Tag Archives: guide dogs

Successful guide dogs have ‘tough love’ moms

Much has been written on the pitfalls of being a “helicopter parent,” one who insulates children from adversity rather than encouraging their independence.

A new study seems to back up this finding — in dogs. Researchers showed that doting mothers seem to handicap their puppies, in this case reducing their likelihood of successfully completing a training program to become guide dogs.

Mother dogs nursing style

Mother dogs’ nursing style is one factor that seems to predict their offspring’s success in guide dog training. (Photo courtesy of The Seeing Eye)

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted at The Seeing Eye, an organization in Morristown, New Jersey, that breeds, raises and trains dogs to guide visually impaired people.

“You need your mom, but moms that are too attentive don’t give their puppies a chance to respond to small challenges on their own,” said lead study author Emily Bray, a postdoctoral researcher in the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology. “Puppies need opportunities to deal with obstacles without their mom always being there.”

Early interactions between puppies and their mothers seem to have lasting effects.

“These puppies were with their mom for only five weeks, and it’s having an effect on their success two years later,” Bray said. “It seems that puppies need to learn how to deal with small challenges at this early age, and if they don’t, it hurts them later.”

Bray’s results contribute to an understanding of the long-term effects of maternal style and suggest ways that guide-dog-training organizations might better identify dogs who are more likely to succeed.

Observing Mother-Pup Interactions

Scientists have long been interested in the impact of early-life experiences on adult behavior, studying the phenomenon in rodents, primates and people. But hardly any studies had been done in dogs.

Guide dogs presented a useful group to study for several reasons. First, at The Seeing Eye, many puppies are raised in a single location under fairly controlled conditions. Second, the dogs have a clear measure of success: Either they graduate from the program to become a working guide dog or they are released. And third, success as a guide dog isn’t easy; the dog must be willing and able to navigate a complex and often-unpredictable environment while remaining obedient and attentive to its owner.

To gather information about the puppies’ early-life experiences, Bray and a team of undergraduate research assistants essentially embedded themselves at The Seeing Eye’s breeding facility, taking video and closely observing 23 mothers and their 98 puppies for their first five weeks of life.

“We wanted to know if we could differentiate the moms based on how they interacted with their puppies,” Bray said. “We documented things like her nursing position, how much time she spent looking away from the puppies and how much time she spent in close proximity to her puppies or licking and grooming them.”

Analysis of the data revealed differences across the mothers, with some being particularly attentive and others less so.

When the researchers tracked the puppies a couple of years down the line, they found that those with mothers that were more attentive were less likely to graduate from The Seeing Eye’s training program to become guide dogs. In particular, those dogs whose mothers nursed more often lying down, as opposed to sitting or standing up, were less likely to succeed.

“If a mother is lying on her stomach, the puppies basically have free access to milk, but if the mother is standing up, then the puppies have to work to get it,” said study co-author Robert Seyfarth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “A hypothesis might be that you have to provide your offspring with minor obstacles that they can overcome for them to succeed later in life because, as we know, life as an adult involves obstacles.”

Cognition, Temperament Also Predict Success

The study also found that dogs’ cognition and temperament were associated with program success or failure.

The researchers conducted a second part of the study after the puppies had gone to live with foster families and then returned to The Seeing Eye for specific guide-dog training. The dogs — at this point young adults at 14 to 17 months old — were given tests to measure their cognition and temperament. A test of cognitive problem-solving skills, for example, involved a game in which the dog has to perform a multistep task to reach a treat. Tests of temperament included observing the dogs’ reactions, such as how long they took to bark at an umbrella being opened or how they reacted when they entered a room with a mechanical cat they had never seen before.

“We saw that some dogs were calm and collected and solved problems quickly, while others were more reactive and perseverated at the problem-solving tasks,” Bray said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, dogs that did well at the problem-solving tasks and took longer to bark at novel objects were more likely to succeed in the guide-dog-training program.

Although Bray’s work underscores the connection between maternal behavior and offspring’s behavior later in life, further research is needed to tease out exactly why the attentive mothers were more likely to have puppies that were released from the program, and whether or not genetics could be a factor.

“With mothering, it seems like it’s a delicate balance,” Bray said. “It’s easy to be like, ‘Oh, smothering moms are the worst,’ but we aren’t exactly sure of the mechanisms yet and we don’t want to tip too far in the other direction, either.”

Source  University of Arizona media release

 

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Picking puppies most suited to guide dog training

Animal behaviour experts at the University of Nottingham have developed a new tool which can be used to predict a young dog’s likelihood of successfully completing guide dog training.

Guide dog

Working dog organisations like the charity Guide Dogs, who funded the research, need to regularly assess the behaviour of the dogs they breed for training as not all of them turn out to be suited to the role. The charity is the largest of its kind in the world, breeding around 1,400 dogs for possible guide dog training every year.

