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Does "Tough Love" Produce Better Working Dogs?

Puppies with overly attentive mothers have less success as working dogs.

Rob Kleine photo-Creative Commons License
Source: Rob Kleine photo-Creative Commons License

Controversies over parenting styles have raged for more than a century among human developmental psychologists. Now a new study done at the University of Pennsylvania and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy Of Sciences, carries the argument into the whelping box by looking at how a canine mother's behavior can affect the problem-solving and independence behaviors of her litter.

The crux of the question has to do with just how much support does a young child need from its parent in order to grow into a well-rounded, psychologically stable, and independent adult. The earliest studies by psychologist Harry Harlow from the University of Wisconsin, using rhesus monkeys, showed that insufficient touching and social interactions from a mother produced offspring who grew up to be poorly functioning, socially damaged, anxious adults. However in more recent years the concern has become whether it is possible for mothers to over-protect or overly nurture their children. For example some psychologists suggest that the difficulties that some millennials seem to be having when it comes to succeeding in the workplace and in social interactions might have to do with the fact that they may have been coddled and protected too much by their parents.

The contrast is often described as being between "tough love" (where the parent requires the child to work for their rewards and take responsibility for their actions) versus "helicopter parenting." The term "helicopter parent" was first used in Dr. Haim Ginott's 1969 book Parents & Teenagers. It referred to teens who said their parents tended to hover over them like a helicopter. The term became popular enough to become a dictionary entry in 2011. In essence such parents assist the child in doing tasks that the child is capable of doing alone. Specifically the parent arranges things so that the child engages in little or no competition and avoids struggles with people or the environment. Over recent decades data has shown that the children of such helicopter parents lack independence, do not cope with difficulty well, are not good problem solvers, have overly high expectations from the world around them and an exaggerated sense of self-worth and entitlement.

The lead author of this new study, Emily Bray (now at the Arizona Canine Cognition Study at the University of Arizona) decided to see if parenting style also has a major impact in adult abilities in dogs. Her team decided that guide dogs presented a useful group to study, partly because their adult success was easily measured — either they graduated from the program and became a working guide dog or they failed.

To collect the data about the puppies' early life experience, Bray and her team of research assistants embedded themselves at a guide dog breeding facility. They closely observed and videotaped 23 canine mothers and their 98 puppies for the first five weeks of their life. The study included three breeds: German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and Golden retrievers.

According to Bray, "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."

Around two years later the researchers tracked down the puppies and found that those with mothers that were more attentive were less likely to have graduated from the training program to become guide dogs. For example, those dogs whose mothers nursed more often lying down, as opposed to sitting or standing up, were less likely to succeed. The importance of the nursing position is that if a mother is lying on her stomach, the puppies basically have free access to milk, but if the mother is standing up the puppies have to work to get it. The hypothesis that this suggests is that it is better if the mother provides her offspring with minor obstacles that they can overcome if they are expected to succeed later in life, because, as we all know, life as an adult involves obstacles.

A second part of the study involved giving the dogs a series of cognitive and temperament tests. An example of one of these tests was a problem-solving task which involves several stages. In the first stage the dog had to remove an obstacle before it could start working on the second stage which allowed it to operate an apparatus that gave it access to a treat. A task like that requires perseveration, and the dogs have to deal with the fact that the earlier stages are not rewarded, yet the dogs still have to continue working at the undertaking if they are to ultimately succeed and win the prize. Here again, it was the offspring of mothers who did not make life too easy for the puppies who were most likely to be successful.

Bray summarizes these results saying "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."

Unfortunately, in science things are often not simple. While canine mothers who are less attentive toward their offspring might be using a parenting strategy which is good for raising guide dogs or service dogs—who must engage in independent behaviors—this might not be such a good rearing method for dogs whose destiny is to just become a pet and a companion animal rather than a working dog. There has been some research which seems to show that more doting mothers may produce dogs that do better suited to the more typical social settings and interactions with people that pet dogs normally encounter (click here for more about that). Such dogs seem to be more sociable and affectionate.

Bray recognizes that difficulty that this poses saying, "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."

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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Emily E. Bray, Mary D. Sammel, Dorothy L. Cheney, James A. Serpell, and Robert M. Seyfarth, (2017). Effects of maternal investment, temperament, and cognition on guide dog success. Proceedings of the National Academy Of Sciences,