and sometimes this backfires, resulting in the false news being reinforced (the so-called boomerang effect). Successful tactics include story-telling, rather than presenting facts (appeal to the heart, not the head). Fear-mongering, the use of threats and specifically trying to change peoples’ minds are all notoriously unsuccessful.

One 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.

There may be no way to prevent a COVID-19 pandemic in this globalised time, but verified information is the most effective prevention against the disease of panic. We should apply the same common-sense approach to communicating the evidence about breed health.

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”  Jonathan Swift, 1710

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Covid-19: A (dog) world of unanticipated consequences

A few weeks ago, words like “self-isolation”, “social distancing” and “lockdown” were barely part of our vocabulary. The rate at which new information emerges on the progression of Covid-19 seems to increase daily and decisions that were logical and evidence-based one day, may be completely reversed or changed just a week (or even days) later. It’s so easy for the keyboard warriors to criticise those making decisions but I bet they would feel rather differently if they were part of the decision-making process or, worse, if they were ultimately accountable for those decisions.

In the world of business and leadership development, there’s a concept that’s been around for a while that describes the world we’re in. It’s VUCA, which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It originated in the US military to describe the “new normal” of extremism and terrorism which required a completely different style of leadership and response compared with the Cold War years. There are no simple solutions in a VUCA world; we need to understand that decisions made in one part of a system can have quite surprising and unanticipated consequences elsewhere. Often, those consequences will be counter-intuitive.

Let’s consider some examples from the world of dogs. The Kennel Club has seen a decline in registrations of pedigree dogs over recent years. What do we think Covid-19 will do to that trend? The “obvious” conclusion would be that registrations will decline further as people face a period of uncertainty about their jobs and are unwilling to commit to the costs of buying and owning a dog. Yet, within a week of some of the biggest changes to our working lives ever seen, there is emerging evidence that we might actually see an increase in demand for puppies. People find they have time on their hands and, instead of having to wait for the school holidays to find time for a puppy, they have time now.

Where will they get those puppies from, though? Well, another unanticipated consequence might be that they can only get a puppy bred in the UK. Puppy farmers from Eire and those trafficking from Europe will find our borders closed. Hopefully, their desire for a puppy right now doesn’t mean they buy from backstreet breeders or get conned with puppy-farmed puppies already in the UK. I know of several breeders who have seen an increase in demand for puppies but also an increase in demand for their stud dogs. People who might have been uncertain about breeding from their bitch might feel (a) they now have time to cope with a litter and (b) that the income from puppy sales could be very important to them right now.

Of course, when we think about the “dog system” we have to look beyond supply and demand. There are other consequences of new breeders adding to the supply of puppies. How will these breeders find out about health screening before mating their bitches and how will they learn about whelping and puppy-rearing? This could be an opportune time to signpost them to the resources available in the KC Academy.

Canine lifestyles

There are other unanticipated consequences of the current situation. Where we live, the parks and countryside are now swarming with people out walking their dogs (and people without dogs). Many of these are probably dogs that previously would have been stuck at home while their owners were out at work or, at best, benefitted from the services of a dog walker and doggy day-care. So, these dogs’ daily routines will be transformed both physically and mentally and their owners will benefit similarly (unless the novelty wears off). As I write this, it’s a sunny weekend and I wonder if these dogs will continue to get this exercise if we return to the seemingly endless rain of not so long ago.

We might, therefore, expect the health of these dogs to improve in the short-term and that can only be a good thing, given what we know about the levels of canine obesity in the UK. I hope there is not an unanticipated consequence that these dogs are given inappropriate amounts or types of exercise, particularly if they are young puppies.

These owners may also realise that their dogs need more training to make them better-behaved pets. That means there may be opportunities for dog trainers to offer online services and to encourage people to attend formal training such as the Good Citizen Dog Scheme once things return to something resembling “normal”.

Spending more time with their owners may, in the short-term, reduce problems of separation anxiety which we know is a major issue for many dogs in the UK. We might have to consider what the consequences will be once people return to work; will their dogs be even more stressed when left alone after having had the company of their owners for several weeks?

What about Rescue?

It’s possible that, because people are likely to be out of work or on reduced incomes, they may be inclined to part with their dogs to the rescue charities. It must be a worry for these organisations (and breed rescues) that they will be inundated with dogs and also suffer from a reduction in footfall of people looking to re-home. The opposite might happen, though. People may decide it’s a good time to rescue a dog. Breed rescues may be at an advantage here as many have a network of coordinators and foster homes who can continue to help.

