Researchers hope to unleash a generation of smarter guide dogs by studying the cognitive behavior of puppies and finding out who the smart boys and girls really are.
Guide Dogs, the sight loss charity, will analyze the responses of eight-week-old puppies to see which handle surprises best, how they interact with human voices and how they react to difficult and sometimes impossible problems.
The results will then be tracked as the dogs age to determine what makes a good guide dog and the information will be used to improve breeding programs. The charity already takes DNA samples from animals to help improve the performance of future generations.
“What we’re looking at is how good our dogs are at solving problems,” said Dr Helen Whiteside, scientific director of the £112million-a-year charity. “From a breeding perspective, what we could do is look at what aspects of that are inherited…so that we can make sure that we maintain these incredible traits that are fantastic within our breeding population.”
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; his answers are monitored and after 30 seconds the box is opened.
In a scent discrimination activity, a puppy will be 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 surprising events task will involve three different objects appearing in an assessment enclosure: a garbage bag containing crumpled paper, an umbrella opening, and a sheet of metal. The puppy’s reactions are then monitored.
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 walk around this car? »
She added: “Essentially we want to improve our breeding program, we want to improve what we do, we want to improve support for our dogs.”
Guide Dogs aims to match 1,000 dogs each year with people who need them to help them on a daily basis. The charity said the activities are designed to be fun and engaging, but if a pup is unwilling to engage or shows signs of discomfort, the task will be stopped.