The Cynefin Model and leadership for breed health

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

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

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

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

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


Rules and Good Practices

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

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

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

There are few “right answers”

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

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

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

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

The new “normal”

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

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

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












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













Happy, healthy dogs: breeders and owners want the same thing!

Best of Health

Sometimes, it’s easy to lose sight of what we’re all striving for. With vocal and polarised “camps”, the noise we hear often boils down to “ban x breed” at one end of the spectrum and “breed x is perfectly healthy” at the other. These positions are sometimes exacerbated by cherry-picking of data and evidence to prove a point or reinforce a position. What we all have in common is a desire to breed and own happy, healthy dogs, whatever our chosen breed might be.

I’ve written before that improving canine health and welfare requires a whole-systems approach. This is difficult because people with particular interests (or prejudices) are often only interested in proposing “simple” solutions to what is actually a complex problem. Another reason it is difficult is that there are too few tools and techniques that are widely understood for people to use in order to get a better understanding of the problem and to evaluate potential solutions.

I was therefore particularly interested to read a paper published in the Canine Genetics and Epidemiology Journal last month. The paper is open access and, although it includes some complicated analytical techniques, is well worth a read because of the novel approach it discusses. “Assessing the relative importance of health and conformation traits in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel” asked a sample of breeders, judges and owners to assess the relative importance of health and conformation traits when selecting a Cavalier. The study was carried out by a team in Belgium (Wijnrocx, François, Goos, Buys and Janssens) with support from the Belgian Cavalier Club and the Cavaliers for Life Foundation.

By way of background, the plain English summary of the paper says: When selecting a future breeding dog, different disease characteristics and other traits have to be balanced against one another, which makes it a complicated task. In the case of selecting for a large number of traits, the exclusion of all affected animals might be very inefficient, since this may reduce the genetic diversity in a population or breed. A solution could be the use of a selection index, in which all traits of interest are combined into one single value according to their relative weight.

Attributes and choices

Wijnrocx et al chose Mitral Valve Disease, Syringomyelia and Eye Disease as important health conditions in Cavaliers that breeders/owners might be concerned about. They also chose a set of conformational attributes that might influence people’s choice of a Cavalier: Coat Colour, Eye Shape and Muzzle Length. Finally, they included 2 attributes that buyers and breeders would, typically, also consider: Price and Level of Inbreeding. These factors were identified and agreed through consultation with experts and key stakeholders. Clearly, many more factors could have been identified for inclusion in the research but there is a balance to be struck in order not to over-complicate the choices or to make them too burdensome for respondents. Even still, with the number of attributes in this study, the questionnaire was limited to 17 choice sets of 2 alternatives. Respondents were asked to choose between 2 different dogs that they would prefer to use as a breeding animal, given the various attributes.

The initial analysis showed that all the attributes were statistically significant, i.e. they mattered to the respondents, EXCEPT for price. Price was then excluded from the final modelling/analysis. Interestingly, the choices showed there to be no differences in preferences between breeders or owners. Both groups chose Syringomyelia (SM) and Mitral Valve Disease (MVD) as their top 2 traits to consider when buying a Cavalier. Incidentally, the choices they were presented with for SM and MVD were: (a) Tested and present, (b) Not tested or (c) Tested and free. Unsurprisingly, the respondents attributed a higher value to “tested and free” than the other 2 options. SM was prioritised above MVD, followed by Eye Disease. SM was more than twice as important as MVD and 5 times more important than Eye Disease, which possibly reflects the publicity given to the condition as well as respondents’ awareness of its welfare impact and the costs of veterinary diagnosis and treatment.

Respondents’ views of the level of inbreeding in their choices showed that they were concerned with levels over 6%. I checked the KC’s health website and discovered that the average Inbreeding Coefficient for Cavaliers is currently reported as 6.3%. So, breeding litters below this average would have been considered a positive factor by this survey’s respondents.

The “baby-face” factor

I was surprised to see that Eye Shape was scored as the third highest attribute (above Inbreeding) with the preference being for a “prominent” eye (the other choices being “small” and “wall-eyed”). This would seem to tie in with other research into buyer behaviour that suggests people are attracted to baby-like features when looking for a pet (hence the popularity of many of the brachycephalic breeds). The worry, of course, from a health and welfare perspective is that a preference for a prominent eye might result in dogs at risk of some eye diseases or of damaging their eyes. Muzzle length and coat colour were the lowest rated attributes.

