Behavioral and cognitive development in future guide dogs
In order for Seeing Eye® dogs to serve as guides for the visually impaired, they must exhibit sophisticated skills such as impulse control, flexible attention, and independent problem solving. One potentially vital influence in puppies’ development is early experience; across many species, early maternal care has been shown to play a role in programming later emotions, behavior, and cognition in the young. Therefore, I spent six months observing the first 6 weeks of pups’ lives to investigate how variation in a mother’s investment, interaction, and stress levels affect her offspring’s temperament and cognition throughout development and, subsequently, successful graduation from the program.
Another question of interest is the consistency of behavioral differences and ‘personalities’ over time. Tapping into individual differences that begin emerging around four weeks, we are measuring behavioral traits at multiple time points. This approach should improve our understanding of behavioral development and stability in dogs, which in turn may help pinpoint the age at which certain traits can be used to predict future outcomes.
I am addressing these questions by conducting a longitudinal study in which I follow a group of 138 puppies from birth through completion of The Seeing Eye® program. In addition to the data gathered from 0-6 weeks at the breeding station and during the puppy raising stage, I now plan to collect data at approximately 16 months of age, as dogs return to headquarters prior to training. I will then be monitoring cortisol levels and eating habits, filming kennel behavior, and playing some problem-solving games with the dogs.
Inhibitory control in dogs
Being able to resist a preferred response in favor of a more productive one lies at the heart of inhibitory control, a ubiquitous phenomenon in human and animal behavior. For my undergraduate thesis, I tested 30 pet dogs at the Duke Canine Cognition Center on three tasks and found intra-individual variation in inhibitory control across contexts. For my master's thesis, in order to test the hypothesis that the ideal amount of stress to optimally exert inhibitory control would vary based on the temperament of a dog, I compared 30 pet dogs and 76 assistance dogs from Canine Companions for Independence. As predicted, calmer assistance dogs exhibited peak performance in higher energy situations, whereas the more animated pet dogs performed worse (and vice versa).
Research with future assistance dogs
In 2011 and 2012, I traveled to Santa Rosa, CA with colleagues from the Duke Canine Cognition Center to Canine Companions for Independence®, a non-profit organization that breeds and trains assistance dogs. I helped test service dogs, facility dogs, skilled companions, and hearing dogs in training on a multitude of cognitive tasks dubbed the Dog Cognition Test Battery. The project, which is ongoing, seeks to determine the factors that ultimately lead to a successful assistance dog. When dogs reach the end of their training and are tested, many will pass but some will fail. We can then determine if their scores on our tasks are correlated to their success rate, and determine which tests and skills are most relevant.