Charity launches research project to identify what makes a good guide dog

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It’s always been a bit of a rhetorical question, but researchers hope they can answer “Who’s a good boy?”, at least when it comes to guide dogs.

Guide Dogs, the sight loss charity, has started a research project called Puppy Cognition which sees seven-week-old guide dog puppies in different scenarios and studies their responses.

The project includes a number of fun and interactive tasks to assess the personality and interests of animals.

Its purpose is to help guide dogs quickly understand how individual guide dog puppies look and react, assess what they might be to raise and train later, and possibly examine any hereditary traits.

Essentially, researchers hope to find out what makes a good guide dog.

The puppies will be monitored over the next few years to track correlations between reactions and subsequent behaviors.

Dr. Helen Whiteside, scientific director of Guide Dogs, explained that problem solving is one of the abilities examined.

She told the PA news agency: ‘What we’re looking at is how good our dogs are at solving problems.

“And we know with people it’s always different – different people learn in different ways, they solve problems in different ways, they think in different ways.”

Val, a Labrador, helps with the cylinder task (Guide Dogs/PA)

Giving an example of when a guide dog might need to solve a problem, Becky Hunt, canine science associate at the charity, said: ‘If they’re walking down the street and there’s a car parked on the road and there is not enough space for the two to fit, the dog must somehow solve this problem.

“Is it safe to circle and walk around this car?”

Ms Hunt added: “Essentially we want to improve our breeding program, we want to improve what we do, we want to improve the support for our dogs.”

Dr Whiteside added: “In terms of what we hope to get out of this, from a breeding perspective, what we could do is look at what aspects of this are hereditary.

“So are there elements of this assessment that we can see coming from mum and dad so that we can make sure that we retain these incredible traits that are fantastic within our breeding population.

“But once we find that data, maybe we can say that these puppies really thrive in that kind of environment, and we can make sure that we put our volunteers in place to really support these puppies and the help to flourish.

“We hope those will be the results, but it will take us another two years to find out.”

Scientists will be able to follow the dogs throughout their journey to see how traits follow the animals as they age.

As part of the project, seven-week-old puppies will participate in six tasks, including an unsolvable task in which a closed container with visible food inside is placed in front of the pup.

Responses to this are monitored and after 30 seconds the box is opened.

The human interest task involves a hidden person talking to the puppy.

The speaker then enters the enclosure and the pup is assessed on how well it interacts with the human.

In the scent discrimination activity, the puppy is presented with two tubes: one with food and one without, which are reversed to see if the puppy can determine where the food is.

A new object task sees the pup presented with an interactive cat toy and subsequent responses are monitored.

During the cylinder task, a piece of food is placed inside a cylinder and presented to the pup, to see if he can extract it. This is repeated with a transparent cylinder and an opaque cylinder.

And for the surprising events task, three different items appear in the assessment pen: a garbage bag containing crumpled paper; an umbrella opening and a sheet; and the puppy’s reactions to these are monitored.

Scoring varies with each task, for example, how long a puppy engages with a person or object, or for some tasks the team will code the behaviors a puppy exhibits using an ethogram.

The team hopes the puppies will be confident and curious when placed in new situations and encountering unfamiliar objects.

The activities are designed to be fun and interesting, but if a puppy is unwilling to engage or shows signs of discomfort, the task will be discontinued.

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