The big rescue charities could perhaps take a more creative approach and pay people to keep their dogs (or give them vouchers to pay for food and vet bills). After all, these dogs’ owners almost certainly don’t want to give up their dog and the negative mental health consequences of doing so could add further to their problems.

Glass half-full

We certainly are in a volatile and uncertain world at the moment and the impact of the pandemic on individuals and the health service will, no doubt, be immense. It is understandable that the government is focusing on minimising the health impacts but we are already seeing far-reaching and deeply damaging impacts on the economy and people’s livelihoods. Most of the decision-making on strategies to address the pandemic seems to be based on epidemiological modelling. From a systems thinking perspective, I’d like to know what modelling of human behaviour has been done because we’ve certainly seen some unanticipated consequences in the panic-buying of toilet rolls (!) and people flocking to the seaside and National Parks. I’d also like to know about the economic modelling and modelling of other health impacts (e.g. people who have now had operations cancelled).

There are unanticipated consequences of any decision but my glass is always half-full and I am optimistic that we will come out of this situation stronger as a dog community. Remember: DOGS ARE FOR LIFE, not just for Coronavirus.

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Thinking, fast and slow. Cognitive biases can hinder breed health improvement initiatives

Last month, I ended with a quote from Dr Dan O’Neill at the 4th International Dog Health Workshop (IDHW4): “We need to stop saying it’s all about the dogs. It is clear that it is really all about the people”. While it’s important to understand canine health and genetics, it’s become apparent that many of the successes and failures of health improvement initiatives are down to human motivation, behaviour, and thinking. One of the underlying themes at the IDHW4 event was “human behaviour change” and, in previous articles, I’ve written about some of the ways this can be influenced. Studying fields such as psychology that are concerned with how people think, behave and make decisions can give us some useful insights into why canine health improvement can be so difficult.

My Christmas reading was Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking fast and slow”. Kahneman is a psychologist and economist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on behavioural economics in 2002. Thinking fast and slow is all about why people think what they do and why they make the decisions they make. Kahneman calls “thinking fast”, System 1, and “thinking slow”, System 2.  System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little effort and without voluntary control. System 2 requires mental effort and concentration.

For example, if you told most dog breeders that 2 of the 3 genotypes from a DNA test are “Clear” and “Carrier”, they would instantly know that the 3rd genotype is “Affected”. System 1 gives us the answer automatically because it’s something we’ve learned through practice and repetition. If, however, I asked you what is the expected proportion of Carrier puppies from mating a Clear and Carrier together, you’d probably have to think more carefully or draw a punnett square. Kahneman claims that we all like to believe we think in a System 2 way; i.e. rationally, and we use that ability to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens in practice.

System 1 is fine because it uses what we have learned in order to react quickly and lowers the mental load we have to cope with. System 1 often uses “rules of thumb” to make decisions quickly and usually these lead to good decisions. Occasionally, it can also lead to mistakes. Try this: A bat and a ball cost £1.10 between them. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Most people answer 10p but the correct answer is 5p. If the ball cost 10p and the bat cost £1 more, it would cost £1.10, making the total cost £1.20. System 1 thinking evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing and wrong! System 1 causes people to be overconfident and to place too much faith in intuition. Our brains are inherently lazy and we default to System 1 decision-making and with that comes cognitive biases. Only if we come across something unusual or if we make a conscious effort, do we engage System 2.

WYSIATI: What you see is all there is

System 1 is a “machine for jumping to conclusions” on the basis of limited information. Try this:

Jo is 30 years old, outspoken and has tattoos. Jo lives in a Northern city and works as a car mechanic. Which of these statements is more probable?

1: Jo owns a Gundog

2: Jo owns a Terrier

Based on registration statistics it is actually 4 times more likely that 1 is correct, yet some people will jump to conclusions because of their inherent biases or will assume the (irrelevant) storyline is of some significance and outweighs the statistical evidence. It takes more mental effort to apply System 2 thinking and come up with the right answer.

If you’re a breeder and you had 4 out of 5 litters born by caesarean, System 1 could lead you to conclude that most bitches need caesareans and you might be inclined to go for elective caesars rather than wait. Similarly, if you’re a breeder who has never had a dog with a condition that is known to be prevalent in your breed, System 1 may lead you to conclude that “it’s the way everyone else rears theirs”, despite there being no evidence and your experience is based only on your own small sample of dogs.

