HEALTH

Puppies who get the least affection may make the best guide dogs

Theresa Edwards
Author
Theresa Edwards
Puppies who get the least affection may make the best guide dogs

Guide dogs do a seriously important job. People with limited to no vision sometimes rely on these highly intelligent, impeccably trained animals to help them navigate obstacles and avoid potentially hazardous situations.

Naturally, a lot of thought goes into the breeding, raising, and training of guide dogs through puppyhood. The training, in particular is particularly rigorous stuff. And yet, about 30 percent of hand-picked, highly-trained would-be guide dogs won’t be up to muster. Why? Well one study posits that the puppies who get the most affection from mom make lackluster guide dogs.

Research conducted by a team out of The University of Pennsylvania and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal looked at 98 puppies slated for guide dog training. Specifically, it made note of the behavior of the puppies’ doting (or not) mothers. Depending on what kind of human parenting style you ascribe to, its findings may or may not surprise you. The puppies with more attentive mothers -- the mothers who licked, fretted, corralled, and made nursing easier by laying down -- were more likely to flunk out of guide dog school.

On the other hand, pups born to mothers who appeared sort of “meh” about the whole motherhood thing -- the ones that made their puppies work a little harder for food and spent less time overall with their litter -- went on to possess the stoicism and intelligence required of animal assistants.

Understanding why this link between motherly love and guide dog excellence is a tougher nut to crack. The lead author, Emily Bray, suggested a possible reason that will sound familiar. In an interview with Ari Shapiro on NPR’s All Things Considered she suggested that, “One possibility [puppies with involved mothers fail] is that it's good for the puppies to have these small challenges to overcome. You know, the mother's not around versus having the mom there around all the time not letting them experience things on their own.”

On the other hand, the research might also suggest that a paws-on mom is a stressed out mom, and that stressed out moms raise stressed out kids, no matter the species. Guide dogs have to be basically unshakeable and completely calm all the time, so naturally the most laidback puppies are going to rise to the top of obedience class.

It’s easy to conflate canine maternal behavior with that of humans and start throwing the phrase “helicopter parent” around -- and plenty of people have done just that since the study was released. But a little brake pumping before we start waxing philosophic on whatever it is that’s wrong with kids these days might be in order. Genetics could easily play a role in how likely a puppy will be to meet guide dog standards, and a lot more research on the topic is in order before we start banishing overloved puppies from training programs. It’s definitely a needed start, though.

There are already way more people in need of guide dogs than there are guide dogs to go around, and training those little balls of floof into full-grown helpers is extremely expensive. The more we know about how to select the puppies that are most likely to succeed, the more can go on to do the important work of being a guide dog.