Who’s looking at the bigger picture?

It’s very easy to get so focused on what’s going on in your own breed (or breeds) that you lose sight of the bigger picture and wider context of what’s happening in the world of dogs. For some breeds, particularly the brachycephalics, there has been a huge amount of scrutiny for many years. The most proactive breed clubs and Breed Health Coordinators have focused on getting messages across about good breeding practices and the value of health screening programmes. Some, though, are less proactive and are perhaps wondering what new legislation is going to hit them. If their short-term focus is on tinkering with their Breed Standard or uptake of a single-gene DNA “health” test, I suspect they will be in for either a disappointment or a shock. While it may be true that “backyard breeders” are the cause of many health issues through poor breeding practices and a disregard for the Breed Standard, it’s likely that those in breed club communities will be impacted first. Breed club communities and those who show their dogs are an easily identifiable target for criticism.

At a National level, Kennel Clubs have to juggle and balance priorities across multiple breeds. Decisions that are made for one breed can often have wider implications across other breeds. Here in the UK, there was a time when the KC would consider implementing “Control Schemes” in specific breeds. Probably the best-known example is CLAD testing in Irish Setters.

With effect from 1 July 2005, the Kennel Club would only register Irish Setters that are proven to be clear of CLAD, or hereditarily clear of CLAD e.g. both parents are clear. With effect from 1 January 2008, the Kennel Club ceased to accept any registrations for Irish Setters produced from a CLAD carrier parent mated to a clear or hereditarily clear parent. Breeders wishing to register progeny from a carrier after this date were required to apply for permission prior to the proposed mating, and applications are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing

I remember going to a meeting more than 20 years ago with Professor Jeff Sampson (the KC’s geneticist at the time) where we asked if a control scheme could be introduced for Miniature Dachshunds so that cord1 PRA could be eradicated from the breed. Thankfully, in hindsight, Jeff argued that this would not be in the best interests of the breed and could actually make things worse by further reducing genetic diversity. We had similar discussions with the KC about banning registrations of Mini Wires that were affected by Lafora Disease or that were untested. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we now know that early onset PRA in Miniature Dachshunds is not caused solely by the cord1 mutation. We have also been able to reduce the risks of breeding Lafora-affected puppies without having the constraints of a Control Scheme.

These days, the KC’s health and genetics advisors are very much aware of the challenges associated with loss of genetic diversity and, I believe, the current policy is that Control Schemes are not considered to be an effective tool for managing inherited diseases. This is a good example of how the role of the KC is to understand the bigger picture and to educate breed clubs and breeders on the potential adverse consequences of what might seem like “simple” solutions.

The KC policy that puppies from merle-to-merle matings cannot be registered is another example of where seeing the bigger picture can (and should) influence a decision. The number of merle-to-merle matings was always very low and the risks of breeding health-compromised puppies was known to be high. As such, this decision made sense across multiple breeds where the merle gene is present. The impact of this policy on genetic diversity is low but the impact on avoiding significant health risks is high.

Unintended consequences

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples where breed clubs might argue for registrations to be restricted on the basis of health tests or where they believe there are health issues associated with particular aspects of the Breed Standard (e.g. conformation or colour). Stepping back and considering the bigger picture and potential undesirable consequences might lead us to alternative approaches. For example, if people can’t register with the KC, will these dogs continue to be bred outside the KC system or will their breeders register them with false details? In the former case, we still end up with unhealthy dogs that may suffer from lifelong illnesses and, in the latter case, we end up with a KC registry based on unreliable information. The KC might also have to consider whether a decision that apparently makes sense in one breed would have knock-on effects if applied to other breeds.

At an international level, the challenges of joining the dots and making sense of varying KC policies and diverse national legislation are even greater. Our KC has reciprocal agreements with many other KCs and the FCI acts as a worldwide body for 98 members and contract partners, with oversight of 355 breeds.

What is truly in the best interest of all dogs?

