Chief, the guide dog for my husband's father, photographed, bizarrely enough, by Arnold H Crane, an artist whose photos are at

Non-Coddled Puppies Grow Up to be Best Guide Dogs

Woof woof woof! Er…I mean, chew on this:

study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the way a puppy’s mother raises it may be the key to the dog’s success, or failure. A research team at the University of Pennsylvania found that puppies destined for guide dog training are more likely to fail if they’re coddled by their mothers.

Okay, once again, correlation is not causation, and guide dogs are not humans. But (bow) wow.

The puppies apparently spend their time in a kiddie wading pool without water. Compared to, shall we say, Free-Range Dogs, a “hands-on mother is going to be constantly in the pool, licking them, grooming them, interacting with them,” the lead author of the study, Emily Bray, told Capradio in Sacramento.

The researchers found that among the 98 puppies they studied, the actively-mothered ones were more likely to fail a guide dog training program later.

How come? Possibly because the “Free-Range” pups develop the precise set of skills guide dogs need: They’re relaxed and not thrown for a loop when things get stressful or “strange.”  Arizona State psych professor Clive Wynne, a dog cognition specialist (there’s a career for you), said that “These dogs need to remain calm under all circumstances.” They also need to know when to disobey, because they “see” that complying would put their handler in danger. In other words, they problem-solve.

So you’ve got dogs who are calm, resilient, smart, resourceful and able to roll with the punches, yet willing to stand up for what they know is right — thanks (perhaps) to the trusting, non-coddling, Free-Range moms who raised them.

Woof. – L

Chief, my father-in-law’s long-ago guide dog, in a portrait by Arnold H. Crane. Crane’s (non-Chief) photos hang in the Art Institute of Chicago.

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15 Responses to Non-Coddled Puppies Grow Up to be Best Guide Dogs

  1. Theresa Hall August 9, 2017 at 11:49 am #

    Unfortunately the idiots in charge will of course ignore this proof

  2. Carl von Baeyer August 9, 2017 at 12:20 pm #

    I think the analogy to human child-rearing is apt, but with two caveats.

    1. As Lenore points out, correlation is not causality. The pups who were more dependent (or vulnerable to stress) may have elicited more solicitous care from their mothers because of those inborn traits, which would also show up later when attempts are made to train them. That causal account is at least as plausible to me as the inverse that Lenore proposes. A true experiment would be needed to distinguish these explanations.

    2. Child-rearing research shows that babies who are breastfed, carried constantly, given lots of skin-to-skin contact, and treated in a sensitive and responsive way become more confident and resilient young children than deprived or less-coddled babies. However, this is most relevant in infancy: obviously there’s a time that withdrawing that high level of solicitous case is more helpful. I haven’t looked into it but I presume this would be at the toddler-preschooler stage.

    So – I’d say “yes and no” to Lenore’s conclusion from the study.

  3. Anna August 9, 2017 at 12:37 pm #

    Okay, I guess, but dogs really are QUITE different from people. Even given their shorter lifespan, the amount of time puppies naturally nurse and stay with the mother is very, very short compared to human upbringing, and I gather the mom rather fiercely weans and then avoids them quite soon. We’ve been looking for a puppy lately, and most up-to-date breeders we’ve talked to seem to consider the pups’ interaction with their litter-mates to be much more formative than their interaction with the mother. I fear a human raised on the canine model would have pretty severe attachment problems.

  4. James August 9, 2017 at 1:40 pm #

    Couple of problems here.

    First, 98 puppies isn’t exactly a stellar sample size. Different dog breeds have different temperaments, and that needs to be taken into account. So at best, this rises to the level of ” Huh, that’s odd.” If you think I’m being insulting, bear in mind that to a scientist “That’s odd” is the most exciting phrase to hear yourself utter–it indicates a new area of research, a new contribution to human knowledge.

    Second, and more importantly: I do not think that comparing guide dogs and humans is appropriate. Guide dogs are, in essence, tools–they are carefully taught a very specific skillset, one that makes them useful to humans under specific situations. This is not to disparage the dogs; what I’m saying is, this means we necessarily use a vastly different criteria for evaluating a guide dog than we use for evaluating humans. This study really is the equivalent of someone comparing coddling of babies to the babies’ future potential as auto mechanics. Dogs can have many other jobs, such as guard dogs, police dogs, therapy dogs, even family pets, all of which have very different requirements.

    What’s lacking for the dogs is the capacity to choose their profession. We view a dog that doesn’t pass the guide dog test as a failure because they failed to fit the role WE chose for them. Outside of the most backwards homes parents simply do not view children that way. I’m not a failure for going into a different occupation than my father wanted me to go into; I’m a success because I got into the occupation I chose.

    Plus, you have to factor in WHY the dogs didn’t pass the test. My wife’s uncle raises guide/therapy dogs, and often the dogs that he raises who fail the guide dog test do so for reasons that amount to “They are too friendly”. Guide dogs need to be able to ignore distractions like food and offers by people to play with them. The dogs who are too friendly to be guide dogs make FANTASTIC therapy dogs most of the time–being friendly is a positive, not a negative, in the therapy dog world. (My wife’s dog is a therapy dog, so I’m fairly familiar with this–and yes, I’m leaving out a lot of nuances here, because of space constraints and for clarity.)

    Because of this, I think that any use of this study to draw conclusions about child rearing tactics is fatally flawed.