When you bring individuals with their own supposedly rational views into a group, you can end up with a whole group coming up with completely irrational rejections of robust scientific evidence. System 1 thinking has little understanding of logic and statistics, which is why we all need to be aware of this risk and become more careful and reflective users of breed health data.

Recognising bias

System 1 takes shortcuts to make decisions; for example, confirmation bias means you tend to agree with information that supports something you already believe. If you’ve heard about a few cases of epilepsy in a breed, you’re more likely to agree with research studies that also found epilepsy, even if they only involved very small sample sizes.

There is also an “availability” bias, where you overestimate the probability of something that you have heard often or that you find easy to remember. This is a particular danger in the world of health improvement where a few cases of a disease might get discussed widely, or a DNA test is developed and people then rush to use that test, while completely ignoring the low incidence of the condition or the fact that other conditions are much more important to address.

Kahneman discusses the “availability cascade”. This is a self-sustaining chain of events that may start with a few media reports of a problem that lead to widespread public panic and eventually result in policy changes by legislators. Often, the emotional reaction (e.g. dogs dying) becomes a story in itself and the story can be accelerated by media headlines, social media groups and campaigning individuals who work to ensure a continuous supply of bad news cases. Scientists who try to try to use data to dampen the fears sometimes face hostility or are accused of a cover-up and we simply don’t get to hear of the 99.9% of dogs that haven’t been affected.

Hindsight bias occurs when people reconstruct a story to exaggerate the probability they knew an event was going to happen. I can’t think of any canine health examples but it’s regularly heard around the ringside just after the Challenge Certificate has been awarded!

System 1 thinking is intuitive and makes our lives easier by reducing the amount of mental effort we need to expend when making decisions. Being aware of this helps us to understand why it’s so hard to change the behaviour of breeders, judges, buyers, and owners. It’s helpful to be aware of these lessons from Thinking fast and slow because, otherwise, we will continue to make the same mistakes and will not see the improvements in canine health and welfare that we all want to see.

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Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Last month, I commented on the potential unintended consequences of breeders endorsing their puppies because “that’s what responsible breeders do”. There aren’t enough well-bred, KC registered puppies to meet demand and an estimated 70% of pedigree puppies are not KC registered. If someone has bought an endorsed puppy (dog or bitch) and is determined to breed from it, they are more likely to look for an unregistered mate and produce a litter of yet more unregistered puppies. They are unlikely to go back to their puppy’s breeder for advice or to understand what health tests may be required. It is debatable how much knowledge they will have about canine husbandry, how to care for a pregnant bitch or how to rear and socialise puppies.

Not only might this result in more pedigree dogs being bred outside the KC registration system but it probably also increases the chances of the puppies growing up with temperament and developmental issues.

A quick trawl through any of the online puppy sales sites shows just how many unregistered dogs are being bred and advertised. Many of the puppies (certainly in my breed) look rather untypical specimens and seem to command virtually the same prices as KC registered ones.

More “responsible owner” fallacies?

In this country, many new owners are encouraged by their vet to neuter their dogs. The BVA’s policy on neutering states:

“Neutering helps to reduce the number of unwanted litters. BVA strongly supports the practice of neutering cats (castration of tom cats and spaying of queens) and dogs (castration of dogs and spaying of bitches) for preventing the birth of unwanted kittens and puppies and the perpetuation of genetic defects. Such surgical intervention removes the problems associated with finding homes or increasing the stray population.”

The 2018 Dogs Trust survey said there were 56,000 stray dogs across the UK, which is the lowest level reported by councils for 21 years. That’s about half a percent of the UK dog population and hardly seems the best evidence for neutering. About 10,000 of those strays ended up in welfare organisations. The Dogs Trust report also estimated that 130,000 dogs come into rehoming charities every year.

A recent paper (Throwing the Baby Out With the Bath Water: Could Widespread Neutering of Companion Dogs Cause Problems at a Population Level? – Dawson et al) starts by saying “In many countries, ‘responsible dog ownership’ also involves spaying and castration”. In the USA, Australia and New Zealand, neutering is normal practice now and, in some cases, puppies are neutered at a very young age, before they go to their new homes. In contrast, in several European and Scandinavian countries, routine neutering is not the norm and is considered to be mutilation, similar to ear-cropping or tail-docking. In those countries, it is illegal. Here, just over half of all dogs are neutered as part of so-called responsible dog ownership.