The International Partnership for Dogs is another organisation taking a broader perspective on the world of dogs. They have recently published their Annual Report for 2021. In her opening remarks, Acting CEO Katariina Mäki says “we continue to work with our stakeholders to educate our global community and promote what is truly in the best interest of all dogs”. She also says “We need collaboration among our stakeholders now more than ever”. That group of stakeholders includes KCs, groups with breed-specific interests, academics/researchers and members of the pet industry, including DNA test providers. Their Harmonization of Genetic Testing for Dogs Database now includes 82 academic and commercial Genetic Test Providers (GTPs) in 22 countries. IPFD’s online platform dogwellnet.com is their main channel for connecting with the dog community and, if you haven’t already done so, I’d recommend joining the 2000+ people who have signed-up for a free account which will give you access to all of their resources. If you’re a breeder or breed club officer, the information and tools available for 182 breeds are immensely valuable. Over the past couple of years, IPFD has put a lot of effort into creating over 1000 Breed Relevance Ratings for the list of nearly 2000 breed-specific DNA tests that are available. These evidence-based ratings, together with Globally Relevant Integrated Health Profiles (GRIHP) describe the big picture of health on conditions of interest within a specific breed.

Next month, IPFD will be running their second Virtual Dog Health Workshop with a focus on Genetic Diversity. I’ve been invited to attend, so I expect there will be plenty to share in future “Best of Health” articles.

COMPRAM: A model for collaboration

In October, I attended a webinar run by the Operational Research Society of which I am a member which I thought had some relevance to problems we are trying to solve in the world of pedigree dogs. The speaker was Professor Dorien De Tombe from the Netherlands who has developed a methodology for solving complex societal problems. Examples of complex societal problems include climate change, terrorism, urban planning, poverty. Healthcare issues such as obesity, malaria and SARS-COV2 are also included.

These are real-life problems with a high degree of complexity and with many different individuals, groups and organisations involved; often with conflicting agendas and where emotions can run high. One of the key points is that they are interdisciplinary problems and cannot, therefore, be solved by one particular set of experts or narrow interest groups that have their own “simple solution” in mind.

De Tombe’s COMPRAM model for dealing with these types of problems was endorsed by the OECD in 2006 when they advised governments to adopt the approach to handle problems that threaten global safety. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, and she pointed out that most governments failed to act in an appropriate way to deal with the complexity of SARS-COV2. The result, unsurprisingly, is a whole series of unanticipated and undesirable consequences (a topic I have written about before).

You don’t have to look very far into the world of pedigree dogs to see that we too face a number of complex societal problems. Animal welfare, puppy farming and cruelty are obvious examples where “simple solutions” such as yet more legislation have consistently failed to make much of an impact. Similarly, the health of pedigree dogs including inherited diseases, genetic diversity and exaggerated conformation are also clearly complex. We can add into the mix some of the more current discussions about what should or should not be registered by the Kennel Club and we have a series of interconnected issues with widely diverging views on what “the solution” is.

Knowledge, power and emotions

De Tombe has been developing methodologies and tools for handling these sorts of complex problems since 1994. In fact, she avoids using the term “solving” and prefers to say “changing” because a solved problem for one person or group is often the start of a problem for other individuals or groups. All these problems have 3 main elements: knowledge, power and emotions

We know there are problems with pedigree dogs; lots of data has been collected and analysed and there is ongoing research to develop our knowledge further. Different individuals and groups have “power” and often also their own definitions of both the problem and a desired solution or end goal. We have seen that these complex problems result in high emotions; you only have to read the social media posts of dog owners, breeders, vets and campaigners to see this.

The process for handling these problems can be broken into 2 phases. In the first phase, the problem is defined. In the second phase, the problem is changed (solved). All too often, people who are emotionally invested in the problem leap straight to phase 2 and present their preferred menu of (what they believe are) solutions.

Problem definition is critical

My reflection on the De Tombe approach is that organisations such as the Kennel Club and the International Partnership for Dogs invest significant effort in working with the right people to define the various complex pedigree dog problems. 