As part of a wider £500k epidemiology research collaboration with Guide Dogs, the researchers in the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science have created and tested a questionnaire-style decision tool which could help trainers from Guide Dogs to monitor and evaluate their dog’s behaviour. The tool successfully predicted training outcomes in 16.9% of young dogs of 5 to 12 months old to an accuracy of 84%. The tool is called the Puppy Training Supervisor Questionnaire (PTSQ).

The aim is to identify dogs who are not suitable to a guiding role early, before they enter time-consuming and costly formal training. The PTSQ is also intended to improve the understanding of a young dog’s behaviour, which Guide Dogs will use to inform their future training processes to give the best chances of success. The full study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Lead researcher on the project, Dr Naomi Harvey, said: “Predicting working dog suitability in puppies has been a huge challenge to organisations for many years. If you’ve ever owned dogs you will know that every dog is different. They have their own characters and personality, which are heavily influenced by their life experiences. We were really pleased that this questionnaire-style behaviour assessment was able to effectively identify the dogs who were most, and least, suitable to guiding work, from a young age, and help to highlight those in between dogs who were at risk of failing training.” 

Chris Muldoon, Guide Dogs Research Development Manager, said: “The Puppy Training Supervisor Questionnaire is part of a suite of tools developed by the University of Nottingham for Guide Dogs. This tool, and the wider research project, is increasing our understanding of dog behavior and temperament to make informed decisions that will shape and improve our training processes.” 

The new behaviour assessment has been designed to be completed by training supervisors of young dogs at the age of 5, 8 and 12 months old. Questions were sourced either from previously published literature or created from suggestions from Guide Dogs staff surveys and feedback. This large study revealed seven reliable and interpretable character scores for measurement by the questionnaire. These were:

  • Adaptability
  • Body sensitivity
  • Distractibility
  • Excitability
  • General anxiety
  • Trainability
  • Stair anxiety

The research also evaluated aspects of the questionnaire’s reliability and accuracy. The results of the questionnaires completed by the training supervisors – 1,401 in total – showed consistency of individual dogs’ scores over the three age ranges. Of the dogs included in the study, 58% went on to qualify as guide dogs, 27% were behaviourally unsuited to guiding work and the remainder were unsuited for health reasons. Within this number there were also dogs with exceptional character and temperament who were selected for breeding.

The researchers say the work could be extended in the future to follow up the dogs’ working life as a guide dog. They say this could help shed light on why some dogs are retired early for behavioural reasons and the human and dog factors which contribute to this unique partnership’s success.

Source:  University of Nottingham press release

A device to help monitor guide dog health

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a device that allows people who are blind to monitor their guide dogs, in order to keep tabs on the health and well-being of their canine companions.

Guide dog and handler

Sean Mealin and Simba, using a traditional guide dog harness and handle. Photo credit: NC State University

“Dogs primarily communicate through their movements and posture, which makes it difficult or impossible for people who are blind to fully understand their dogs’ needs on a moment-to-moment basis,” says David Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the new technology. “This challenge is particularly pronounced in guide dogs, who are bred and trained to be outwardly calm and avoid drawing attention to themselves in public.

To address this need, the researchers have developed a suite of technologies that monitor a dog’s breathing and heart rate and share the information with the dog’s handler.

“Our goal is to let guide dog handlers know when their dogs are stressed or anxious,” says Sean Mealin, a Ph.D. student at NC State and lead author of the paper. “This is important because it is widely believed that stress is a significant contributing factor to early retirement of guide dogs and other service animals. The technology may also be able to help handlers detect other health problems, such as symptoms of heat exhaustion.”

The issue is particularly important to Mealin, who is blind and works with his own guide dog, Simba.

The research team had previously developed monitoring technologies that are incorporated into a lightweight harness that can be worn by rescue or service dogs. The trick was to find a way to share that monitoring data with users who are blind – and to do so in a way that allows those users to act on the information.

So, the researchers developed a specialized handle that attaches to a guide dog’s harness.  The handle is equipped with two vibrating motors.

High tech dog harness

This guide-dog harness handle contains electronics that allow users to monitor the breathing and heart rate of their dogs. Photo credit: David Roberts

One motor is embedded in the handle by the handler’s thumb, and vibrates – or beats – in time with the dog’s heart rate. When the dog’s heart rate increases, so does the rate at which the motor beats.

The second motor is embedded in the handle near the handler’s pinky finger, and vibrates in synch with the dog’s breathing. The vibration increases and decreases in intensity, to simulate the dog breathing in and out.

“We’re refreshing the design and plan to do additional testing with guide-dog handlers,” Roberts says. “Our ultimate goal is to provide technology that can help both guide dogs and their people. That won’t be in the immediate future, but we’re optimistic that we’ll get there.”

