Systems thinking and (non) Breed Standard Colours

Life, the universe and everything!

Last month, I wrote about the importance of seeing the bigger picture as we consider how to address concerns about pedigree dog health in 2021. I argued that it’s easy to leap to solutions that can actually make things worse unless we can actually see how different factors affect each other. I mentioned that one of the particular issues that might benefit from taking a wider perspective is Non Breed Standard Colour registrations (formerly Colour Not Recognised – CNR). The KC now has separate lists of Breed Standard and NBS colours that breeders can choose from when registering their puppies.

Concerns about NBS colour registrations

“Concerns about NBS” is a pretty broad problem statement and, from what I’ve read in the various online discussions, includes:

  • NBS colours “swamping” BS colours so that traditional colours are no longer the most common
  • NBS dogs aren’t  “pure”; they must contain cross-breeding
  • Health issues such as Colour Dilution Alopecia in dilute coloured dogs
  • Lack of participation in health testing schemes by NBS breeders
  • The KC not protecting purebred dogs that conform to the Breed Standard
  • The KC is “only interested in making money” so they are encouraging “greeders” to breed NBS

If we really want to understand any problem associated with NBS registrations we need to have some supporting data. There are some interesting analyses of NBS vs. BS registrations in some breeds and there is no doubt that Bulldogs and French Bulldogs have seen an increase in the popularity of NBS colours. Cassie Smith has published some really useful analyses of the differences between BS and NBS Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Pugs. Her most recent report examines the rate of Caesarean Sections and shows the BS registered dogs in these breeds all have a higher percentage of litters born by CS than the NBs litters. The reasons for this are unclear and open to speculation. With some other breeds where people are expressing their concerns, there is very little data being discussed.

In my breed, Dachshunds, the main concern seems to be about registration of dilute colours such as Blue and Isabella as there is some evidence that they can be more prone to Colour Dilution Alopecia. Unfortunately, there is very little peer-reviewed evidence of this, which makes it difficult to argue the case for banning their registration on health grounds (unlike double-merle registrations). The situation in Dachshunds is complicated further by the fact that skin conditions/allergies was the second most prevalent health issue identified in our 2018 breed survey (approx. 8% affected). For that reason, the focus of our 2021 breed survey will be skin conditions and we are working with the KC health Team and a veterinary dermatologist on the design and content. We hope this will give us a firm evidence-base for recommendations on the risks of, and factors associated with, skin diseases. 

Systems thinking

Systems models are one way to consider the links and relationships between different factors. They typically start from a statement of a problem. You have to be clear about the problem you are focusing on; in this case I have used the fairly generic term “concerns about NBS colours”.

One challenge of developing any systems model is where to draw the boundaries because, ultimately, everything is part of a wider system (life, the universe and everything; or 42!). If you make the boundaries too narrow, you may end up with “simple but wrong” interventions. If you draw them too wide, you end up with so much complexity that it’s hard to see how or where to intervene to make improvements. Here is my initial attempt at a systems model based around people’s concerns over NBS colour registrations.

For those not familiar with how they work, a solid arrow means the 2 variables increase or decrease together (e.g. registration of NBS colours increases KC income). A dashed arrow implies that as one variable increases, the other decreases (e.g. education of breeders reduces the breeding of NBS colours). The value of systems models is that they can help us to understand what the knock-on effects might be of different types of intervention. Interestingly, very often they highlight what might be counter-intuitive options for interventions. They also help us to avoid so-called unanticipated consequences (which, of course are entirely predictable if you apply systems thinking).

Thinking through options for change

We can use this (relatively simplified) systems model to consider actions that might address concerns over NBS registrations. It’s obvious that there aren’t that many “levers” we can pull.

We can’t directly reduce either the demand for, or breeding of, NBS puppies. There are calls for the KC not to register NBS puppies or to place them on a separate register so they can’t be shown or bred from. What does this model tell us might happen if that “solution” is implemented. Firstly, it doesn’t change either supply or demand. These dogs will continue to be bred and bought. However, it does reduce KC income and the consequential ability of the KC to invest in education programmes for breeders and buyers. It will, therefore, be more likely that these puppies will be bred without any awareness of the importance of health screening. Additionally, it reduces the size of the registered gene pool and makes it less likely that NBS dog owners would consider using a KC registered mate when they do decide to breed.

It leaves the breed clubs with the task of educating people and we know how much of an uphill battle that is. Whether anyone breeding NBS puppies outside the KC registration system would even come across or be interested in breed club messages is debatable.

What can we do?

