QUIRKS & QUARKS

Puppies that get tough love succeed as guide dogs

A study shows that more neglectful dogs make more resilient pups
What makes a puppy grow into a good guide dog? 0:52
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It takes a special type of dog to serve as a guide to the visually impaired. They have to be able to ignore squirrels, food, other people, other dogs -- all the things most dogs love.  Instead they have to focus solely on complex tasks - like whether it's safe to cross a busy street or know when a train's doors are opening.  

So what turns a playful puppy into a serious and focussed guide dog? 
Lead researcher Emily Bray. (Courtesy Emily Bray)

That's a question Dr. Emily Bray has tried to answer, by studying litters of puppies designated as guide dog candidates.  She was interested in the question of how puppies were raised by their mothers had any influence on whether they could become good guide dogs.  And what she found is quite a, well, quite a tail.

Dr. Bray is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona's Canine Cognition Center. She is currently working for the Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, California.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Torah Kachur: What got you interested in studying the early development of guide dogs?

Dr. Emily Bray: When I was an undergrad I was lucky enough to be involved with the Duke Canine Cognition Center which was just getting started up at the time.  People would bring in their pet dogs and we would play fun games with them to try to get a window into their cognition and temperament. Then when I went to graduate school, the first thing that my advisors did was send me into the field, so I could be a true animal behaviorist. I actually spent a summer in Masai Mara, Kenya, and the grad student that I was working with was very interested in looking at maternal style in hyenas. We would spend our early mornings and late nights at the dens of hyenas watching the mothers nurse and interact with their cubs.

So when I came back to Pennsylvania I wanted to see how this all played out in dogs.  It turns out that even though dogs are so ubiquitous in our society we don't know that much about how the dog's maternal style affects puppy behavior.

Torah Kachur: What kind of dogs were you studying?

Dr. Emily Bray: I worked with a nonprofit guide dog school based in Morristown, New Jersey and they breed German Shepherds, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and lab/goldens mixes.

Torah Kachur: What did you set out to find?

Dr. Emily Bray: We know from studies in rodents in primates that maternal style can actually have some downstream effects all the way into adult life. We wanted to know if we see that in dogs and how is that going to affect the ultimate performance of a guide dog.

Torah Kachur: What kinds of maternal behaviors were you measuring?

Dr. Emily Bray: We looked for a few different types of behavior. One was simply proximity to the puppies. When the puppies are born they are contained in a plastic kiddie pool that's lined with towels. The mother is always in the pen with them but she has the choice as to whether or not she can be in the pool with them. If she does choose to be in the pool there are certain behaviors that she can exhibit.  She can be touching them, and she can be licking and grooming them. She also nurses them, and one thing that we tracked that researchers had not tracked previously in dogs was the amount of time that she spent in each nursing position. Mothers can nurse on their bellies which is sort of close to the puppies it's easy for them to latch on, or they can nurse what we call vertically. So that's in either a sitting or standing position which makes it a little more challenging for the puppies.

Torah Kachur: How did the maternal behavior affect the puppy's ability to grow and develop?

Dr. Emily Bray: We found that when we looked at the maternal style scores, that what the puppies had experienced in the first few weeks of life was associated with their outcome in the training program. Surprisingly, the puppies who had been exposed to higher levels of maternal behavior were more likely to drop out of the program.

Torah Kachur: Really? So the ones that were really well mothered they're ones that weren't quite as independent and focused?

Dr. Emily Bray: Yeah exactly. I should put in a disclaimer that all of the puppies had fairly present mothers were looking at mothers that are all sufficient mothers. But within that kind of upper echelon it seems that you can sort of tip it over the edge and have too much of a good thing.