Guide dogs need tough love as pups

Study finds those that do not have it easy tend to suc­ceed at train­ing school later.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - MELISSA HEALY melissa.healy@la­times.com

Study finds those that do not have it easy in first weeks of life tend to suc­ceed at train­ing school later.

With all the suck­ling, snooz­ing, romp­ing and tum­bling they do, how can you look at a lit­ter of pup­pies and pick out the ones that have what it takes to be a suc­cess­ful guide dog?

A new study sug­gests one of the first tip-offs may come from the kind of at­ten­tion that mom gives her pup­pies in their first three weeks of life.

In a group of 98 pup­pies (39 Ger­man shep­herds, 44 Labrador retriev­ers and 15 golden retriev­ers) that were bred to be­come guide dogs for peo­ple with visual dis­abil­i­ties, it wasn’t the pups that got the most licks and milk on de­mand that were most likely to suc­ceed.

It was the ones that didn’t.

Strongly rep­re­sented in the roughly 32% of pup­pies that washed out of “seeing­eye” dog train­ing school were those that, in their first three weeks of life, spent lots of time nurs­ing while their mom lay on her side, and that got lots of ex­tra lick­ing from mom.

Among the 66 pup­pies that, at age 2 1⁄2, grad­u­ated from guide dog train­ing school, re­searchers noted a clear trend: Many were pup­pies that at var­i­ous points had to scram­ble for a chance to nurse while their mom was sit­ting, stand­ing or march­ing away.

The au­thors of the new re­search, from Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s de­part­ments of psy­chol­ogy, bio­statis­tics, bi­ol­ogy and vet­eri­nary medicine, sur­mise that, in a group of pup­pies that are roughly equally en­dowed with the in­tel­li­gence to suc­ceed at guide dog school, the ones that have the best chance of suc­cess are those that had at­ten­tive moms but nev­er­the­less en­dured just a lit­tle bit of stress as ba­bies.

Their re­port was pub­lished Mon­day on­line in the jour­nal PNAS.

“Ver­ti­cal nurs­ing” — suck­ling while mom is up­right and not wholly open for busi­ness — is chal­leng­ing and, as a re­sult, not very com­mon. Get­ting a bit of nour­ish­ment that way in­volves find­ing a nip­ple that’s hid­den away or on the move, and keep­ing up.

Pup­pies that suc­ceed at it are ei­ther blessed with special lev­els of per­se­ver­ance, in­ge­nu­ity and prob­lem-solv­ing, or they de­velop it (and are re­warded for their trou­bles with a drink of milk) when mom meets most of their needs, but makes them work just a bit harder once in a while.

Ei­ther way, by the time they’re young adults, at 14 to 16 months, these mo­bile nurs­ers have an edge that al­lows more of them to suc­ceed. As these gen­tly stressed ba­bies grow into their own, they dis­play bet­ter abil­i­ties to nav­i­gate around ob­sta­cles, to cope with un­fa­mil­iar set­tings and ob­jects, and to sup­press their in­stinc­tual re­sponses than do dogs that com­manded the lion’s share of mom’s milk and at­ten­tion.

The tasks in young adult­hood that best pre­dicted suc­cess in guide dog school drew upon these qual­i­ties. By the time these dogs reached 2 1⁄2, those dif­fer­ences were pretty good pre­dic­tors of whether they had what it takes to com­plete a guide dog’s rig­or­ous train­ing.

The re­searchers put the young dogs through a bat­tery of 11 be­hav­ioral tasks in a bid to iden­tify which best pre­dicted suc­cess in guide dog school. They found that dogs that would grad­u­ate were far more likely than washouts to crack a mul­ti­step prob­lem-solv­ing test that in­volved gain­ing ac­cess to a treat. And those that held off bark­ing or whin­ing long­est when con­fronted with a bat­tery-op­er­ated toy cat were also more likely to suc­ceed than those that quickly protested when left in a room with a pair of these di­a­bol­i­cal crea­tures.

A third task yielded pre­dic­tions of suc­cess that dif­fered ac­cord­ing to breed. The test in­volved the ex­per­i­menter stand­ing in front of the young adult dog with a black fold-up um­brella and, out of the blue, press­ing the but­ton that causes it to shoot out­ward and un­furl.

Labrador retriev­ers that re­sponded to the um­brella-open­ing ex­er­cise with higher lev­els of sur­prise and fear were less likely to com­plete guide dog school suc­cess­fully. But for golden retriev­ers, the op­po­site was true: Those that re­sponded to the un­ex­pected um­brella de­ploy­ment with greater sur­prise and sub­se­quently wari­ness were more likely to suc­ceed in guide dog school.

“In sum, what pre­dicts a suc­cess­ful guide dog?” the re­searchers ask. “Our re­sults sup­port pre­vi­ous stud­ies on other an­i­mals in reaf­firm­ing the en­dur­ing ben­e­fits of ma­ter­nal care — in mod­er­a­tion.” Quite pos­si­bly, every­thing else flows from those lit­tle mo­ments of ad­ver­sity that pup­pies (or rat, squir­rel, mon­key and hu­man ba­bies) ex­pe­ri­ence when mom throws a lit­tle chal­lenge their way.

Stephen Ch­ernin Getty Images

MAX joins other guide dogs in train­ing at the New Lib­erty air­port in New Jersey. Pup­pies that had to work at nurs­ing are bet­ter able to get around ob­sta­cles and cope with un­fa­mil­iar set­tings and ob­jects later in life.

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