I’m sure there are other factors and relationships that should be built into this type of model but it gives a feel for the potential consequences of decisions. Before deciding on solutions to address concerns, we need to decide what we are trying to achieve. 

For those of us in breed clubs, one of our primary aims must be to preserve our breed for the benefit of future generations of breeders and owners. That means ensuring the breed is viable from a genetic diversity perspective as well as health and temperament. If we don’t think about these longer term goals, any decisions we make today might backfire on us.

You cannot see what I see because you see what you see”. Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

2021: Time to see the bigger picture

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that focusing on a few narrowly defined issues results in many undesirable consequences that could have been anticipated and avoided, had we remembered to ask about the bigger picture. The mainstream media’s obsession with reporting “cases”, “hospital admissions” and “deaths within 28 days of a positive covid test” meant that many people simply had no other contextual evidence upon which to base any judgements about the impact of coronavirus or the various intervention responses. We’ve seen exactly the same in the world of dog health. Three examples: In the Netherlands, new Brachycephalic legislation focuses on the cranio-facial ratio (CFR) as a means to mandate “healthier breeding”. In the UK, some breed communities are obsessing over colours and whether these should be registered by the Kennel Club. Finally, we continue to find breeders using the results of single DNA tests as the primary criterion for making breeding decisions.

These are just three examples of decisions and calls for action that fail to take account of the bigger picture. In the past, I’ve written about the importance of Systems Thinking; a way of considering how things are connected and how decisions in one part of a system can impact on other parts, sometimes in surprising ways.

As an example, back in March 2020, I wrote: What do we think Covid-19 will do to the downward trend in puppy registrations? 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. We now know that Covid-19 resulted in a boom in demand for, and supply of, puppies.

My Christmas reading last year 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. System 1 can result in simplistic solutions that actually make things worse.

Beware unintended consequences

It really isn’t too difficult to see how some of the 2020 dog health actions could actually make things worse. The Dutch CFR legislation may well stop brachycephalic breeding in the Netherlands but it may increase the importation of poorly-bred examples of these breeds from other countries. It may also drive breeding underground because it will do little to reduce the demand for these dogs. It’s already obvious that the legislation has fueled more polarising conversations and further divided groups who should have the same objective of improving canine health.

The Colour Not Recognised (CNR) – now “Non Breed Standard Colour” – debate here in the UK has led to calls for the KC not to register these dogs or to put them on a separate register where they are not permitted to be shown or bred from. The KC’s first Object (3.1.1), listed in the Red Book, is to promote in every way the general improvement of dogs. Object 3.1.2(b) is the registration of dogs. Although 3.1.2(a) refers to the classification of breeds, there is no mention of Breed Standards anywhere in the 7 Objects. The latest Dogs Trust UK welfare report suggests there are around 10 million dogs in the UK. With annual KC registrations of about 250k and an average lifespan of 10 years, there are probably around 2.5 million KC registered dogs in the UK; i.e. just 25% of the population. If we are looking at the bigger picture, do we really want to reduce the number of dogs that the KC registers? Along with that, do we want to reduce the number of dog owners the KC can influence so that dogs’ lives can be improved?

Readers will recall my earlier articles where I argued that “health tested does not mean healthy” and I really think breeders (and buyers) need to step back and see the bigger picture beyond the world of DNA tests and clinical screening programmes. This is particularly true for breeds that may have just 1 or 2 DNA tests for simple recessive mutations. Removing dogs from the breeding population where there is often already low genetic diversity, on the basis of one mutation, can only make things worse. Similarly, breeders flocking to use a few Clear stud dogs reinforces the Popular Sire issue, reduces genetic diversity and makes it more likely that further recessive mutations will become evident. Puppy buyers are equally at fault; they have been lured into believing that good breeders do every possible health test, irrespective of whether it is relevant or important in a particular breed, or the fact that there are no tests available for other potential diseases.

What do we need to do differently?

Although I have often said that improving dog health is a complex problem and that simple solutions won’t work (on their own), it doesn’t mean that we need to be looking for complex (or even complicated) solutions. We simply need to step back and consider how any proposed solution might impact on the bigger picture. Questioning helps us join the dots and identify how a proposed solution fits in the wider system:

  • How much of a difference will this actually make to the overall problem?
  • What will it cost to implement this?
  • Can it be implemented practically for the target audience?
  • To what extent will this idea be considered acceptable by different groups affected? 
  • Are there any potential unintended or undesirable consequences?

We need to set aspirational goals for the future health of all dogs and recognise that these can’t be achieved overnight. We also need broad policy directions to guide our decision-making. These are probably the areas where different stakeholders need to collaborate, at least initially. Without this agreement from the different interest groups, the detailed proposals for actions will inevitably lead to polarised views and confrontational conversations. Please can we make it a New Year’s Resolution for dog health improvement to keep in mind the bigger picture of what we’re trying to achieve for the benefit of dogs? 

Do we need to get MEAN to improve dog health?

Last month, the International Partnership for Dogs published its call for collaboration in a paper (Think globally, act locally) that was discussed in the Our Dogs editorial and by David Cavill in his column.

The paper reviews actions and attitudes that influence ongoing developments relative to pedigree dogs. It is a call for open, respectful discussions, within and across stakeholder groups (e.g. dog show enthusiasts, kennel and breed clubs, legislators, dog owners, veterinary and welfare groups), as well as countries and regions. It is a call for everyone to examine how our personal biases, attachments, and beliefs affect these discussions; and a call to work together for what is truly in the best interest of dogs and the people who care for them.

It concludes by saying “There are no quick and easy solutions. IPFD is working with collaborators to help create a roadmap to engage all stakeholders. Those deeply committed to ensuring the survival of all that is good about pedigree dogs need to participate in open and respectful dialogue to identify actions for the benefit of all dogs and people. Each of us should honestly consider how our own attitudes, and our actions – or inaction – have contributed to the current situation. And then, together, let us find a positive way forward.

There is a clear message that each of us can and should take action to improve the health of dogs,, i.e. a “me first” approach. However, it is also evident that some individuals and groups are better placed to take a leadership role that has the potential to accelerate the pace of health improvement. I make no apology for repeating my hobbyhorse theme that what is needed is human behaviour change.

Behavioural Insights Team

In 2010, the Prime Minister’s Office set up the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) as ‘the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural science to policy’. The team applies behavioural insights to inform policy and improve public services. One of the first papers describing their work was “MINDSPACE: influencing behaviour through public policy”. It describes ways of “nudging” citizens into new ways of acting by going with the grain of how we think and act. Hence, the BIT was sometimes referred to as the “Nudge Unit”.

MINDSPACE is an acronym for:

Messenger  – we are heavily influenced by who communicates information 

Incentives – our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses 

Norms – we are strongly influenced by what others do 

Defaults – we “go with the flow‟ of pre-set options 

Salience – our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us 

Priming – our acts are often influenced by subconscious cues 

Affect – our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions 

Commitments – we seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts 

Ego – we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves 

While all 9 elements of MINDSPACE may be relevant to nudging the desired behavioural changes needed to improve dog health, I want to focus on just 4: MEAN. As an aside, the imposition of legislation to address brachycephalic health is an Incentives intervention; people will generally act to avoid losses (e.g. fines or bans). However, compliance-based approaches don’t have a great track record, particularly in the world of animal welfare.

The Messenger matters

The weight we give to information often depends on the reactions we have to the source of that information. We are affected by the perceived authority of the messenger (whether formal or informal).  One study showed that interventions delivered by health educators were more effective in changing behaviour compared with interventions delivered by either trained facilitators or teachers.

Whilst expertise matters, so do peer effects. Role models from our peer group can be very influential; people often like to be seen to do what the “top people” do. 

We also have to be wary of messengers that people dislike and who are, therefore, not likely to be influential. For example, if breeders have negative views of their governing body (KC), they may be less likely to listen to messages coming from representatives, however expert they may be, from that organisation.

Ego trips

We tend to behave in a way that supports the impression of a positive and consistent self-image. When things go well, we take the credit; when things go wrong, it‟s other people’s fault. We have an inherent drive to protect our ego and to act and think in ways that make us feel better about ourselves and that we’ve made the right decisions for our dogs. 

Legislation may enforce a degree of compliance, through fear, but rewards and recognition can also be used to nudge people in the right direction. The brachycephalic breeds that have Gold-Silver-Bronze Health Award schemes are a good example of a positive approach. Recognition of early adopters and financial incentives such as screening subsidies can also help make people feel better about the actions they are taking to safeguard their breed’s health.

Affect – the act of experiencing emotion

Emotional responses to words, images and events can be rapid and automatic, so that people can experience a behavioural reaction before they realise what they are reacting to. I wrote recently that “More data won’t improve dog health” where I argued that beating people over the head with more facts was likely to fail. Of course we need data and evidence but, all too often, we have failed to engage with people on an emotional level. 

We sometimes talk about the Instagram Generation and, perhaps, we should give more thought to the power of images and videos (via YouTube), particularly to encourage behaviour change in dog buyers. Stories from owners and buyers talking about their experiences can be very powerful. Infographics are another useful medium but if they are simply used to present yet more data they won’t really engage at an emotional level. 

Norms and peer-pressure

Awareness of “social norms” – the commonly held views of our peers – can exert pressure on people to conform. If everyone else is using a health screening programme, it’s hard to be one of the few who are not. The reverse also applies, of course. Normative pressure depends on there being visibility of who is exhibiting the desired behaviour, so published lists of screened dogs or Gold Certificate holders, help to reinforce what is wanted.

Social networks (online and offline) are incredibly important in explaining group behavioural norms. It’s the echo chamber effect on Facebook; it’s hard to be a dissenting voice when a group is constantly repeating a particular message. However, in changing behaviours for dog health, there’s not much value in “preaching to the converted”. We will need to have some challenging conversations with different groups!

Different strokes for different folks

One of the really important pieces of work now being done by the IPFD is to develop a “roadmap” of tactics and options to help the various stakeholders act on breed health improvement. There are no simple or one-size-fits-all solutions. The MINDSPACE model might just be a useful checklist to help shape the roadmap and identify creative possibilities. 

International Partnership for Dogs Calls for Collective Actions for Health and Welfare of Pedigree Dogs

Press Release:

The International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD) is calling on stakeholder groups – including dog show enthusiasts, kennel and breed clubs, legislators, dog owners, veterinarians, welfare advocates – from all regions and countries to come together to address issues currently impacting the health, welfare, and breeding of dogs.

Our article, Reframing Current Challenges Around Pedigree Dogs: A Call for Respectful Dialogue, Collaboration and Collective Actions (also available in Dutch, Finnish, French, German, and Spanish), responds to a wave of recent legislative actions, especially in Europe. Although primarily focused on brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds, regulations may eventually impact all pedigree and non-pedigree dogs.

“This is a call for each one of us to examine how our personal attitudes, attachments, and beliefs impact these discussions, says Dr. Brenda Bonnett, CEO, IPFD. “And it is a call to work collectively for what is truly in the best interest of dogs and the people who care for them.”

A key part of IPFD’s mission is to encourage, initiate, and facilitate collaboration among key stakeholders in the dog world to enhance dog health, well-being and welfare, and support human-dog interactions. “IPFD is a multi-stakeholder, international organization,” says Dr. Pekka Olson, IPFD Chair. “And it is perfectly positioned to encourage and facilitate open, respectful dialogue and collective actions in the best interest of both dogs and people.” Many of today’s challenges have been part of discussions at and actions from IPFD’s International Dog Health Workshops. The new IPFD International Working Group on Extreme Conformation in Dogs is one such initiative.

IPFD has compiled extensive resources to advance the conversation called for in this article. Together with collaborators from various sectors, we are creating a roadmap for the future, i.e. to help us to Think Globally, Act Locally.

“While we understand and respect the differences in attitudes and realities in different regions and across stakeholder groups, we also know there is common ground and shared purpose,” Bonnett adds. “Everyone who has any interest in dogs, pedigree dogs, and the world of ‘dogs and people’ is encouraged to become engaged in addressing challenges. This article and accompanying resources will support this process.”

The International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD) is a non-profit organization leading a global, multi-stakeholder effort to address issues affecting dog health, well-being, and welfare. Our main platform is Our people include a Board comprised of individuals with respected international reputations, and a small but committed team of consultants in several countries. Volunteers from our Partners and Collaborator organizations and a network of experts are integral to what we do. 

Our Contributors, Partners, and Sponsors include national kennel clubs, international cynological organizations, groups with breed specific interests, educational/academic and professional organizations, and key players in the pet industry. Together we foster collaborative action to achieve our shared goals, support human-animal interactions, and benefit all dogs worldwide.  

For More Information:

Follow developments and find further resources on and learn about the IPFD.

Contact article author, Dr. Brenda N. Bonnett, CEO, IPFD, at

General enquiries

Dog health needs a decision-making revolution

The recent furore about the Dutch government’s legislation affecting 12 brachycephalic breeds has seen yet more polarisation of views on both the definition of the problem and the potential solutions. In summary, the legislation uses a single measurement; the craniofacial ratio to specify which dogs can be bred from. Consequently, the Dutch KC has said it will no longer issue full pedigrees for puppies from those breeds that don’t meet the criterion for the length of nose to skull.

The resulting conversations from interested parties have, perhaps, generated more heat than light. Meanwhile, in a parallel Covid19 universe, we have been told regularly that our government is “following the science”. The question I want to consider in this month’s article is “how can evidence be used more effectively to support decision-making for breed health improvement?”.

