A canine cognition test could help organizations that train working dogs identify the dogs that are most likely to succeed, according to new research.
The canine labor market is diverse and expansive. Assistance dogs may be trained to work with the visually or hearing impaired, or with people in wheelchairs. Detection dogs may be trained to sniff out explosives, narcotics or bedbugs. Other pups even learn to jump out of helicopters on daring rescue missions.
Despite the wide variety of working roles available for man's best friend, those jobs can be tough to fill, since not every dog will qualify. Even among dogs specifically bred to be assistance dogs, for example, only about 50 percent that start a training program will successfully complete it, while the rest go on to be very well-trained family pets. As a result, the wait list for a trained assistance dog can be up to two years.
Researchers at the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, is exploring ways to identify the best dogs for different jobs, before they start the long and expensive training process, by looking at their cognitive abilities.
While a dog's physical characteristics and temperament are often considered when thinking about which dog will be right for a given job, cognition is an area that's received far less attention.
This study focuses on two types of working dogs: assistance dogs in training, which will go on to be paired with people with disabilities, and explosive detection dogs working for the U.S. Navy. The team looked at the performance of both types of dogs on 25 different cognitive measures by using a battery of game-based tests, like hiding and finding objects and other forms of canine play.
What they found: A different set of skills predict whether a dog will be a good detection dog or a good assistance dog
In the case of assistance dogs, social skills, including the ability to pay close attention to and maintain eye contact with humans, appear to be especially important. In detection dogs, good short-term memory and sensitivity to human body language, such as pointing gestures, were the best predictors of success.
The study involved 164 dogs from the California-based organization Canine Companions for Independence, which trains assistance dogs, and 222 dogs from the Navy
The researchers tested the assistance dogs at 18 months old, when they first started a full-time, intensive six-month training program. Dogs in the study were considered "successful" based on whether or not they ultimately graduated from the training. Through cognitive testing, researchers were able to predict the top 25 percent of graduates with 86 percent accuracy.
The success of the Navy dogs, whose training is ongoing and not marked by a single graduation date, was measured based on trainers' records of the dogs' performance on training exercises, as well as questionnaires with people who trained or deployed with the dogs.
The findings suggest that cognition could be considered alongside temperament and physicality to predict working dog success. If organizations that train dogs could better predict which dogs are most worth the investment, it could save tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary training costs and also ensure that people in need get the right dogs faster, according to the research team.