While it would be easy to say that the findings of this study and the researchers’ conclusions are unsurprising and/or predictable, I think it’s an interesting approach to try to quantify a range of people’s opinions and place an order of priority on traits. Breeders have always had to juggle multiple traits when making their breeding decisions and, these days, the issues of genetic diversity and complex diseases make those decisions even more difficult and important. The authors describe this as “a first investigation in the rational thoughts of breeders and owners towards some non-economic traits such as desired conformation or beauty traits in the selection of a CKCS“. The work could be extended to include other traits but I’m not convinced that this would shed more light on what’s really important for the health of the dogs. It might be possible, eventually, to create a Selection Index for each dog that would be a measure of its value in the gene pool but the authors acknowledge that Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) would also need to be known for each trait as well as some estimate of genetic correlation.

Priorities and practical steps

The reason this sort of analysis is important is that there are no simple answers to complex problems and, therefore, there will always be a need to identify and prioritise potential trade-offs when looking for solutions. The biggest risk of cherry-picking “simple” solutions is that they actually make things worse as a result of either unintended or unanticipated consequences. Techniques such as the choice experiment described in the Wijnrocx paper could be really useful to help develop a consensus on priorities and practical steps that can be taken to improve the health of dogs.

My closing thought for this month, with apologies to Eliyahu Goldratt: “The world of pedigree dogs is awash with ill-considered solutions to ill-defined problems”.









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”.

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!


Time for individual Breed Improvement Strategies?

Quite a lot has already been written about the KC’s Genetics and Diversity reports with a range of comments from “good news” to “it’s the end of the line for some pedigree dogs”. No prizes for guessing which commentators were at opposite ends of that particular spectrum!

From my perspective, the availability of more data is always good news. There are, however, challenges. Firstly, what we have is a report (or a series of reports at breed level) and it will only have value if somebody can make use of it. It needs to be read, understood and acted upon by the people within individual breeds.

There is a clear role here for Breed Health Coordinators and their associated Health Committees. They need to take the report for their breed and distil it into some key messages using language that will be accessible to breeders and owners.

Each report includes data on 25 years of registrations, trends in Coefficients of Inbreeding, Effective Population Size and the use of Popular Sires. Taken in the round, rather than cherry-picking individual elements of the data, provides a unique insight into the current situation faced by each breed. A breed with growing registrations, but declining EPS and increasing COI will need a different response to a numerically small breed with stable registrations and an already high average COI, but with a variety of recent imports.

What is the picture for your breed?

A potentially useful technique from the world of Systems Thinking is General Morphological Analysis (GMA). This is a method for structuring and analysing complex problems and can be used for developing scenarios, for example when considering options for improvement. It’s also helpful when looking at the relationship between ends (e.g. COI, EPS) and means (breeding strategies).

Taking the data from the KC reports and developing a GMA matrix could result in something like this for “ends”. Each column is for a set of data in the diversity reports and each row describes a range of results that might be found for a breed (e.g. colouring the text to show current status for an individual breed):

Registration Trend COI (Current Mean) COI Trend EPS Popular Sire Use
Declining (>25 p.a.) >25% Increasing 0-25 Extensive; increasing
Declining (5-24 p.a.) 12-24% Static 26-50 Extensive; static
Static 6-11% Decreasing 51-75 Extensive; decreasing
Increasing (5-24 p.a.) 2-5% 76-100 Moderate; increasing
Increasing (>25 p.a.) 0-1% >100 Moderate; static
Moderate; decreasing
Negligible; increasing
Negligible; static
Negligible; decreasing

In practice, this needs to be developed collaboratively, with involvement of the interested parties (genetics experts and breeders) to agree the criteria and “levels” that describe the current situation for any breed.

What actions are needed in your breed?

The second challenge is that there is no “one size fits all” response. Having looked at the data sets for each of the 6 varieties of Dachshund, there are definitely different strategies required. Wires have benefited from numerous imports and have a relatively high EPS, but the breed has a history of Popular Sires. Smooths and Longs have declining registrations and could benefit from imports to increase their gene pool. Mini Longs are declining in popularity, have an increasing level of inbreeding and are also adversely affected by Popular Sires and this appears to be a worrying combination of factors. Mini Smooths have exploded in popularity in the past few years (TV adverts seem to be a causal factor here), but also have an issue with Popular Sires which could create a problem in the future.

