Duke’s ‘puppy kindergarten’ helps raise as­sis­tance dogs

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate San­tich

Any­one who has ever wit­nessed a dog de­light­fully roll around in a pile of stink knows that the ca­nine brain op­er­ates a lit­tle dif­fer­ently than ours.

But Brian Hare, the man who per­suaded Duke Univer­sity to open a cen­ter de­voted to dog psy­chol­ogy, un­der­stands what goes on be­tween those furry, floppy ears bet­ter than just about any hu­man — which is why he’s now work­ing with Ca­nine Com­pan­ions for In­de­pen­dence on “Puppy Kindergarten.”

CCI pro­vides as­sis­tance dogs free of charge to adults, chil­dren and vet­er­ans with dis­abil­i­ties. In a new ven­ture be­tween the non-

profit and the North Carolina Univer­sity, Hare is tak­ing in 8-week-old CCI pups at Duke to study their traits and ex­pe­ri­ences. Then he’ll track them through for­mal CCI train­ing to see which qual­i­ties turn out to fore­shadow suc­cess — sort of like the par­ent of a Rhodes scholar who can boast that his kid mem­o­rized the pe­ri­odic ta­ble at 3.

“The big ques­tion for us is: Can we come up with ways to ways to pre­dict the pup­pies that are go­ing to be most likely to make it through the CCI train­ing and grad­u­ate?” said Hare, founder of the Duke Ca­nine Cog­ni­tion Cen­ter, dur­ing a re­cent visit to Or­lando. “Be­cause if we can do that, we can in­crease their sup­ply and help more peo­ple.”

Ca­nine Com­pan­ions, whose south­east­ern U.S. head­quar­ters is based in Or­ange County, in­vests an av­er­age of $50,000 for each dog that grad­u­ates and is as­signed to a per­son with a dis­abil­ity. Those dogs typ­i­cally can pull open doors, fetch dropped ob­jects, alert the hard of hear­ing or calm vet­er­ans with post-trau­matic stress disor­der.

Not only are the dogs specif­i­cally bred for the job, but they also un­dergo ex­ten­sive vet­eri­nary check-ups and long months of train­ing. By the end, though, nearly half flunk out.

“What we want to do is iden­tify those fea­tures that are go­ing to be linked to suc­cess,” said Brenda Kennedy, a vet­eri­nar­ian and di­rec­tor of ca­nine health and re­search for CCI. “Can we look for those? Can we screen for those? Can we in­cor­po­rate them in our train­ing pro­cesses? Can we make de­ci­sions at an ear­lier point that mean we’ll have greater suc­cess?”

Hare’s ex­ten­sive pre­vi­ous re­search al­ready has helped him un­der­stand which dogs do well in CCI train­ing once they’re older than 18 months. And his big dis­cov­ery might be a lit­tle coun­ter­in­tu­itive.

Smart dogs are not nec­es­sar­ily what you want.

“What we found in test­ing is that, first, eye contact is most im­por­tant for dogs that are go­ing to be as­sis­tance dogs,” Hare said.

He and fel­low re­searchers found this out in part with “an em­bar­rass­ingly sim­ple” test. You put a toy or treat — some­thing the dog will search for — in a box with a loose lid and set it on the floor so that the dog only has to nudge the lid to get the treat. Then you re­peat the ex­er­cise with the lid sealed shut so that it’s im­pos­si­ble for the dog to open.

“That’s where you can see how long it takes be­fore they look up and ask you for help,” Hare said. “Some dogs just keep try­ing… Oth­ers, within three se­conds, they’re like, ‘Hey you! You’ve got a thumb. Help me out here.’ And they make a lot of eye contact.”

Those, it turns out, are the ones you want for as­sis­tance dogs. They tend to bond bet­ter with peo­ple and look to hu­mans to tell them how to solve prob­lems in­stead of do­ing it on their own. By con­trast, the ones who per­se­vere tend to make bet­ter de­tec­tion dogs — those who sniff out bombs, for in­stance.

Puppy Kindergarten has only three “stu­dents” to start. The pups spend their days play­ing with univer­sity stu­dents while their be­hav­ior is tracked. Re­searchers don’t know if the ex­er­cise will ul­ti­mately prove valu­able, but they’re hope­ful.

“You might ded­i­cate your re­sources to those who have the most po­ten­tial,” Hare said. “Or you might try to fig­ure out how to im­prove the [train­ing] process for those who don’t do as well.”

SARAH ESPEDIDO/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Brenda S. Kennedy of Ca­nine Com­pan­ions for In­de­pen­dence and Brian Hare, a pro­fes­sor at Duke Univer­sity, with ca­nine, Mar­lene, a hear­ing as­sis­tance dog in train­ing.

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