The range of jobs for dogs is vast – from assistance animals trained to work with the visually or hearing impaired, to detection dogs trained to sniff out explosives, narcotics or bedbugs ans ‘war dogs’ that are sent to the front line of battle.
But matching the right dog with the right job is a difficult, and expensive, process.
A new canine aptitude test hopes to make the decision a little easier – by matching puppies to their perfect job through a series of exercises designed to find their personality.
Experts hope that by analyzing the performance of puppies on 25 different cognitive measures by using a battery of game-based tests, like hiding and finding objects and other forms of canine play, they could get an insight into what jobs they would be best suited for.
‘Dog jobs are just about as diverse as human jobs are,’ said Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, who led the study.
‘People sometimes think of working dogs as this general category of dogs that have jobs in society, but they actually have to do really, really different things, and because these jobs are so diverse, we didn’t expect that there was going to be one litmus test for what would make a good dog.
‘It’s like if you think about aptitude testing with people – there are certain questions that will tell you something about one job but not another.’
Researchers found that even among dogs specifically bred to be assistance dogs, for example, only about 50 per cent 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.
MacLean hopes to change this with a new test.
‘People have really focused on temperament and how reactive a dog is to certain things in the environment,’ said MacLean.
‘What we were interested in was the fact that these dogs also face cognitive challenges.
‘They have to learn all these things in the course of their training, and they have to be able to flexibly solve problems when things go wrong.’
The new study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science that looks at whether canines’ cognitive abilities can help predict their success as working dogs.
It 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.
MacLean and his colleagues 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.
MacLean’s 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, MacLean said.
He and his colleagues are now working on determining if cognitive testing could be informative even earlier – when a dog is just 8 weeks old.
They also are looking at whether these skills have a genetic basis that could be targeted in breeding programs.