Tag Archives: working dogs

What Makes A Good Working Dog? Canine ‘Aptitude Test’ Might Offer Clues

The canine labor market is diverse and expansive. Assistance dogs may be trained to work with the visually or hearing impaired, or with people in wheelchairs. Detection dogs may be trained to sniff out explosives, narcotics or bedbugs. Other pups even learn to jump out of helicopters on daring rescue missions.

Despite the wide variety of working roles available for man’s best friend, those jobs can be tough to fill, since not every dog will qualify. Even among dogs specifically bred to be assistance dogs, for example, only about 50 percent that start a training program will successfully complete it, while the rest go on to be very well-trained family pets.

As a result, the wait list for a trained assistance dog can be up to two years.

Working Dogs

Shelby Smith was matched with her assistance dog Picasso through the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence. UA researcher Evan MacLean is looking for ways to help organizations like Canine Companions identify promising assistance dogs sooner. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, is exploring ways to identify the best dogs for different jobs – before they start the long and expensive training process — by looking at their cognitive abilities.

He is lead author of a new study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science that looks at whether canines’ cognitive abilities can help predict their success as working dogs.

While a dog’s physical characteristics and temperament are often considered when thinking about which dog will be right for a given job, cognition is an area that’s received far less attention.

“People have really focused on temperament and how reactive a dog is to certain things in the environment,” said MacLean, assistant professor in the UA School of Anthropology. “What we were interested in was the fact that these dogs also face cognitive challenges. They have to learn all these things in the course of their training, and they have to be able to flexibly solve problems when things go wrong.”

MacLean’s study focuses on two types of working dogs: assistance dogs in training, which will go on to be paired with people with disabilities, and explosive detection dogs working for the U.S. Navy.

MacLean and his colleagues looked at the performance of both types of dogs on 25 different cognitive measures by using a battery of game-based tests, like hiding and finding objects and other forms of canine play.

What they found: A different set of skills predict whether a dog will be a good detection dog or a good assistance dog.

In the case of assistance dogs, social skills — including the ability to pay close attention to and maintain eye contact with humans — appear to be especially important. In detection dogs, good short-term memory and sensitivity to human body language, such as pointing gestures, were the best predictors of success.

“Dog jobs are just about as diverse as human jobs are,” MacLean said. “People sometimes think of working dogs as this general category of dogs that have jobs in society, but they actually have to do really, really different things, and because these jobs are so diverse, we didn’t expect that there was going to be one litmus test for what would make a good dog. It’s like if you think about aptitude testing with people – there are certain questions that will tell you something about one job but not another.”

The study involved 164 dogs from the California-based organization Canine Companions for Independence, which trains assistance dogs, and 222 dogs from the Navy.

The researchers tested the assistance dogs at 18 months old, when they first started a full-time, intensive six-month training program. Dogs in the study were considered “successful” based on whether or not they ultimately graduated from the training. Through cognitive testing, MacLean and his colleagues were able to predict the top 25 percent of graduates with 86 percent accuracy.

The success of the Navy dogs, whose training is ongoing and not marked by a single graduation date, was measured based on trainers’ records of the dogs’ performance on training exercises, as well as questionnaires with people who trained or deployed with the dogs.

MacLean’s findings suggest that cognition could be considered alongside temperament and physicality to predict working dog success.

If organizations that train dogs could better predict which dogs are most worth the investment, it could save tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary training costs and also ensure that people in need get the right dogs faster, MacLean said.

He and his colleagues are now working on determining if cognitive testing could be informative even earlier — when a dog is just 8 weeks old. They also are looking at whether these skills have a genetic basis that could be targeted in breeding programs.

“One of the most exciting parts of all this is that it tells us cognition does something in animals,” MacLean said. “We study these abstract questions about how animals think about the world and how they solve problems, but there aren’t always a lot of situations where you can say, ‘Why does that matter? What does it allow an animal to actually do?’ This is some of the first evidence that suggests that these processes that we measure, which differ between individual dogs, have some real consequences related to something that’s quite worthy in society.”

Source:  University of Arizona media release

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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.”

 

Dogs as workers – not such a bad idea according to NZ researcher

“Some people think that is cruel to use dogs as workers,” says Dr William “Deak” Helton, “but what these people don’t seem to understand is that from the dog’s perspective it is actually crueller if they are not allowed to work.”  Dr Helton, who is based at the Department of Psychology at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, is describing for me his experience with working dogs in Alaska.  I wrote about his research in my Canine Corner column this month (NZ Dog World), and here’s some more information about Deak and his research.

