Issue 106

Dogs (& Kids) Need Some Obstacles to Overcome to Find Success Later in Life, Study Finds

The debate about parenting styles has long been debated. It's one every parent is likely to have an opinion on and those without children most likely have an idea of the type of parents they'd consider themselves to be, should the day come when they need to have a plan.

And it seems whether consciously done or otherwise, the type of parent a 'dog-mom' is can have a serious influence on their puppies as they grow up, so says a new study out of America who claim that doting (helicopter) mothers seem to hamper their puppies chance of success in later life.

The study was undertaken at New Jersey organisation, The Seeing Eye, where dogs are bred and raised to guide visually impaired people.

Emily Bray, a postdoctoral researcher in the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona's School of Anthropology was the lead author on the study and said, "You need your mom, but moms that are too attentive don't give their puppies a chance to respond to small challenges on their own. Puppies need opportunities to deal with obstacles without their mom always being there."

The study

Scientists have long been interested in the impact of early-life experiences on adult behaviour, but hardly any studies have been done in dogs and the influence parents can have on how they turn out.

The Seeing Eye was thought to be a good place for a controlled study because the puppies are raised in a way that allows a study to take place in a controlled environment and there is a tangible outcome of the puppy's success: they will either graduate as a guide dog where they will be able to be placed in a home to carry out that job and be able to be judged based on their work in an unpredictable environment, or they will be released and able to find a home as a pet with no job as such.

The study was carried out by Bray's team who stayed at the centre, taking videos and closely observing 23 mothers and their 98 puppies for their first five weeks of life.

Bray said the reason for this was simple.

"We wanted to know if we could differentiate the moms based on how they interacted with their puppies. We documented things like her nursing position, how much time she spent looking away from the puppies and how much time she spent in close proximity to her puppies or licking and grooming them."

Setting challenges

After the puppies were separated from their mums, they were placed in foster homes before their guide dog training began at the centre aged between 14-17 months old.

The study continued to monitor the puppies progress into adulthood and devised various tests to measure each dog's cognition for problem solving and temperament, such as observing the dogs' reactions, i.e. how long they took to bark at an umbrella being opened or how they reacted when they entered a room with a mechanical cat they had never seen before.

The dogs who did well in both problem solving and who took longer to bark at unfamiliar objects, such as the mechanical cat, were classed as more likely to succeed in their training to become a guide dog.

On this part of the study, Bray said, "We saw that some dogs were calm and collected and solved problems quickly, while others were more reactive and perseverated at the problem-solving tasks".

Analysing the data revealed differences between the mothers & how this impacted on the dog's future life

Researchers continued to monitor the puppies turned adults and after two years, at which point their guide dog training had completed and made some interesting discoveries.

They found out that those with mothers that were more attentive (AKA the 'helicopter parent') were less likely to graduate from the centre's guide dog training program to become guide dogs and even discovered that dogs whose mothers nursed more often lying down were less likely to succeed.

Bray said, "These puppies were with their mom for only five weeks, and it's having an effect on their success two years later. It seems that puppies need to learn how to deal with small challenges at this early age, and if they don't, it hurts them later."

Study co-author Robert Seyfarth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania spoke about the significance of these findings saying, "If a mother is lying on her stomach, the puppies basically have free access to milk, but if the mother is standing up, then the puppies have to work to get it. A hypothesis might be that you have to provide your offspring with minor obstacles that they can overcome for them to succeed later in life because, as we know, life as an adult involves obstacles."

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Have you heard about...?

'Smothering mothers aren't the worst', but it seems like a delicate balance for success

The study highlights the influence parents have from the early days but the question of nurture over nature is still not yet definitive, and a further study would have to be undertaken to identify what role genes play.

On this study's findings Bray concludes, "With mothering, it seems like it's a delicate balance. It's easy to be like, 'Oh, smothering moms are the worst,' but we aren't exactly sure of the mechanisms yet and we don't want to tip too far in the other direction, either."

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