Researchers have tested puppies for the qualities predicting subsequent success as guide dogs. Evidence surely that despite the strains on scientists, there is still awesome research to be done. Moreover, the implications extend to human learning as well.
We know all dogs are good dogs, Brent, but guide dogs must be especially good. Around 30 percent of those entering training ultimately fail. The capacity to spot a future guide dog while young can save trainers time and effort on dogs that will never make it, ensuring more visually impaired people get the assistance they need faster.
Dr Emily Bray of the University of Pennsylvania tracked 98 potential guide dog puppies from birth to adulthood. Dogs from three breeds were filmed in their interactions with their mothers until the age of three weeks and put through 11 tests when aged 14-17 months to find the most reliable predictors of success.
As reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bray found that, unsurprisingly, young adult dogs that showed signs of anxiety or with poor problem-solving skills usually failed to make the cut. But the best predictor was how much mothering the dogs got. Mothers that were too attentive to their offspring were less likely to see their offspring graduate from guide dog school.
Maternal behavior explained 54 percent of the variance of the puppys' subsequent success in training school. The dogs that had more maternal care were slower and more prone to mistakes problem-solving, as well as being more likely to bark when exposed to something new. The paper speculates too little maternal care could also cause problems, but is rare for potential guide dogs.
Looking at the tests given to the adolescent dogs, the most reliable predictors of subsequent success were a quiet response to being shown novel objects, and capacity to solve multi-step problems. Curiously, responsiveness to an umbrella being opened was an excellent predictor of ultimate success for Golden and Labrador Retrievers, but not for German Shepherds.
Useful as the work will be to guide dog programs the world over, Bray’s research could also contribute to other debates. The paper notes there is little agreement on the most important attributes for problem-solving skills, either in humans or other animals. Some people focus on general intelligence and reasoning ability, while others argue that motivation, impulse control, and enthusiasm for new experiences are more important.
All of these rest on the even more fiercely debated question of genes versus environment. As Bray noticed, the capacity of guide dogs to help their people navigate a difficult world without getting distracted provides an excellent model for testing the basis of many skills in other environments.