2017-10-05 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania suggests successful guide dogs have “tough love” moms. Researchers found doting, “helicopter” moms seem to hinder their pups, in this case reducing the likelihood of successfully completing training to become guide dogs.

The study was led by Emily Bray, who earned her Ph.D. in May from the Department of Psychology in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. She collaborated with her advisors in the biology, psychology, veterinary medicine and biostatistics departments. Bray’s paper was published in an August 2017 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Her research was conducted at The Seeing Eye, a Morristown, NJ organization that breeds, raises and trains dogs to guide the blind.

“It’s remarkable,” Bray said. “These puppies were with their mom for only five weeks and it’s having an effect on their success two years later. It seems that puppies need to learn how to deal with small challenges at this early age and, if they don’t, it hurts them later.”

A recent study suggests successful guide dogs often have “tough love” mothers. A recent study suggests successful guide dogs often have “tough love” mothers. The study also found that dogs’ cognition and temperament were associated with program success or failure, identifying specific tests that were predictive of the dogs’ eventual performance. The results contribute to an understanding of the long-term effects of maternal style and suggest ways guide-dog-training organizations might better identify dogs more likely to succeed.

Guide dogs presented a useful group to study for several reasons. First, at The Seeing Eye, many puppies are raised in a single location under fairly controlled conditions. Second, the dogs have a clear measure of success: either they graduate from the program to become a working guide dog or they are released. And third, success as a guide dog isn’t easy; the dog must be willing and able to navigate a complex and often unpredictable environment while remaining obedient and attentive to its owner.

The Seeing Eye was an enthusiastic partner in the research, cooperating with the Penn team to learn more about which factors influence the success of their puppies for practical reasons too. The Seeing Eye invests a huge amount of money in their training program and presently has about a 70 percent success rate.

Bray and her team of undergraduate assistants took videos and closely observed 23 mothers and their 98 puppies for their first five weeks of life. They documented things like Mom’s nursing position, how much time Mom spent looking away from the puppies and how much time she spent in close proximity to her puppies or licking and grooming them. Analysis of this data revealed differences between the mothers, with some being particularly attentive; others less so. In a test of salivary cortisol levels, a measure of stress, more vigilant mothers had higher baseline levels and higher spikes in cortisol when puppies were temporarily removed from them compared to those less vigilant.

When the researchers tracked the puppies a couple of years later, they found those with mothers that were more attentive were less likely to graduate and become guide dogs. In particular, those dogs whose mothers nursed more often lying down, as opposed to sitting or standing up, were less likely to succeed.

Why? If a mother is lying on her side, the puppies have free access to milk; but, if the mother is standing up, the puppies have to work to get it. A hypothesis might be you have to provide your offspring with minor obstacles they can overcome for them to succeed later in life because life as an adult involves obstacles. (Do you see any implications for raising independent, successful children?)

The researchers conducted a second part of the study after the puppies lived with foster families and then returned to The Seeing Eye for specific guide-dog training. The dogs, now young adults at 14 to 17 months old, were given tests to measure their cognition and temperament.

One test of cognitive problem-solving skills involved a game where the dog has to perform a multi-step task to reach a treat. Tests of temperament included observing the dogs’ reactions, such as how long they took to bark when an umbrella was being opened or when entering a room with a mechanical cat they’d never seen before.

Some dogs were calm and solved problems quickly, while others were more reactive and took longer at the problem-solving tasks. Dogs that did well at the tasks and took longer to bark at novel objects were more likely to succeed in the guide-dog-training program. The researchers reported dogs’ cognition and temperament were interrelated.

“People talk about them as though they’re separate but we know that they’re related,” Bray said. “If you give dogs a puzzle box but they’re so neophobic {afraid of something new} that they won’t even approach it, they’re not going to be able to solve it.”

Further research is needed to exactly exactly why the attentive mothers were more likely to have puppies that were released from the program. It’s hard to determine if some puppies become more anxious later because they have been coddled or picked up on their mom’s anxiety. They may have also inherited a genetic component responsible for their behavior. Bray hopes to continue to explore these questions in her postdoctoral work with Canine Companions for Independence.

“With mothering, it seems like it’s a delicate balance,” she said. “It’s easy to be like, ‘Oh, smothering moms are the worst,’ but we aren’t exactly sure of the mechanisms yet and we don’t want to tip too far in the other direction either.”

For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643- 927): “Shorty”17-533 is a senior stray. This sweet fellow resembles a Shiba Inu without pointy ears or a curled tail. “Princess” 7-385 is a petite tabbico who raised her seven kittens at the shelter. All the babies were adopted. Now it’s Mom’s turn for a home.

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