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.

Blue is the colour; CNR is the name…

Blue is the colour; CNR is the name…

Recently, we had the misfortune to discover that Johanna Konta (Tennis player) has bought a Blue Dachshund and was proudly sharing pictures on her Instagram page. The picture received over 4000 “Likes” and generated lots of discussion among Dachshund Facebook Group members.

Blue is a colour that occurs legitimately in the genetics of Dachshunds but is a “Colour Not Recognised” (CNR) as far as Kennel Club registration is concerned. Our survey data suggests that between a third and half of Blue Dachshunds can suffer a skin condition – Colour Dilution Alopecia (CDA – and there is no DNA test for this condition). Hence, we have been working hard on social media to educate potential owners not to buy dilute coloured Dachshunds (we also have Isabella – sometimes referred to as “Lilac”). We also encourage owners of these dogs not to breed from them.Blue

In the past year there has been a significant increase in the number of dilute coloured Dachshunds being sold in the UK. The majority are being bred by French Bulldog and English Bulldog extreme-colour breeders; many using dogs imported from the USA or Eastern Europe, presumably as they see an opportunity to make significant money from “rare-coloured” Dachshunds.

I suppose we can be thankful that, unlike in some other breeds, blue hasn’t been introduced recently by cross-breeding from another breed.

The KC created a CNR Working Group to look at this issue because it has caused much concern among other breeds. I understand they are due to report soon. We raised the CDA and CNR issue with the KC when we met to discuss our Breed Health and Conservation Plan.

No simple solutions

The CNR issue is a classic example of what’s known as a “Wicked Problem”. Lots of people have lots of different views on, and interests in, the problem; it’s not the same problem in every breed; there is no single, simple solution and any actions have the potential to result in unintended consequences. This is the realm of Systems Thinking where lots of factors are interconnected. Logical, cause and effect (reductionist) thinking is unlikely to help us understand how the “CNR system” works nor how to intervene to improve things.

The first step in identifying how to change the system is to understand the forces at play. Wicked problems benefit from being examined in a more holistic way and one of the tools to do that is a Causal Loop Diagram (CLD). It’s a pictorial way to link variables (e.g. Demand for “rare” colours, Registration income) and to tell the story of what’s happening in the system. The example CLD tells the story of what might be happening in Dachshunds (it may be different in other breeds). CNR System Causal Loop Diagram PDF

cnr sd model

In the model, if 2 variables are linked with a “plus” arrow, it means they increase together (e.g. the more demand there is, the more dogs are bred). A “minus” arrow means that, as one variable increases, the other decreases (e.g. the better educated buyers are, the lower the demand for rare colours). This Causal Loop Diagram also shows us that there are 4 distinct perspectives on the CNR problem in Dachshunds:

  • Demand
  • Supply
  • KC Registration Policy
  • The health and welfare of Dachshunds

These perspectives help us to see that, if we want to change what happens as a result of the system, multiple actions will be needed.  

How to change the system

Once you can see the systemic forces at play, you can then consider the conditions that either enable or hinder change. That way, you can reduce the chances of cherry-picking “simple but wrong” solutions. We need to look for “leverage points” but it’s important to understand that some of these will have minimal impact or might actually make things worse.

There are plenty of models describing how to change systems and, generally, they highlight 3 levels at which interventions can be made. Of course, being a system, the interventions and the levels are interdependent.

The biggest leverage and impact usually results from challenging the system by understanding its goals, the mindsets that created it and the current narratives. For CNR Dachshunds, these could include:

  • Only register Breed Standard colours of dogs with a known pedigree vs. Register any dog that looks like a Dachshund, whatever its colour/pattern
  • Keep the breed “pure” vs. Recognise that cross-breeding has always happened
  • KC registration is “exclusive” vs. KC registration is “inclusive”
  • “Greeders” vs “Breeders”

The next most effective areas to look for leverage points are the relationships and the power dynamics in the system. These could include:

  • Groups working in isolation vs. Engaging with campaigners (e.g. RSPCA, DBRG, CRUFFA, CARIAD)
  • One-size fits all solutions vs. Open source, marginal gains solutions
  • Individual communication & education campaigns vs. Joined-up campaigns
  • The KC sets the registration rules vs. Collaborative rule-setting
  • The show community shapes the rules vs. Breeders, owners & others shape the rules

People who don’t think about the system tend to start by looking for actions which, typically, have the lowest leverage and impact. Often, these relate to the policies, practices and resources that exist in the system, such as:

  • Registration rules & “acceptable” colour lists
  • Registration pricing policies
  • Data sharing on numbers of CNR dogs and how many have health issues (vs. non-CNR)
  • Legislation on imports & enforcement of this
  • Licencing regulations
  • ABS rules & guidance
  • Breed Club Codes of Ethics
  • Availability of alternative registries
  • Colour/pattern clauses in Breed Standards
  • Breed Club resources for communication & education

Some, or many, will need to be changed, but only after addressing the higher-leverage issues. Starting with these is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope!

Light at the end of the tunnel?

One of the other useful features of the Causal Loop Diagram is that we can identify 2 types of feedback loop. Reinforcing loops occur when an initial action is reinvested to create more of the same type of change. For example, the more a celebrity’s Instagram picture of a blue Dachshund is liked and shared, the more people see it and the more demand it creates for blue Dachshunds. Growth can’t continue forever so, wherever there is a reinforcing loop, there is typically a balancing loop to stabilise the system. However, this might not be as strong as the reinforcing loop or it might take time to kick-in. In our case, a balancing loop is owners finding their blue Dachshunds have health issues, which more people become aware of and which then reduces demand. Another balancing loop might be that unsuitable owners discover that Dachshunds were bred to work and aren’t suitable to live life as “fur-babies” or fashion accessories, and when they share their problems on social media other people become less likely to want one.

Behind every growth in demand is at least one reinforcing loop but there are also, invariably, balancing loops which come into play to resist further increases in demand. In the case of dog health and welfare, the question is whether those balancing loops kick-in soon enough to avoid a crisis for the dogs and their owners.

In a way, we’re lucky that the demand for, and supply of, blue and other “rare”coloured Dachshunds is still quite low compared with the CNR (and other colour) challenges facing the French Bulldogs, Bulldogs, Pugs and Staffordshire Bull Terriers (to name just 4 breeds). We have time to look at our particular CNR system and identify workable solutions. What works for us may well not work in other breeds and vice versa. However, we can and should all learn from each other.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”.
L. Mencken

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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.

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”.