Dog health needs a decision-making revolution: “Best of Health” July 2020

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

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

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

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

Horizon scanning

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

Diverse perspectives

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

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

Ready access to data

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

Not all “evidence” is created equal

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Hadfield, Astronaut

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