It’s hard to make the grade as a guide dog. Indeed, the success rate is surprisingly low and that means charities could be spending more money than they need to on their training programmes. If they could predict more accurately which dogs will be successful, they could certainly save a fortune.
Working guide dogs must be able to solve problems and navigate obstacles whilst always remaining obedient and calm. This means that they have to ignore natural instincts such as chasing squirrels. There is no breed of dog which offers the perfect combination of traits. There is even an enormous variation in the suitably of individual dogs within the breeds which do often prove to be great guide dogs. Labradors, golden retrievers and German Shepherds are the most common breeds to enter training.
New Research into Guide Dogs
Research has been undertaken by a team at the University of Pennsylvania led by Emily Bray. They studied 98 Labradors, German shepherds and golden retrievers in order to establish if there were any predictors of future success as guide dogs amongst the puppies. All of the young dogs were being trained at Seeing Eye guide dog school in Morristown, New Jersey, from birth to two-and-a-half years old.
The team were keen to look at the link between canine mothering and puppy temperament. They had presumed that attentive mothers would lead to successful puppies. But their study found that the opposite was true. The puppies with the most caring mothers were the most likely to fail the training programme.
The most coddled puppies were slower to solve problems and less able to control their natural impulses. The surprising finding lead the team to look at the reasons why good mothers produced unsuitable puppies for guide dog training. They discovered a big clue when observing how mothers nursed their pups.
Problem Solving Ability
Mothers that nursed from a sitting or standing position rather than lying down raised puppies who were less likely to fail the training programme. This could be because it is easier for pups to feed when the mother is lying down and so they don’t learn to problem solve from an early age.
More research will be needed to look at all aspects of puppies’ upbringings. The role of genetics should also be explored to see how inherited traits influence success rates. Intelligence, personality and temperament can all be inherited and so it is highly likely that genetics will prove to be significant predictors of great guide dogs.
The team have been quick to point out that people should not draw any conclusions about humans from their research. They wouldn’t want their findings to be used to suggest that neglected children become big success stories!