  5. Michael August 9, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

    Your children are not your friends. You have a responsibility to raise them to be independent, contributing members of their future community. That is your job. If you become friends when they are adults that is truly wonderful. I am friends with both of my adult children. I was always their father. I read to them, took them to fun places, took them to dance (probably 10,000 times), and loved most of the time I was raising them. Not all of the time though. Calling the police when one decided to experiment with LSD in the ninth grade was hard. She hated me for a while – but she told me later that it made her wonder why no one else’s parents had done that when they were caught. She said she reevaluated her life with parents and came to a realizations that we really did want her to be responsible and that we actually loved her.

    Children aren’t naturally good. They are amoral souls who care about their own creature comforts. As one child psychologists said, “sometimes you have to beat morality into them.” I’ve known parents to be shocked by that statement but when you consider the alternative what else should you do.

    Many think that by giving them things you transact some sort of value. They think if they can keep them literally off the streets and away from any imaginable danger then they have done their job. They haven’t. They’ve just put on a “morality play” with themselves as the stars. Their kids arrive at adulthood woefully unprepared.

    Dogs love their pups but they never spoil them when it comes to their rearing. However, raising a child is more complex by an infinite degree but if you open your eyes and look around I think you would agree it should be done.

  6. pentamom August 9, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

    As long as this stays in the realm of “cute analogy to child-rearing” and is given NO credence as evidence for Free Range Parenting, I’m okay. But you just can’t analogize human and animal behavior that way. And at best, even if it were applicable to humans, this demonstrates that a certain method of rearing provides fitness for a specific task. The primary motivation of Free Range parenting should not be optimizing task fitness, but producing all around better humans.

  7. Theresa Hall August 9, 2017 at 5:27 pm #

    Pentamom between the liability people and the worrywarts kids are rarely turn out capable of doing anything. Your boyfriend doesn’t want you alone so cry title x. Teacher thinks Trump is a big old jerk face and says so and you voted for him cry for help. Need meds but the worrywarts think no kid not in college is capable of taking of themselves even a bit but then they be lucky to have confidence in themselves. That’s why we need free range kids to create adults that don’t need help with everything.

  8. pentamom August 9, 2017 at 9:56 pm #

    Theresa Hall I agree but I don’t know what that has to do with what I said.

  9. James Pollock August 9, 2017 at 10:23 pm #

    “As long as this stays in the realm of “cute analogy to child-rearing” and is given NO credence as evidence for Free Range Parenting, I’m okay. But you just can’t analogize human and animal behavior that way. And at best, even if it were applicable to humans, this demonstrates that a certain method of rearing provides fitness for a specific task. The primary motivation of Free Range parenting should not be optimizing task fitness, but producing all around better humans.”

    Yes, yes, yes, and yes. (So sorry if it turns out that it bothers you to have me agree with you fully.)

  10. Reziac August 9, 2017 at 10:35 pm #

    Pro dog trainer and breeder of working dogs here, with 48 years experience:. Right parallel, wrong attribution.

    The reason the more “mothered” puppies are more likely to fail is because they inherited some of their mother’s disposition (which is highly heritable and NOT much influenced by environment) — ie. more worried and less confident, which in turn is more likely to fail when confronted with the responsibilities of a working dog.

    A confident female doesn’t worry about her puppies; she assumes if they’re not screaming, they’re fine. She feeds them and cleans them, and otherwise leaves them much to their own devices. Also she’s more than happy to show them to friendly strangers.

    But a neurotic female checks on them constantly and reassures *herself* by needless licking and fiddling (and sometimes manages to work herself into a lather). The neurotic dam is also more likely to lie on and suffocate her pups, and is far more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior toward both even familiar humans AND toward her own puppies.

    It should be obvious that if you want good working dogs, you need to select away from the neurotic temperament, and toward the confident, reliable animal.

    BTW my sample size is more like 3,000 puppies across 14 generations.

  11. pentamom August 9, 2017 at 11:36 pm #

    Au contraire James, I’m pleased not to be at odds for once.

  12. pentamom August 9, 2017 at 11:40 pm #

    And I’m gratified by your generosity in saying so, despite my apparently having created a fear that you’d get back-handed for it. My apologies for doing so.

  13. Anna August 10, 2017 at 8:45 am #

    Reziac, thank you. How pleasant to accompany my morning coffee with a piece of lucid and well-informed cause-and-effect explanation about something I didn’t know. We have close friends with a service dog, and it’s nice to understand more about it.

  14. Donna August 10, 2017 at 9:15 am #

    “they inherited some of their mother’s disposition (which is highly heritable and NOT much influenced by environment)”

    If only more dog rescue people would understood this. I love my very fear-aggressive boy and we are managing him for now, but puppies from a mother so fear-aggressive that she had to be euthanized the second the puppies were weaned should not have been adopted out with no advanced notice to people with little dog training knowledge who were looking for a nice family pet.

    Sorry, tangent caused by taking said dog for a walk this morning which is always a challenge and a half.

  15. Megan August 12, 2017 at 5:50 pm #

    I worry about the misuse of the term “coddling.” No doubt someone like “sexhysteria” would consider getting therapy for kids who’ve been molested or raped to be “coddling,” which is clearly screwed up, but plenty of people show contempt for any kind of care taking of children by adults. Kids do have legitimate needs for protection and guidance; it’s when adults step in to be their self-appointed saviors that things go off the rails. I fondly recall a comment made by the great writer and naturalist Peter Matthiessen that birds are pretty dumb because they can just fly away from trouble. I have to smile when I think of that observation, and how it demonstrates a principle that humans ignore at the risk of our children’s sanity.