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(Photos copyright Eve Welch, University of Canterbury)

Deak has been studying dogs for over 12 years and, from those early days growing up in Alaska, he observed that sledding and racing dogs wanted to pull immediately when they were placed in harness.  Many people don’t realise, when watching coverage of competitions like the Iditarod, that a large metal snow anchor is used to keep the sled in place as the dogs are secured in their harnesses.  A handler that forgets to do this will quickly find his/her sled taken out for an unguided run!

Deak has a keen interest in seeing working dogs reach top performance.  He described one of his research projects, looking for a way to help screen dogs being considered for a working career:A recent study we did was one in which we measured dogs’ right and left ear temperatures and their ability (based on owners’ reports) to pay attention. The tympanic membrane’s (ear drum’s) temperature is highly correlated with the temperature of the brain on the same side. So differences between the ear’s temperatures may tell you if the dog is more strongly cerebrally lateralized than another. Dogs (like people) have two cerebral hemispheres, one right and one left. Most people are aware that they have a dominate hemisphere (are lateralized). Dogs also differ in their degree of lateralization (how strong one side is compared to the other). Neuroscientists have hypothesized that being strongly lateralized (having a dominate cerebral hemisphere) is actually helpful to the animal in coordinating its behaviour. Imagine having two brain hemispheres both trying to tell your body what to do, without having one as the “leader,” the system may be prone to confusion. Hence, dogs with stronger cerebral lateralization may be better able to pay attention. The less lateralized dogs may be more prone to conflicting cues (distraction). Difference in right and left ear temperature may be an objective measure of cerebral lateralization.

One area where dogs show promise is in the field of medical diagnostics, says Deak.  He goes into some detail about the role of the dog, its accuracy in detecting rates of disease, and his opinion that dogs would be used more widely than they currently are:

There have now been several studies showing that dogs can be used to detect various medical conditions, for example, cancers. When you compare detection capability across tests/technologies you have to look at both the correct detection rate and the false alarm rate of the different tests.

Dogs have been trained to detect the presence of breast cancer by smelling the patient’s exhaled breath. The principle is essentially the same as breath analysis to detect alcohol consumption. The patient breathes into a tube that traps the chemicals exhaled in their breath. The dog then is presented with these breath samples and has been trained to signal when one of them has cancer related chemical compounds (it might not be that the dog is smelling cancer per se, but some related chemical excreted by the body as a reaction to cancer). McCulloch and colleagues (2006) have trained dogs to do this task (detect breast cancer via breath samples), and the dogs after training demonstrated a correct detection rate around 88.0% and a false alarm rate around 2.3%. This is not perfect, but for comparative purposes, in the medical literature, mammography screening by professional radiologists for breast cancer typically has a correct detection rate around 86.6% and a false alarm rate around 3.2% (Banks et al., 2004).

A higher correct detection rate and lower false alarm rate means an overall better detector.

The dog definitely looks promising. Keep in mind mammography is also considered by many to be uncomfortable and some people are concerned that the procedure itself may have side effects. This may put off people from doing the test. The key with cancer is probably early detection. If people are afraid of the test, they aren’t going to do it until they feel so bad they have to and by that time it might be too late. Dog detection (since the dog doesn’t have to even be in contact with the patient) is generally non-invasive.

For detecting intestinal cancer the difference in screening may be between a stool sample and having a colonoscopy. The latter is much more uncomfortable than the former. Considering the preliminary evidence and the long track-record of dogs being used in other detection contexts (explosives, narcotics, invasive pests, etc.), I think the lack of using dogs in medical diagnostic work is mysterious. While dogs will not be a perfect system, people have to realize there are no tests that are perfect. Dogs (or other biological detectors) could be used in conjunction with other tests. There are companies trying to figure out what the dogs are detecting so that they can make technological tests for detecting cancer based on the dog’s ability to detect it, but that is not helping anyone now.

Dogs can probably do the job and if the track record in other contexts is informative (for example, explosives) then dogs will probably be able to do the job better than technology for the foreseeable future.  Of course we should develop other technologies, but if we want to save lives now, dogs could be used more in this context.

The Editor of Canine Ergonomics:  The Science of Working Dogs, a compilation of research from disciplines ranging from biology and veterinary medicine, to psychology and forensic medicine, Deak says “For me, this book filled a gap when you consider how extensive dogs are employed.”  The book, published in 2009 has had great reviews.

The cover of Deak's book

Deak describes his research as the field of engineering psychology, more popularly known as ergonomics.  His work in the field of human factors psychology has earned him the 2011 Earl Alluisi Award for Early Career Achievement by the American Psychological Association (APA).