Problem definition starts with becoming aware that there is a problem, asking questions about it and actively putting it on the agenda to be handled. In the case of the KC, the Dog Health Group and its 4 sub-groups are multi-disciplinary experts who can analyse data, exchange knowledge and begin to conceptualise the problem. The definition of a problem usually includes some historical perspectives (how did a breed originate, what did it look like, what were its genetic origins) as well as the current situation. It may also include a recognition that the current situation could become much worse if no action is taken.

To the rest of the world, perhaps this looks like delaying tactics or “kicking the can down the road” but the aim is two-fold; firstly to develop an expert understanding of a particular problem and secondly to build collaborative relationships with those who have the power to own and implement solutions.

Start with the end in mind

Changing the problem starts with considering the detailed data and evidence, plus defining the desired goal. The desired goal is the direction in which the experts or those involved in the problem would like to change the problem. Goals are about what we might want to improve, increase or reduce (e.g. increase longevity, reduce welfare harms). They are not what we might want to “do” (e.g. change the Breed Standards, make health testing mandatory, prevent particular dogs from being registered). Start with the end in mind!

In this second phase, other groups or individuals (beyond those experts who initially defined the problem) can come together to develop ways to handle the problem from the basis of good evidence. In the case of pedigree dogs, representatives of breed clubs are key people to involve. For health issues, each breed has a Health Coordinator and many also have health committees and the KC tries to work closely with these to formulate viable changes. The development of Breed Health and Conservation Plans is a good example of the collaborative approach taken. The Brachycephalic Working Group is another example of how a group of people with different views has been brought together to develop a consensus action plan. The 4 International Dog Health Workshops and, more recently, the IPFD’s DNA Test Reporting Workshop are further examples of how a collaborative approach can lead to practical and supported improvement actions. 

Pitfalls to avoid

There are many pitfalls in the process of handling complex problems. I’ve already mentioned the desire of some people to leap to solutions which they are passionate about before the problem or goal has even been defined.

Inviting the wrong people to participate in the process can also lead to inappropriate solutions if, for example, a small group of “loud voices” dominates the discussion. Groupthink is another team issue whereby poor quality analysis and decision-making goes unchallenged. Inviting “outside experts” to comment or play devil’s advocate can help avoid this.

It’s all too easy to end up with negative reactions to the solutions that are proposed and implemented. A key step in the De Tombe approach is for the decision-making team to take time to discuss the possible consequences and reactions before going ahead with them. Elijah Goldratt said “The world of business is awash with ill-considered solutions to ill-defined problems”

There are already some great examples of collaborative approaches to handle complex canine problems and we should always bear in mind that, for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong!

Judging for health should not be controversial

A recent Our Dogs “Question Time” feature on vet checks at Championship shows for Best of Breed winners in Breed Watch Category 3 got me thinking about the role of judges in protecting breed health.

It’s hard to believe that it’s 9 years since vet checks were introduced at Crufts 2012 for what were then known as “high profile breeds”. The plan for these checks had been announced by the KC during 2011 but its significance had probably not been realised until the show in 2012. It’s worth recalling that these checks were introduced in the period following Pedigree Dogs Exposed and at a time when there were attempts to shame Crufts off our television screens completely. Pedigree dogs were in the spotlight and the KC was arguing that dog shows had the potential to be a force for good in demonstrating fit and healthy purebreds. Professor Patrick Bateson, in his 2010 report on pedigree dog breeding, had also referred to the influence of dog shows on dog welfare:

“I was persuaded that showing and judging constitute a powerful lever for change. That has been demonstrated clearly in the past in the documented and undisputed changes in form that have taken place in many breeds. My concern therefore is that this powerful lever should be effectively applied to achieve the desired improvements in welfare.” and…

Judging is not an exact science but it needs to be informed by recent advances in knowledge. It would be improved with a mechanism for re-training or updating judges over time (what in other circles would be termed continuing development). It would also be enhanced by the introduction of a mechanism for singling out judges who manifestly upheld welfare principles and kept themselves up-to-date.”

At the time, the vet checks were hugely controversial among the show community and made headlines because 6 of the 15 Crufts Best of Breeds failed the examination and were unable to enter their Group competitions. Social media responded with new groups set up in protest at the KC’s actions. That year’s KC AGM also had some heated discussion but a proposal to halt the vet checks was not supported.

The veterinary press, unsurprisingly, took a different perspective and were generally supportive of the vet check process. In a letter to the Vet Record, the 2 Crufts vets (Alison Skipper and Will Jeffels) wrote “The fact that the KC gave two ordinary general practitioners the authority to overrule the decisions of internationally famous judges at the world’s biggest dog show, and trusted us to make impartial decisions about the dogs we examined, is a great mark of confidence in the integrity and ethics of our profession. We should not let them down. We very much hope that many other vets will support the KC by volunteering to carry out these checks at a championship show.

In contrast, the following year all the high profile breeds passed their Crufts vet checks and proceeded to the group competitions. 

Breed Watch

The concept of high profile breeds has now been incorporated into the Breed Watch scheme with those breeds being in Category 3. The fact that there are now just 9 Category 3 breeds is a reflection of the progress made by those that have been moved to Category 2. Vet checks remain as a reminder to both judges and exhibitors that health points of concern that are visible to the lay-person should not be acceptable in the show-ring.

Whether vet checks should be extended to all breeds prior to group competition is debatable. Personally, I’d have no issue with it and, if the dogs are fit and healthy, judges and exhibitors should have nothing to fear. The logistics of it could, however, be quite challenging and with more vets involved they would clearly need to have been fully briefed on their role. On balance, I think vet checks are proportionate for Category 3 breeds. The onus is on those in Category 2 not to allow unhealthy exaggerations to creep in that would result in them being moved to Category 3.

Breed Watch health reporting for CC judges of Category 2 and 3 breeds is mandatory but voluntary for Category 1 breeds. Honest reporting of any concerns can only be beneficial if we are serious about shows being a showcase for healthy pedigree dogs.

The tail wagging the dog?

It’s also easy to argue that judges and vets completing visual assessments at Championship shows is the “tail wagging the dog”. If the first time that a judge has to make any comment on the health of a dog they are assessing is when they first award Challenge Certificates, then we’ve missed a huge part of their apprenticeship. First time CC judges will have spent a minimum of 7 years on their journey of education, mentoring and hands-on judging. Awareness of health matters should be baked into that process. How many people realise that Breed Watch is embedded into the introductory section of every Breed Standard?

“Breeders and judges should at all times be careful to avoid obvious conditions or exaggerations which would be detrimental in any way to the health, welfare or soundness of this breed. From time to time certain conditions or exaggerations may be considered to have the potential to affect dogs in some breeds adversely, and judges and breeders are requested to refer to the Breed Watch section of the Kennel Club website here https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/events-and-activities/dog-showing/judging-dog-shows/breed-watch/ for details of any such current issues.”

As such, aspiring judges should be learning about Breed Watch and how its principles are meant to be applied, throughout their education. I wonder how much time is spent at Breed Appreciation Days discussing how to assess for visible health concerns compared with how to assess length of ribbing or turn of stifle. Similarly, how many mentoring sessions involve a discussion of visible points of concern as well as discussing dogs’ hind angulation? It really shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to do this because, in some breeds, the visible points of concern are closely aligned to faulty construction or movement. Surely we should be encouraging education and assessment of Breed Watch aspects throughout a judge’s career.

I have to declare an interest as I am a member of the KC’s Breed Standards and Conformation Group (BSCG), a subgroup of the Dog Health Group. The BSCG sets policy for Breed Watch and reviews the reports submitted by judges. Opinions expressed here are my own and not those of the BSCG.