Well-trained guide dogs are important for visually impaired people who rely on them. But many puppies bred to be guide dogs flunk out of training programs.

A study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the way a puppy's mother raises it may be the key to the dog's success, or failure. A research team at the University of Pennsylvania found that puppies destined for guide dog training are more likely to fail if they're coddled by their mothers.

"Surprisingly, there's not a lot of research about mothering behavior in dogs," says lead author Emily Bray.

Past studies on rodents and primates have found that, in general, active mothering is better than no mothering. "So, on one hand, we'd think 'Yes, you need your mother. Mothering should be a good thing.' But for guide dogs, the mothers are with their puppies in the pen 24/7. So then the question becomes 'What exactly is beneficial?' "

The answer, at least for guide dogs, appears to be what Bray describes as a hands-off style. (Or, paws-off style?)

"Basically the puppies are kept in a kiddie pool lined with towels. So the hands-off mothers are the ones that are spending less time [in the pool] with their puppies and not interacting with them as much," explains Bray. "Whereas a hands-on mother is going to be constantly in the pool, licking them, grooming them, interacting with them."

They found that among the 98 puppies they studied, the actively-mothered ones were more likely to fail a guide dog training program later.

How mothers nurse their puppies also affected how puppies performed. The mothers will either lie down to nurse, or sit or stand up. If the mother dog is sitting or standing, "she's further from the puppy. The puppy has to work for it," explains Bray. "Those puppies are more successful [later] as guide dogs."

The training for guide dogs teaches and selects for a very specific set of skills. "You're looking for dogs that are very compliant, very, very relaxed, not at all thrown off by any kind of strange occurrences," says Clive Wynne, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University and a dog cognition specialist. "These dogs need to remain calm under all circumstances."

The dogs also need to be "sufficiently driven to learn and tackle tasks," says Bray, and capable of limited disobedience in order to, for example, disobey a command that would put their handler in danger.

Bray thinks that one reason hands-off mothering is associated with more of these traits could be that the little challenges in puppyhood prepare them for the bigger challenges of being a guide dog. "It's good for the puppies to have these small challenges to overcome, like not having the mother around, rather than having the mom there, around, all the time, not letting them experience things on their own," she hypothesizes.

Another possibility is that maternal stress could affect puppy development. Previous research has found higher levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol in dogs with more active parenting behaviors.

Still another possibility is that specific mothering behaviors may not be the primary cause of the observations. It may be more about genetics. The authors point out that high-performing guide dogs are chosen to breed. Puppies raised by rock star guide dogs may go on to perform well in guide dog training because they are genetically predisposed to success, not because their mothers were hands-off. In order to test that possibility, they would have needed to swap out litters, so one mother was taking care of another's puppies.

Wynne, who was not involved with the research, thinks the findings shouldn't be applied broadly, even to other working dogs. "I think what we have here is a special effect of working with guide dog populations, and not necessarily true of all dogs or all animals," he says. Two previous studies on military working dogs and other dogs have found the opposite effect: that more anxious mothers produce more successful offspring in those contexts.

But, Wynne says, the potential specificity of the results does not undercut the usefulness of the research. "At a completely practical level, there's always a problem finding enough guide dogs for people who need guide dogs," he says, and "it's always difficult getting dogs through those kinds of programs."

He thinks research like this might help increase the effectiveness and efficiency of training. "So, it's very powerful and useful," he says.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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