Source:  NC State University media release

Harness fit in guide dogs

A research team at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna) have studied the forces that guide dogs are exposed to during their work to ascertain what types of harness are most suitable.

Guide dogs walk under constant tension. A well-fitting harness is extremely important for the animals (Photo: Michael Bernkopf/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Guide dogs walk under constant tension. A well-fitting harness is extremely important for the animals (Photo: Michael Bernkopf/Vetmeduni Vienna)

A proper harness that enables good communication between the blind person and the dog is an important factor to support the dog’s well-being, while a poorly fitting harness may result in health problems and impaired communication between dog and owner.

The team members, movement analysts and physiotherapists, examined the distribution of pressure in working guide dogs by placing pressure sensors beneath their harnesses. Eight guide dogs were filmed with a trainer while climbing steps, avoiding obstacles, turning left and right and walking straight ahead. To visualize the movements, the animals, the trainers and the harnesses were equipped with reflective markers. The positions of the markers were recorded by a total of ten cameras.

The results showed that the bottom right of the animals’ chests is particularly stressed. As Barbara Bockstahler explains, “Guide dogs walk under constant tension. They are usually on their owners’ right and in front of them.” The scientists found that the pressure on the right side of a dog’s chest may equate to up to 10 per cent of the animal’s weight. In contrast, the dog’s back experiences far less pressure. “It is important for guide dogs to exercise regularly without a harness to compensate for the lopsided pressure they experience in their work”, says Bockstahler.

Very rigid harnesses enable quick and finely tuned communication between dogs and owners but cause stress to the animals. The more stiffly the harness is anchored to the handle, the more pressure the animal experiences. The most comfortable harness relies on a hook-and-loop connection, which provides the least pressure on the dog, although for long-haired dogs a plastic clip version is favourable.

The researchers want to study guide dogs for a longer period of time to find out whether any of the harnesses are associated with long-term problems in the animals.   They require partners and sponsors for this work.

The results of this study have been published in the Veterinary Journal.

Source:  Vetmeduni Vienna press release

Introduced by their guide dogs

Here’s a romance story to start your weekend.

Claire Johnson and Mark Gaffey from Stoke-on-Trent are an engaged couple with a twist.  They met because of their dogs – their guide dogs.

Claire Johnson and Mark Gaffey  with their guide dogs, Venice and Rodd.  copyright Dave Evitts

Claire Johnson and Mark Gaffey with their guide dogs, Venice and Rodd. copyright Dave Evitts

Claire was matched in 2011 with Venice and Mark at the same time with Rodd.  They met at guide dog training, when both Venice and Rodd found they liked one another and would bring their new handlers together for a chat whilst they explored and snuggled together.

When both owners and dogs returned to Stoke-on-Trent (they discovered they lived near one another, although they had never met before), they stayed in touch, meeting for coffee, lunches and other dates.

On Valentine’s Day 2013, Mark popped the question.  The couple will be married in March 2014 with their dogs as ring bearers.

Claire and Rodd tell the story of how they met in this YouTube video:

US stamps in honour of working dogs

The US Postal Service has a set of four stamps honouring service dogs.

The Dogs at Work set shows a guide dog assisting a blind woman, a tracking dog that is following a scent, a therapy dog visiting with an elderly woman and a search and rescue dog standing in a field.

In releasing the stamps for sale, the USPS said “Dogs have become more than just best friends — they’ve also become our coworkers. From guide dogs to therapy dogs to search and rescue dogs, these stamps from the U.S. Postal Service® honor the enduring partnership between dogs and people.”

“Currently, some 10,000 guide dogs in the U.S. and Canada serve as an extra set of eyes for people who are blind. Therapy dogs, chosen for their friendly dispositions, bring comfort and joy to the elderly and the ill. Dogs that work with police and military personnel are trained to detect drugs, guns, and explosives. Search and rescue dogs speed up search efforts, increasing the odds of survival for disaster victims.

Artist John M. Thompson created original paintings for the stamps, which were designed by art director Howard E. Paine. The Dogs At Work stamps are being issued at a 65-cent denomination, which is the price for single-piece retail First-Class Mail weighing more than one ounce and up to and including two ounces.”

 

A guide dog for two

I had to share this story from the UK’s Daily Mail.

Graham Waspe was devastated when his guide dog Edward was left blind after developing cataracts.  Edward has served Graham for six years.

However, Opal, Graham’s new guide dog, is proving to be a set of eyes for both Graham and Edward.

Graham Waspe with former guide dog Edward and current guide dog Opal; Edward had his eyes removed because of severe cataracts

Mr Waspe says, “Opal’s been great for both of us. I don’t know what we’d do without her” while his wife says that Edward still loves to be around children and have his tummy tickled.

Read the whole story of Mr Waspe, Edward and Opal – complete with great photos –  here.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand