Tag Archives: University of Nottingham

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

Study demonstrates rapid decline in male dog fertility, with potential link to environmental contaminants

A study led by researchers at The University of Nottingham has discovered that the fertility of dogs may have suffered a sharp decline over the past three decades.

The research, published in the academic journal Scientific Reports, found that sperm quality in a population of stud dogs studied over a 26-year period had fallen significantly.

The work has highlighted a potential link to environmental contaminants, after they were able to demonstrate that chemicals found in the sperm and testes of adult dogs – and in some commercially available pet foods – had a detrimental effect on sperm function at the concentrations detected.

Semen study

Researchers believe that the latest results showing that dogs’ quality of semen has diminished may offer a new piece of the puzzle over the reported significant decline in human semen quality. Credit: © jurra8 / Fotolia

As ‘man’s best friend’ and closest companion animal, the researchers believe that the latest results may offer a new piece of the puzzle over the reported significant decline in human semen quality – a controversial subject which scientists continue to debate.

Dr Richard Lea, Reader in Reproductive Biology in the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, who led the research said: “This is the first time that such a decline in male fertility has been reported in the dog and we believe this is due to environmental contaminants, some of which we have detected in dog food and in the sperm and testes of the animals themselves.

“While further research is needed to conclusively demonstrate a link, the dog may indeed be a sentinel for humans – it shares the same environment, exhibits the same range of diseases, many with the same frequency and responds in a similar way to therapies.”

The study centred on samples taken from stud dogs at an assistance dogs breeding centre over the course of 26 years. Professor Gary England, Foundation Dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science and Professor of Comparative Veterinary Reproduction, who oversaw the collection of semen said: “The strength of the study is that all samples were processed and analysed by the same laboratory using the same protocols during that time and consequently the data generated is robust.”

The work centred on five specific breeds of dogs – Labrador retriever, golden retriever, curly coat retriever, border collie and German shepherd – with between 42 and 97 dogs studied every year.

Semen was collected from the dogs and analysed to assess the percentage of sperm that showed a normal forward progressive pattern of motility and that appeared normal under a microscope (morphology).

Over the 26 years of the study, they found a striking decrease in the percentage of normal motile sperm. Between 1988 and 1998, sperm motility declined by 2.5 per cent per year and following a short period when stud dogs of compromised fertility were retired from the study, sperm motility from 2002 to 2014 continued to decline at a rate of 1.2% per year.

In addition, the team discovered that the male pups generated from the stud dogs with declining semen quality, had an increased incidence of cryptorchidism, a condition in which the testes of pups fail to correctly descend into the scrotum.

Sperm collected from the same breeding population of dogs, and testes recovered from dogs undergoing routine castration, were found to contain environmental contaminants at concentrations able to disrupt sperm motility and viability when tested.

The same chemicals that disrupted sperm quality, were also discovered in a range of commercially available dog foods – including brands specifically marketed for puppies.

Dr Lea added: “We looked at other factors which may also play a part, for example, some genetic conditions do have an impact on fertility. However, we discounted that because 26 years is simply too rapid a decline to be associated with a genetic problem.”

Over the past 70 years, studies have suggested a significant decline in human semen quality and a cluster of issues called ‘testicular dysgenesis syndrome’ that impact on male fertility which also include increased incidence of testicular cancer, the birth defect hypospadias and undescended testes.

However, declining human semen quality remains a controversial issue – many have criticised the variability of the data of the studies on the basis of changes in laboratory methods, training of laboratory personnel and improved quality control over the years.

Dr Lea added: “The Nottingham study presents a unique set of reliable data from a controlled population which is free from these factors. This raises the tantalising prospect that the decline in canine semen quality has an environmental cause and begs the question whether a similar effect could also be observed in human male fertility.”

Source:  University of Nottingham media release