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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The elephant in the room – a presentation on Breed Strategies to the Dog Breeding Reform Group

Earlier this month I was invited to make a presentation on Breed Improvement Strategies to the Dog Breeding Reform Group (DBRG). The DBRG is a registered charity that aims to promote humane behaviour towards animals by providing and supporting initiatives to improve dog welfare. It wants to be “a voice for dogs” and was founded by Carol Fowler who now chairs the group. Recently, they were the recipient of the CEVA Animal Welfare Award for Charity Team of the Year 2018.

Several members and trustees were present at the International Dog Health Workshop (IDHW) held in Paris last year, so had already heard my 10-minute version of the Dachshund Breed Council’s improvement journey. Two had also been participants in the IDHW Breed Strategy workshop sessions. This was, therefore, an opportunity for me to talk in more general terms about what a strategy for improvement might include as well as describing our approach in the Dachshunds.

For me, it was also quite timely as our breed is about to meet with the Kennel Club’s Health Team to discuss the development of our Breed Health and Conservation Plan. We’re in the second batch of breeds; the first having included all the BreedWatch Category 1 breeds plus Cavaliers, Otterhounds, English Setters and GSDs. Dr Katy Evans has been leading on this for the KC and it’s a major project which will deliver a fantastic review of available evidence for each breed. I’ve also been working with Dr Brenda Bonnett and others who attended the IDHW to produce some resources on Breed Strategies which will eventually be shared via the IPFD website. I was, therefore, able to include some of that thinking in my presentation to the DBRG.

The language of improvement

There are already a variety of strategy documents produced by KCs around the world, notably the Nordic RAS documents. A strategy for a breed is broader than a plan for addressing a particular health issue. It may include any, or all, of the following: disease, genetic diversity, conformation, temperament and working ability. In my view, a strategy for a breed cannot be taken seriously unless it includes plans for implementation, including: Changing owners’ and breeders’ behaviours; Data collection, analysis and monitoring; Demand-side (buyer) actions.

In general, there are 3 levels which need to be defined in a strategy document:

  • Objectives – the specific improvements that a breed is aiming for (such as reducing the prevalence of particular conditions or increasing genetic diversity)
  • Strategies – the guidance on areas in which action needs to be taken (such as communication with breeders or participation in screening programmes)
  • Plans – the specific actions that will be taken (and by whom) for each of the strategic areas (such as creating educational materials or screening a sample of x dogs)

The danger is that the actions are defined in a way that is too vague for them to be implemented; for example “consider setting-up a DNA bank” or “look into the possibility of running a seminar”.

We published our first Dachshund Breed Strategy in 2013 so an update and publication of a Breed Health and Conservation Plan 5 years on seems like a good revision point. Our Health Committee uses the KC’s Health Strategy Guide which covers 4 elements: Leadership, Planning, Engagement and Improvement.

I didn’t really discuss Leadership much at the DBRG but it is evident that the direction given by our Health Committee in particular and Breed Clubs in general (through our Breed Council) is a significant factor in what we have achieved. Our policy has always been one of actions based on evidence and a determination to be open and collaborative.

Weighing the pig won’t make it fatter

One of the questions raised during the presentation was about data and research: how much is needed before action can be taken? I have previously written about the tactics of the tobacco industry to sponsor ever more research rather than to acknowledge that there was enough evidence that smoking is harmful to health. Similar tactics in the field of canine health improvement (“we need more data”) really just delay the inevitable need for action but, more importantly, result in more dogs being at risk for longer than they should. The well-known quote is “weighing the pig every day won’t make it fatter”.

With Dachshunds, we have more than enough data to tell us what our improvement priorities should be and our Health Committee agrees a current Top 3 plus a Watch List of other issues to be aware of. So, while we have done lots of data collection and analysis (and continue to have an online health and death survey), we invest more time and effort into actions that will lead to improvement.

In my presentation, I spoke about some of our communication, engagement and fundraising activities. Many of these wouldn’t have been possible without social media; we use a combination of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and our websites/blogs. We have 3 Pet Advisors on our Health Committee who spend huge amounts of time providing advice online and sharing links to our website advice pages. We are keen that the Breed Council’s pages are the “Go To” places for the most up-to-date information and advice about the breed.

Exaggerated by definition!

The elephant in the room was the shape of the Dachshund which, by definition, is an exaggerated breed when compared with a “normal” dog. It was great that Rowena Packer was present as she was co-author of a 2013 paper “How Long and Low Can You Go? Effect of Conformation on the Risk of Thoracolumbar Intervertebral Disc Extrusion in Domestic Dogs”. One of the conclusions in this research was that “selection for longer backs and miniaturisation should be discouraged in high-risk breeds to reduce IVDE risk”.

The link between body length and the risk of back disease (IVDD) is by no means clear and we know the causes are multifactorial, involving genetics and lifestyle factors. Some people think changing the Breed Standard will make a significant difference, but change it to what? The FCI Standard calls for a shorter-bodied and longer-legged Dachshund, yet the evidence suggests their prevalence of IVDD is little different to here in the UK. I’m not saying the Breed Standard shouldn’t be changed but it’s not going to lead to major changes in IVDD risk.

Our UK Standard was amended in 2008 to clarify the desired proportions and emphasise ground-clearance. 10 years on and we are still seeing dogs in the show-ring with legs that are far too short, overly-deep chests and long backs that are clearly nowhere near the Breed Standard proportions. These dogs are winning top honours as well so we have clearly failed to change the behaviours of judges and the breeding choices of exhibitors in the direction of less exaggerated dogs. Obviously, judges can only assess the dogs placed in front of them but they are doing us no favours if they don’t mention excessive length or lack of ground clearance in their critiques (assuming they actually know what the Breed Standard requires!).