More than health impacts

There have been numerous studies on the association between neutering and dog health. These cover large breeds where there are links with musculoskeletal conditions such as hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament disease, and also with osteosarcoma and diabetes. In my own breed, our 2015 and 2018 breed surveys identified an association between neutering and an increased risk of back disease. A VetCompass study published this year showed that spaying of bitches increased the risk of urinary incontinence.

The information on the effects of neutering on behaviour is more mixed, with some studies suggesting it increases the risk of nervous aggression and others saying it reduces dog-dog aggression.

The Dawson paper considers the possible effects of widespread neutering on the breeding of dogs and their success as human companions. The authors describe 3 types of breeder:

  • Hobby breeders – who are often very experienced in a breed and often also participate in canine activities such as showing, obedience or agility. These people breed for their hobby/sport primarily, rather than to supply the pet market.
  • Commercial breeders – who breed primarily to make a living (profit) and specifically target the pet market, with higher volumes of puppies.
  • The general public – who have a dog and decide to breed from it, possibly without much experience of husbandry, whelping or puppy-rearing. They may be described as “backyard breeders” and probably know very little about health testing or genetics. They possibly breed because “it would be nice for Daisy to have puppies” or “to make a bit of money”.

No doubt breeders in all 3 groups would describe themselves as “responsible” but, Dawson et al go on to explain the changes they feel are needed if dogs and owners are not to be exploited.

Firstly, breeding choices and puppy-rearing processes should be based on knowledge of good practices. Clearly, schemes such as the Assured Breeder Scheme and the Dog Breeding Standard can help here. The free resources for breeders on the KC Academy is another useful starting point.

Secondly, they advocate that all dogs should be independently tested for suitability before being bred from. In addition to suitability from a health point of view, they believe behavioural testing is important to check their suitability to be good companion animals. There are several canine mentality/behaviour tests available, but programmes such as the KC’s Good Citizen Dog Scheme is another option. Dogs that are themselves good companions, are more likely to produce puppies that will be as well.

Thirdly, experienced breeders should be helping their puppy buyers who may be interested in having a litter so that these people don’t become “backyard breeders”. It would be relatively easy to include advice on breeding in the puppy pack that is given to new owners. Advising them not to neuter could also be beneficial from a genetic diversity perspective by keeping breeding options open. Widespread neutering excludes thousands of ideal companions from the gene pool. This includes dogs neutered by their breeder before sale or those who are sold with a contract stipulating they should be neutered or not bred from.

The paper concludes by saying: “Over the long term, a more considered approach to the breeding of companion dogs would help lessen the gap between owner expectations and the dogs available to them. However, this is only possible if attitudes toward neutering are addressed and “responsible ownership” is broadened to include a dynamic partnership between owners and breeders to produce dogs most suited for life as companions.

If we don’t change our thinking on what is meant by “responsible breeding” and take a population-wide view, we risk continuing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. More and more unregistered puppies will be bred by inexperienced people and the gene pools of our closed stud books will get even smaller.

Every breed needs a choreographer!

I recently read a paper published by Save the Children, the charity, that described a range of approaches to collaboration in the field of humanitarian aid. It struck me that many of the things described had parallels that could be of use to us. Clearly, sorting out the challenges of pedigree dog health is not on the same scale as dealing with world poverty but, increasingly, we do have to find more effective ways to work together as individuals, groups, and organisations. While the improvements we need to make are often quite simple to define, the underlying causal factors are too complex and interconnected for one organisation to come up with “the solution”.

There is lots of talk about “collaboration” but it’s hard to pin down exactly what this means and, no doubt, different groups will have different views.

For example, the International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD) describes itself as a non-profit organisation whose mission is to facilitate collaboration and sharing of resources to enhance the health, well-being, and welfare of pedigreed dogs and all dogs worldwide. By contrast, the Brachycephalic Working Group (set up in 2016) has a framework document that describes a “partnership approach to improving brachycephalic health and welfare”. They don’t use the “collaboration” word at all but talk about having shared objectives and shared actions.

The Save the Children paper says there is a persistent gap between the promise of collaboration and the real-world ability to apply it in practice. It goes on to say that the promise of collaboration has resulted in lots of energised work but all this seems to contribute more to noise and confusion than practical application. That’s not something we can afford to end up with in our canine health work.