For the Dachshunds, a recurring theme is the use of Popular Sires and, I suspect, that will be a theme in many other breeds. While the FCI guidance on Breeding Strategies (*) provides suggestions on how many litters/puppies any individual sire should have, this sort of approach is typically not welcomed in the UK. It seems unlikely that this type of “regulation” would be acceptable to, or popular with, UK breeders in most breeds. Whether any degree of self-regulation is likely to happen, I doubt. I fear that the desire to use the latest, greatest, import or top-winning dog will outweigh any considerations for the future viability of most breeds.

The KC’s website has a page devoted to “managing inbreeding and genetic diversity”. In theory, this could be developed into a GMA matrix for the “means” to address the “ends”. Each column represents “levers that can be pulled” to influence genetic diversity, with rows showing some of the available options. For example, here are some of the options (which range from the “denial” options to the “nuclear” ones!):

Manage Popular Sires Use COIs before Breeding Use Health Tests Use DNA Tests Use Sub- populations Use a different breed
Don’t restrict use Don’t consider litter COI Don’t carry out health tests Don’t carry out DNA tests Inbreed to a line/ family Don’t outcross to another breed
Provide guidance only Breed above COI average Ignore health test results Don’t breed from Affected dogs Breed to other lines Outcross to another variety of the same breed
Recommend limits for use Breed below COI average Take health tests results into consideration Don’t breed from Carrier dogs Breed to dogs from another discipline (e.g. working) Outcross to a different breed
Set rules for use Only breed from Clear dogs Breed to an imported dog
Only mate Affecteds/ Carriers to Clears

Some of these are options that can be influenced or regulated by the KC and Breed Clubs, while others are choices available to individual breeders.

If you wait for the perfect set of data, you’ll wait a very long time!

A final challenge associated with the KC’s Genetic Diversity reports is that some people will simply criticise the data and argue that the conclusions are based on dodgy data! We’ve had this criticism before; we know the KC’s COI calculations are based on available pedigree information and, in the case of imported dogs, that may be from as little as 3 generations.

Tom Lewis and Sarah Blott countered that criticism with a letter to the dog press in December 2013. They said “We know that truncating the pedigree when calculating COIs leads to an underestimate of the rate of inbreeding in a breed. We can then be deceived into thinking the breed has an acceptable rate of inbreeding when, in fact, it does not.

Overall, that one factor probably means COI values quoted in the reports are underestimates for those breeds where there have been multiple imported dogs. All the more reason to acknowledge the lack of genetic diversity in many breeds and agree, at breed level, what actions are required.

Unless breeders wake up to the implications of the past 25 years’ breeding strategies as demonstrated by the KC’s reports, we will see the inevitable consequences of Darwinism in action. Some breeds are already defined as “vulnerable”; the KC reports highlight others that really ought to be implementing conservation programmes. If we were looking at Pandas, Rhinos or Tigers there would be worldwide conservation programmes in place and global cooperation. Breeds such as the Otterhounds have already recognised this risk and are trying to do something about it.

It’s not the KC’s responsibility to make change happen; they have provided the data and can influence the direction of change, but it’s down to breed club communities and individual breeders to act now for the benefit of their breed.

* FCI Breeding Strategies: “As a general recommendation no dog should have more offspring than equivalent to 5% of the number of puppies registered in the breed population during a five year period.”

New systems approach needed to improve dog health

The following article is reprinted with permission from Dog World (published 14/5/15).

MANY, if not most, canine health and welfare problems are linked to people, their behaviour and attitudes. And the issues surrounding such problems are far more complex than have been argued in recent years.

  So said Philippa Robinson at the British Small Animals Veterinary Association’s recent congress, adding that ‘finger pointing’ was no longer helpful and blame counter-productive.

  She suggested a new approach to combat health problems in pedigree dogs, and said the demand for and supply of them needed to be understood for things to change.

  All the agencies and stakeholders involved needed to work together to clarify what health and welfare messages were needed, she said.

