ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Visually impaired people who rely on guide dogs need them to be well-trained. And many puppies bred to be guide dogs flunk out of training programs. A new study suggests the way a puppy's mother raises it may be the key to the dog's success or failure. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Here's the general wisdom about animal parenting - baby animals need parents, and more active parents are better parents. So researcher Emily Bray followed 98 puppies from birth to see how mothering behavior affected their success as guide dogs.
EMILY BRAY: The puppies are kept in a kiddie pool lined with towels.
HERSHER: She described it over Skype. Two groups quickly emerged - the hands-on moms and the hands-off ones.
BRAY: The hands-off mothers are the ones that are spending less time with their puppies and not interacting with them as much, whereas the more hands-on mother is going to be constantly in the pool, licking and grooming them, nursing them, interacting with them.
HERSHER: Another example? Nursing.
BRAY: Moms can nurse from different positions. So one way is ventral nursing; that means laying on her stomach.
HERSHER: Which makes it really simple for pups to latch on. But other mothers sat up or even stood while they nursed their babies.
BRAY: She's further from the puppy. The puppy has to work for it.
HERSHER: Bray and her collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania found a link between the kind of care puppies received and their later success as guide dogs. The results were published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
BRAY: And I think it was a little surprising. We actually find that the more hands-off mothering style produced more successful guide dogs than the mothers that tended to be more interactive and coddling.
HERSHER: Basically, helicopter moms seemed to be bad for puppy academic performance. Why?
BRAY: One possibility is that it's good for the puppies to have these small challenges to overcome. You know, the mother's not around versus having the mom there around all the time not letting them experience things on their own.
HERSHER: Another possibility is that attentive parenting stresses moms out. Good guide dogs are calm dogs, so a stressful childhood can cause problems later on. But Clive Wynne, a dog cognition specialist at Arizona State University who is not involved in this study, thinks the various mothering behaviors may be more of a side effect. The primary reason may have more to do with the genetics of the mother.
CLIVE WYNNE: These dogs have to remain calm under all conditions. Those are the dogs that are successful. Those are the dogs that are invited to be the parents of the next generation.
HERSHER: So rock star guide dogs commonly parent rock star pups. The current study was not set up to test that possibility. But he says the findings are nonetheless important. Among other things, they could potentially help organizations raise guide dogs more effectively and efficiently, which is good because there's always a shortage. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
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