It’s always been more of a rhetorical question, but researchers hope to answer the question, “Who’s a good boy?” at least when it comes to guide dogs.
Guide Dogs, the vision loss charity, has started a research project called Puppy Cognition, which sees seven-week-old guide dog puppies in different scenarios and examines their reactions.
The project includes a series of fun, interactive tasks designed to assess the animals’ personalities and interests.
The aim is to help guide dogs gain an early understanding of how individual guide dog puppies observe and react, gauge how they will later be raised and trained, and investigate possible hereditary traits.
Essentially, we want to improve our breeding program, we want to improve what we do, we want to better support our dogs
Becky Hunt, Canine Research Associate
Essentially, the researchers hope to find out what makes a good guide dog.
The pups will be monitored over the coming years to track correlations between responses and later behaviors.
dr Helen Whiteside, Chief Scientific Officer at Guide Dogs, explained that problem solving is one of the skills being studied.
She told the PA news agency: “What we’re looking at is how our dogs can solve problems.
“And we know that 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, participates in the top hat task (Guide Dogs/PA)
Becky Hunt, a canine scientist at the charity, gave an example of where a guide dog might need to solve a problem: “If they’re walking down the street and there’s a car parked on the street and there’s not enough room for them both to get through, the dog has to.” somehow solve this problem.
“Is it safe to walk 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 better support our dogs.”
dr Whiteside added: “In terms of what we’re hoping to get out of it, from a breeder’s perspective, we could look at what aspects of it are heritable.
“Are there any parts of that assessment that we can see from mom and dad so we can make sure we keep these amazing traits that are fantastic in our breeding population?
“But once we discover that data, maybe we can say that these pups really do thrive in that kind of environment, and we can make sure we hire our volunteers to really support these pups and help them thrive.”
“We hope that these will be the results, but it will take us two more years to find out.”
Scientists will be able to track 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 take part in six tasks, including an impossible task in which a closed container with food visible is placed in front of the puppies.
The answers to this are monitored and after 30 seconds the box is opened.
In the human interest task, a hidden person talks to the pup.
The speaker then enters the pen and the pup is judged on how much they want to interact with the human.
In the scent discrimination activity, the pup is presented with two tubes: one with food and one without, which are switched to see if the pup can tell where the food is.
In a novel object task, the pup is presented with an interactive cat toy and subsequent responses are monitored.
During the cylinder task, a piece of food is placed in a cylinder and presented to the puppy to see if he can take it. This is repeated with both a clear and an opaque cylinder.
And for the Surprising Events task, three different items appear in the appraisal pen: a garbage bag with some crumpled paper in it; an umbrella opening and a metal sheet; and the puppy’s reactions to it are monitored.
The rating varies depending on the task, e.g. For example, how long a pup spends on a person or object, or for some tasks, the team encodes the behaviors a pup exhibits using an ethogram.
The team hopes the pups will be confident and curious when introduced to new situations and encountering unfamiliar objects.
The activities are meant to be fun and interesting, but if a puppy doesn’t want to engage or shows signs of discomfort, the task will be abandoned.