If we go back 10 years, most of the organisations working on canine health and welfare did so in their own self-sufficient ways. There was the KC, the vets, charities, researchers and campaigners. Breeders pretty much got on with their own thing, in their own way. Today, it is obvious that the pace of improvement has not been fast enough and that there are growing gaps between funding and needs. There will always be more projects that need to be done than resources available to fund them.

More than pooled resources

Essentially, collaboration is a way of integrating the work of distinct organisations. Collectively, they share objectives but each of the parties retains their independence to act on their own or with other groups, depending on the need. It’s more than a simple pooling of resources, though; the shared purpose is what binds the collaborators together.

One model of collaboration is the “supply chain” approach which works well where there is a requirement to deliver high volumes of consistent quality services. Health testing fits with this model; there is a chain from funders such as the KC Charitable Trust, through researchers such as the AHT, to service deliverers such as commercial testing labs and BVA screening panels and back to the KC with its health recording and reporting database.

A second model of collaboration is where several organisations work side-by-side, doing broadly similar things but allowing for a degree of flexibility and tailoring to meet local needs. The various Brachycephalic Breed clubs fit this model; each breed has slightly different challenges and needs, but together they have to address a common challenge. Each breed’s club activities are independent but, collectively, they are able to share learning and tools.

A third model of collaboration is the network approach which works well for big, complex problems that require diverse skills and where the problem they are trying to solve may be ambiguous and changing. This is, broadly, the world of the IPFD which brings together multiple, independent individuals and groups with different capabilities. The connections between these people are flexible and new connections can readily be made to meet unique needs. No one organisation is naturally in charge and membership of the network is likely to change in response to the evolving state of the wider system. So, for example, this year’s IPFD workshop featured new themes (the concept of breed and supply/demand) and dropped a previous theme (numbers/data).

What success looks like

The Save the Children paper suggests there are 5 core capabilities for successful collaboration:

  • Aligned goals – all participants need to agree what the purpose of the work is before they start looking at detailed options and activities
  • Responsibility and reward – there should be clear roles and incentives to contribute
  • Trust – the participants must have confidence in each other; there should be no surprises
  • Integrated work – information, processes and tools should be shared to enable consistency and efficient ways of working
  • Review and learn – take time to check on progress and achievements; learn from mistakes

The choreographer

Collaborations appear to need someone to own the whole system for them to stand a chance of succeeding. Someone must work across the organisational boundaries that define the contributing participants’ normal work. The role is much more than simply being able to chair a committee or to get different representatives to work together. In the Save the Children study, this role was called the choreographer. He or she was typically a “uniquely skilled and passionate individual” who was able to use their cross-cutting position and ability to see the bigger picture to help shape effective ways of working. They are often “door-openers” who can bring in, and connect, new skills and resources to help solve a complex problem.

A Stanford Innovation Review said “Most multi-stakeholder collaborations excel at vision and fail in execution. They need someone to maintain a constant drumbeat, ensuring that all partners maintain a clear and consistent connection to the overarching purpose of the partnership”. 

This sounded, to me, very much like the description of attributes required to be a Breed Health Coordinator (BHC). Although there is a role description for BHCs, the reality is that their success and the impact they can have on their breed’s health depends on a few key attributes. Firstly, they need passion and persistence. Often, it is their self-motivation that helps them to work through the resistance that they inevitably come across. Secondly, they need to be able to see the “big picture”, not just for their breed but for dog health, in general. To that extent, they have to be flexible in their approach and to be prepared to adapt plans if they aren’t working out. Finally, they need to be given freedom and support by their breed clubs and councils. If they are tied down to slow, committee-based, decision-making and breed politics, they simply cannot do their job. The appointment of a Breed Health Committee can help share the workload and, often, a Health Committee’s recommendations can carry more weight than just a single person (the BHC), asking for something to be done. The inclusion of “pet owners” on these committees can also bring a useful perspective that is not influenced by breed or club politics.

So, if we want collaboration in breed health improvement to succeed, I’m convinced every breed needs a choreographer. Does your breed have one and are you supporting him or her?

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I don’t like your data!

It’s always interesting to read the discussion threads on social media when new scientific papers on canine health and welfare matters are reported and when breed clubs publish their health survey results. I’ve written before about Cognitive Dissonance, a term that captures a multitude of reasons why it’s so hard to get people to see the need for improvement, let alone act to create change. In essence, it means people feel uncomfortable when newly presented evidence clashes with their existing beliefs and they try to find ways to reduce their discomfort.

