Too Much Nurturing?

Jana, a white golden retriever, wears a mortarboardReading about this study will make you want to go back to college.  A team of undergrad researchers had the best job ever: Watching hundreds of hours of puppy videos.

They were looking at the differences in how moms at The Seeing Eye, a guide dog school in New Jersey, treated their pups. Some were very attentive, constantly licking and cuddling their newborn pups. Others spent as much time as they could out of the whelping box, away from the babies. Some lay down to nurse, making it easy for the pups to gorge themselves. Others stood, perhaps longingly eyeing the happy hour menu just out of reach. The researchers not only studied the moms’ behavior, they also measured their levels of cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress. Moms with higher anxiety tended to spend more time with their pups and coddle them more.

Guide dog puppies are set up to succeed. They have great genetics and prenatal health care, as well as top-notch vet care throughout their lives. They get early enrichment and socialization, lots of training. Even so, many don’t make it. A dog who is nervous or fearful makes a poor guide, as does one who can’t think independently and solve problems. Puppies who learn faster, solve puzzles faster, or figure out how to contend with obstacles naturally make better guide dogs. So do puppies who are confident and unafraid of new or potentially scary objects or situations. Temperament tests for puppies abound, but it’s still hard to reliably predict adult temperament or success.

It might seem that pups with attentive moms would be more confident and therefore more likely to succeed. But that’s not what the research indicated. The pups who had to work a little harder to eat and those who were less coddled by their moms turned out to be more independent and better problem solvers — scrappy, tough little dogs who had higher success rates in guide dog school. The coddled pups showed higher anxiety and less problem-solving ability. Even these pups are far ahead of the average pet dog in terms of temperament, ability to cope with the everyday stresses of life, and general health, though. But helicopter moms seemed to put their pups at a disadvantage.

It’s hard to determine just how much of the pups’ success or failure is linked to maternal behavior and how much is genetic, so more study is needed. But the attention to maternal behavior could help shape early training and enrichment. It could also point to ways that we could more successfully help our older puppies and adult dogs cope with anxiety (less coddling?).

Anyhow, doing more research is so appealing. Sign me up to watch those puppy cams!

The early study on maternal behavior is available online: Characterizing Early Maternal Style in a Population of Guide Dogs.

The abstract of the later study is available here: Effects of maternal investment, temperament, and cognition on guide dog success.

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3 thoughts on “Too Much Nurturing?

  1. Haha, my puppy will be very timid then; she has my undivided attention and affection whenever she asks for it. I only ignore her if she’s jumping on/biting me. But then again, I’m not a dog, so it’s probably different in her mind than if I were her mother.

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    • She’s lucky 🙂
      The study looked at puppies during the first 3 weeks of their lives. I don’t know if anyone has studied what happens later and its effects … it would be hard to control for all the different variables, though, after puppies leave the litter. I think that once you get a puppy home, it’s important for her to know that you have her back and will look out for her.

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