While the evidence of links between body length, length of leg and IVDD may be uncertain, it is hard to argue that exaggerating the conformation of our breed is good for the dogs. The recent article in Our Dogs about the proposed Animal Welfare Regulations explained how some campaigners believe it could be used to ban the breeding of brachycephalics. This could apply equally to other breeds with exaggerated conformation and a high predisposition to illness. I wonder if it’s time we had a Chondrodystrophic Working Group along the lines of the Brachycephalic one.

Exhibitors (and judges) are a soft target for groups campaigning for improved dog health. We should be leading by example, otherwise, we get everything we deserve from our critics. So, while the conformation of Dachshunds may have been the “elephant in the room” at the recent DBRG meeting, I am pleased that groups such as DBRG are being proactive and challenging us to do better.

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”.

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

IPFD_IDHW2017

It would be very easy to view this event run by the International Partnership for Dogs as a talking shop for those of us actively involved in breed health improvement work. I’ve not attended the previous two events, so have nothing to compare it with but, overall, it was an impressive example of international and inter-disciplinary collaboration.

By inter-disciplinary I mean not just geneticists, vets and epidemiologists, but also breeders, owners and campaigners. Clearly, they are never all going to see eye to eye but this event majors on collaboration, with clear messages about what actions can be taken, even if it is by sub-groups of interested parties.

Whenever you get dog people in a room, they inevitably want to talk about their breed and their specific issues. They are passionate about their breed and really want to find practical ways to improve things. That’s something of a challenge in this type of workshop because it can probably never deal with specifics like one breed and one health condition. The real value is bringing these knowledgeable people together to share what works and to generate some energy to create new resources for others to use.

I had the privilege of making one of the plenary presentations and that was a nerve-wracking experience in front of an audience such as this. There were representatives of 17 Kennel Clubs, the FCI and world-renowned scientists as well as laypeople who “just” own dogs. Judging by the feedback, my session went down well. Quite how I was supposed to encapsulate the work our Dachshund Breed Council team has done in less than 15 minutes I don’t know. Nevertheless, I was able to give a flavour of our approach which combines everyone’s passion for the breed with some good data and some basic change management principles that I bring from my day-job as a management consultant. I am sure many of them found me something of an oddity; talking about my enthusiasm for data combined with ideas on how to enthuse people on health projects and change behaviours.

The main work at the event was done in 6 breakout groups, each of which had its own theme and a team of facilitators to help guide and shape the discussions. I worked in the “Breed-specific health strategies” team which came up with some practical actions that should create a series of resources for breed clubs and kennel clubs around the world.

What was fascinating to me, but probably shouldn’t have been surprising, was the impact of national cultures on which approaches will or will not work. For example, the Nordic countries are well advanced in developing Breed-specific strategies and have a culture where they can achieve high levels of regulation of, and compliance from, breeders. Others, like the Benelux and Southern European nations, would risk driving breeders away from their Kennel Club sphere of influence if they were as prescriptive. All this does, however, lead us to the definition of an interesting range of approaches and some understanding of where they might be useful and effective.

What I hope will emerge from this working group is five things:

  • a framework for defining the starting point for an individual breed (e.g. the characteristics that define the issues facing Cavaliers and how they differ from those affecting Bernese Mountain Dogs).
  • a set of templates for breed data collection, covering health, welfare, temperament and conformation. There is a model for this already available via the AKC and we also have a health surveys toolkit available in the UK.
  • a framework for summarising the range of options available to address health issues, together with some understanding of where and when each might be appropriate. This is needed to help give people practical solutions, but also to enable them to see why some may not work or what the unintended consequences might be. At the moment, it’s very easy for people to leap to solutions like “change the Breed Standard” or “do an outcross mating” without having defined the problem adequately.
  • a set of implementation guidelines and case studies which address some of the behavioural change issues many breeds currently face. These need to cover aspects such as education, communication, “nudging behaviour”, recognition and enforcement.
  • finally, some example templates for summarising Breed Improvement Strategies. The Swedish RAS framework is well-proven and, again, our KC has its Breed Health Improvement Strategy Guide.

If we can put all this together, it will be an amazing resource for people to use. We need tools that are practical and which don’t require years of delay while more data is collected or more research is conducted. That’s not to say these won’t be necessary in some cases, but, for many breeds, they need well-thought through actions, sooner, rather than later.

My definition of a “strategy” is an action plan with a rationale; this set of resources might just help accelerate the creation and importantly, the implementation, of strategies that benefit the dogs.

I have blogged separately throughout the weekend about what happened at the workshop and the plans developed in each of the 6 workstreams. Time will tell if the energy visible in Paris actually turns into actions.

Brenda Bonnett, CEO of IPFD did a fantastic job of designing this workshop and the French Kennel Club team brought it to life with a real passion. The next International Dog Health Workshop will take place in the UK in 2019. Paris will be a hard act to follow!

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Brachycephalics: Making the move from data to improvement?

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

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

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

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

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

Complicated or Complex?

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

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

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

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

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

Agile or Big Bang?

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

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

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

Building Better Brachycephalics 2

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

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

 

4 simple steps for communicating canine science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A picture paints a thousand words.

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

Best of Health 0615

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