Albert Einstein is quoted as having said “If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?” It should be no surprise that, with some research, the results are completely novel or, in some cases, unexpected. Newly published research should prompt us to ask the question “why?” – why might a particular association have been identified and why might the results have turned out like they did. Instead, we often find what appears to be cognitive dissonance kicking in. Here are some examples:

The sample is too small: Some research starts with very small samples, often for practical reasons such as cost or convenience. Any interesting findings need to be explored with further studies using bigger and more representative samples, not simply dismissed. Since we know how many dogs are registered in every pedigree breed each year, it is easy enough to estimate the UK population if we also know their average age of death. There are well-established statistical methods for judging the confidence that can be applied to samples so it doesn’t take much effort to decide whether a sample is really “too small”. The opposite effect also happens sometimes; the results of a small study may be misused to provide “evidence” for whole populations.

It’s misleading/skewed: This is a variant of “the sample is too small” but focusing on it being the wrong sample. All samples have some degree of bias; the important thing is to understand what that might be and most peer-reviewed papers have a section discussing potential limitations of the study. That’s where you can get an understanding of potential shortcomings in the chosen data and the potential to address these with future studies. A common criticism of breed health surveys is that the responses are skewed by people who have ill dogs or that “show people” won’t be honest. That’s why it’s important to look for other studies that perhaps cover different respondent samples to see what results were obtained there. Our first major Dachshund health survey was criticised by some for being biased with responses from 85% show breeders. When we repeated the survey 3 years later and had responses from 85% non-show owners, the findings were very similar.

It’s not scientific: This is a great one that gets trotted out to criticise breed health surveys, in particular. I don’t even know what it means. Is it because the report wasn’t written by someone with a PhD or administered by someone wearing a white lab coat? The expertise of most Breed Health Coordinators is backed-up by advice from the KC’s health team so there is invariably a strong scientific input into the design and analysis of breed surveys these days. The follow-on criticism of breed survey reports is sometimes that “it’s not peer-reviewed”. That’s probably true but most aren’t intended for publication in academic journals. The lack of peer review doesn’t negate their usefulness. Most are reporting basic descriptive statistics such as Means or Medians, and maybe Odds Ratios, often with Confidence Intervals and p-values.

We can’t do anything about it: Findings are written off because, in some people’s view, no action can be taken. For example, we found that incidence of back disease in Dachshunds is higher in Winter months than during the other 3 seasons. It prompts the question why. We could hypothesise that it’s due to them getting less exercise or some temperature effect. Whatever the reason (which more investigation might explore), it’s pretty unlikely that nothing can be done. “We can’t do anything about it” is often just a lazy response to avoid finding something that can be done. In fact, it’s just as lazy as responding with “what can we do to improve it?” unsupported by any suggestions.

We need more research: I’ve written before about the parallels between the tobacco industry’s response to the link between smoking and cancer and the dog world’s response to criticisms of health issues in pedigree dogs. A call for more research is sometimes just a smokescreen, looking for the perfect set of data which, of course, will never be found.

We need facts: This one is used alongside “it’s not scientific” and it’s hard to know what to make of such a comment when the report being referred to is full of data and analyses. The BBC says “a fact is something that can be checked and backed up with evidence” and “facts are often used in conjunction with research and study”. “Opinions are based on a belief or view”. Last year, it was reported that chocolate labradors live significantly shorter lives than the other colours. Although perhaps surprising, this “fact” can be checked by looking at the data and evidence presented in the paper. Additionally, it’s not the first example of a dog’s colour being associated with a particular aspect of its health so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising.

My dogs don’t have that: We need to remember that data presented in papers and reports are from samples of populations. These will contain a range of cases and non-cases. Just because one breeder has never had a particular problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. “The plural of anecdote is not data“! Gregoire Leroy has written an excellent blog at dogwellnet.com about this, which he calls the “sampling effect”.

A nudge towards breed health improvement

My Christmas reading was Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. It’s all about how people and organisations learn (or don’t). One paragraph really struck a chord with me:

Science is not just about a method, it is also about a mindset. At its best it is driven forward by a restless spirit, an intellectual courage, a willingness to face up to failures and to be honest about key data, even when it undermines cherished beliefs.

We do need to question the research that is published on canine health matters, not to knock it down but to understand how it can be used to help us. Every piece of research and every breed survey has the potential to nudge us towards actions that will improve the lives of our dogs.