Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A guide to choosing a good dog

Each year, a number of Labrador and Golden Retriever pups enter the guide dog training program. At around 14-16 months of age the hard work starts, when a 5 month intensive training regime begins. During this time each dog has their health and temperament assessed, and this is where my work begins. Not all dogs entering this training program are suitable to become guide dogs, and through the use of a number of temperament and lateralisation tests, my project aims to identify unsuitable dogs. Training a guide dog costs around $26 000, so identifying unsuitable dogs is very important to ensure that resources can be focused on dogs with a higher potential.

I’m now in my second year of study and love it! So far I have assessed three groups of dogs, totalling 72 individuals, and have had the pleasure of watching two groups graduating (the third is still in training).

One of the main areas of my project is looking at motor and sensory lateralisation. I assess whether the dogs have a significant paw preference, so if they are left or right pawed, or if they are ambidextrous. As well as paw preference, I am looking at eye biases. This is of relevance to the program since nearly all dogs are trained to exclusively walk on the left of their handler. The importance of this may come into effect if the dog has a right eye bias, since the handler may block partial vision in that eye whilst walking, subsequently affecting the dog’s overall ability to assess the surrounding environment, and hence influencing their working performance.

The temperament tests employed aim to identify dogs that are fearful of loud noises or sudden objects appearing, are distracted by other dogs, or will not settle and rest in a quiet environment.

As well as lateralisation and temperament tests, I am also looking at kennel behaviours, salivary immunoglobulin A (sIgA) concentrations (as an indicator of stress), and hair whorl characteristics as potential predictors of success in the Guide Dog Program. The relationships between these additional variables will also be assessed in an endeavour to establish the suitability of dogs for guide work at the earliest possible age. By identifying early predictors of success and failure, unsuitable animals can be removed from training, allowing time and resources to be utilised more efficiently on dogs that have greater potential.

By Lisa Tomkins


  1. Hey Lisa, that's a great article! It's really clear and you deserve a gold star for successfully navigating the jargon mine field.

    I don't actually have any gold stars, but if I did, you would get one.

  2. Hey Lisa
    Nice explanation of your project. Any guide dog puppies welcome to post grad events any time.