  Mrs Robinson discussed the controversies surrounding inherited disease and how she joined the ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed campaign’ in 2007, a year before the documentary was broadcast.

  Mrs Robinson of the Karlton Index, which was launched to monitor and measure canine health, spoke of the three reports on pedigree dog which followed PDE, health including the Bateson enquiry, and the setting up of the Dog Advisory Council.

  After the Bateson report, she said, she began examining ‘how inert the Kennel Club had been on dog health’.

  “But the grip of the anti KC rhetoric began to loosen its grip on me,” she said. “An historical analysis of pedigree dog health reveals that the issues are far more complex than argued in either PDE or any of the three subsequent reports.”

  The KC had launched many initiatives regarding health and welfare including collaborative work with other parties, she said.

  Why had not other agencies taken a stand on canine health, she asked. And if they did speak out what had been the consequence?

  At that point, she said, she decided that canine health problems had not been caused by one stakeholder.

  To those present she recommended a ‘systems thinking’ approach, and looked at supply and demand of dogs and puppies, the fact they could be obtained from many different sources by people with different motives, levels of commitment and sense of duty. She talked about breed type rather than breed, and said she believed England was not a nation of dog lovers but one of dog breed lovers.

  “For whatever, complex, reason, we develop a fondness for specific types of dog,” she said. “This has resulted in each breed having very specific societal and cultural contexts.”

  She discussed the shape of the Bull Terrier’s skull, saying the breed Standard had not driven the change in shape or which dogs were awarded in the show ring.

  “Those factors may contribute to the changes of shape, undoubtedly, but the real influence I would argue is simply human preference,” she said.

  The KC could change the breed Standard to reflect the top shape of skull, she went on, and judges could begin to only award dogs with the top shape, but that would not stop people choosing the dog with the skull shape they preferred, even if it was detrimental to health.

  Mrs Robinson turned to brachycephalic breeds such as the French Bulldog saying that publicity about the breed’s health problems had had no effect on the explosion in its popularity, which was fed and encouraged by celebrity owners.

  “The French Bulldog has become a cultural icon,” she said. “It has been used to sell all sorts of merchandise, services and it is, of course, the current breed of choice for many a celebrity. This breed endorsement has not come from the KC, the show world or the breed club. Even combined, the KC, the show world, the breed club have precious few resources to counter that iconic status. They also have limited spheres of influence to change behaviours and attitudes among the wider population.”

  So how can health and welfare of the breed counter this cultural phenomenon, she asked.

  “Review the breed Standards? Introduce judicious health testing Remove untested dogs and affected dogs from the breeding programme?

  “Remove untested dogs from showing and remove untested dogs from the KC system altogether? Ensure that the public is armed with facts? Issue breeds with health warnings like cigarettes?”

  But the bigger picture needed to be considered, she said, the trends analysed and the points of intervention which would provide maximum leverage identified.

  Much had been done by the KC to improve the French Bulldog’s health, Mrs Robinson said, but most French Bulldogs were being bred away from that system by people who did not take part in health schemes.

  “Some are imported, most often illegally, to fulfil the demand created through the celebrity culture,” she said. “So without wider support of the stakeholder community, without the injection of resources from more than one stakeholder, all the valiant work will struggle to have an impact on the French Bulldog population as a whole.”

  How could the cultural phenomenon be changed, she asked. How could mind sets and contexts be changed? It had to be recognised that people make irrational choices because they are motivated by ‘a complex set of drivers’.

  The veterinary profession, welfare charities, scientists, academia, breeders, local authorities, the KC, welfare campaigners, the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, industry and the public need to work together, she said, to clarify what the health and welfare messages needed to be for each breed and breed type based on evidence and good data. The dynamics of the system which supplies dogs and puppies needed to be understood, as did the human behaviour which determined dog buying and acquiring decisions.

  Key messages needed to be delivered consistently across the board and by all parts of the system.

  “Finger pointing is no longer helpful and blame is counterproductive,” Mrs Robinson said.

  “Meaningful dialogue and courageous and creative action are the things we should be working on jointly.

  “The good news on that is courageous action and creative solutions such as VetCompass, estimated breeding values, genetics and breeder education can be really exciting projects in which to get involved. So let’s stop sniping and start sharing.”