We know, from years of observation, that there are many problems with the way evidence is used (or abused). Policy-makers in government often talk about evidence-based policy but the reality is that politicians often simply want to be seen to do something. The result is (usually) flawed policies and ineffective legislation, often with unanticipated consequences that actually make things worse. We also know that, in some breeds, people have cherry-picked data from research studies either to support their own case or to try to undermine other people’s arguments. Scientists value sound methodologies and are trained to develop well-designed studies and to look for robust evidence. Readers of their studies may not have that expertise and, to be fair, many researchers make little effort to make their results accessible for the lay reader.

Since we’re unlikely to develop more dog people with scientific training (in the short-term), we clearly need some other options to enable us all to have better, evidence-based, conversations about the problems and solutions. 

Horizon scanning

Breed clubs often work reactively and get caught out when new studies are published or sensational stories appear in the media. In contrast, researchers regularly do “horizon scanning” to identify emerging issues. This might be as simple as a literature search for papers published in a particular area of interest. This probably isn’t a very practical option for breed clubs but it’s certainly something that Breed Health Coordinators do. In our BHC Facebook Group, we share newly published papers, regularly. These may cover breed-specific health conditions, general canine topics such as husbandry, behaviour and temperament, and genetics. The Kennel Club is also helping breeds to do this horizon scanning with the development of Breed Health and Conservation Plans, each of which includes an extensive literature survey of papers relevant to a breed.

Diverse perspectives

If decision-makers restrict themselves to their historical range of responses to a problem, they may overlook better options. We see this all too frequently in canine health projects; an assumption that yet more “education” or a “better website” will make a difference and change people’s behaviours. Campaigners can fall into this trap as well, with an assumption that “more legislation” or “bans” will solve a long-standing problem. We know from human behaviour change research that solutions based on compliance or punishment are far less likely to have the desired effect than incentive-based and positive-reinforcement options. We also know that successful behaviour change in areas like obesity and smoking often requires 10 or more, different interventions (single, simple interventions just don’t work).

So, in breed health improvement we do need to listen to a range of perspectives on the problem (and ways of solving the problem) because we know that diversity of thinking helps to generate new ideas for solutions. I probably shouldn’t mention Dominic Cummings but there is something to be said for his call for more “assorted weirdos” to be recruited! He was talking about the civil service; maybe we need the same on our breed club committees.

Ready access to data

It’s often hard for breed clubs and BHCs to get hold of research papers and published evidence in a timely way, to inform their decision-making. Finding and storing relevant papers is much easier these days with the various online tools that are available. You can set up a Google Scholar search for any papers containing keywords (e.g. “canine”, “genetic diversity”, “Dachshund”) and you will get regular notifications with links to the papers. Free tools such as Microsoft OneNote or Evernote are then great for storing, indexing and retrieving the papers of interest to you. Increasingly, BHCs are summarising key messages for their breed club members, buyers and owners in the form of infographics using free tools like Canva.

Not all “evidence” is created equal

I have written previously about the Trust Triangle which describes the different types of information you might come across and the levels of trust that can be associated with each. At the bottom of the Trust Triangle are non-experts with opinions. Facebook and social media are awash with these! Journalists and experts with a commercial interest also fall into this category. Next comes expert opinion; these are people who are widely acknowledged to be experts in their field. Many of them will know an awful lot about a very narrow field of science. They too come with their biases and personal agendas but, mostly, they will have years of experience and scientific data to back up their opinions. Moving up the Trust Triangle, we find primary scientific research. This is made public via “papers”, the best of which will be peer-reviewed, rigorous, well-reported and independent. At the pinnacle of trustworthy published scientific research are papers that present systematic reviews of multiple other studies. These publications dissect and critique a set of primary research papers in order to arrive at “the best evidence” to support a particular case (or to disprove it).

We all need to get better at understanding the quality of evidence presented to us, including issues such as bias, chance and risk. We have seen over the past few months that many people are completely hopeless at understanding risk. We see it in canine health screening too; people may not understand what a screening grade means in relation to a decision to breed or not, and the risk of producing “affected” puppies.

A final part of the revolution we need in breed health improvement is to make more use of collaborative group decision-making processes. Different groups lobbing data, opinions and solutions over the fence really isn’t conducive to transparency or consensus-reaching.

Returning to my opening comments about the brachycephalic issue, in 2016 I wrote one of these articles where I said “Overall, the good news is the problem is moving into solution mode” with the formation of the Brachycephalic Working Group. In 2020, we’ve got more than enough data; we still need more improvement.

You can’t change the bricks, and together, you still have to build a wall.

Chris Hadfield, Astronaut