As an animal behavior researcher, I am fascinated by the decision-making and problem-solving processes of other organisms and enjoy investigating what contributes to individual differences in these abilities. During my dissertation work, I became particularly interested in the early developmental factors that influence later temperament, cognition, and outcomes. Studying a population of guide dogs, I quantified the amount of maternal care that puppies received over the first few weeks of life and then tracked the puppies for two years. I found strong associations between the amount of mothering a puppy received and reactivity and problem-solving skills around 18 months of age. Moreover, mothering style was also associated with whether a puppy successfully graduated as a guide dog. Surprisingly, the dogs whose mothers were the most involved over those first few weeks of life were the least likely to graduate. While more research is needed, as is so often the case, one hypothesis is that a little bit of stress in early life is actually beneficial, and can build future resilience.
Since starting my postdoc position at the University of Arizona, I’ve been living at our lab’s “field site” in Northern California – Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). CCI is the largest non-profit provider of assistance dogs for people with disabilities in the United States. These dogs are expertly trained to offer physical and emotional support, providing their handlers with the freedom and self-confidence to navigate the world more independently. While being so far from campus can be challenging, living year-round at CCI has allowed for large amounts of data collection across many projects. In addition to banking biological samples for hormone analysis and recording observational videos of behavior, most of the data collection involves building a cognitive and behavioral phenotype of individual dogs through highly standardized experiments. In practice, this means that dogs spend a few fun and interactive hours with us, participating in voluntary food-finding games that allow us to quantify skills like memory, impulse control, problem solving, social acuity, and sensory discrimination.
Over the past year and a half, I have overseen the temperament and cognition testing of over 300 8-week old puppies, half of which have been re-tested as adults, as well as over 150 of their dams and sires. We plan to use these data to answer a variety of questions, ranging from how stable these behaviors are over time to how heritable these behaviors are across generations to how predictive they are of eventual outcome. One thing I love about this research is the potential for practical application of our findings. By investigating how the emergence of cognitive traits and early experiences with maternal style contribute to the best working dog phenotypes, one of the applied goals of my research is to help inform the allocation of resources and selection of breeding stock. Furthermore, by exploring questions like how dogs navigate space, control impulses, or categorize objects, I hope to help trainers develop techniques that take advantage of a dog’s natural abilities in applied settings. In these ways, I aim to finetune the efficiency of the process by which organizations breed, raise, and train future service dogs, thereby maximizing the impact for people with disabilities who receive these life-changing animals.