woman holding a puppy
August 9, 2017

‘Helicopter parenting’ doesn’t work for dogs either, study finds

Similar to how previous research has found that being a so-called helicopter parent could harm a human child’s chances of success, a new study has found that being dog mothers who are overly involved raising their puppies could reduce their chances of training to become a guide dog.

In their study, the authors found that canine mothers who insulate their offspring from adversity instead of encouraging them to be independent and overcome difficulties without assistance may reduce the chances that those puppies will successfully complete a guide dog training program.

Lead author Emily Bray, who recently earned her doctorate in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, called the findings “remarkable.” Even though the mother dogs only raised their puppies for five weeks, the behavior was “having an effect on their success two years later.”

“It seems that puppies need to learn how to deal with small challenges at this early age and, if they don’t, it hurts them later,” Bray explained in a statement. “This was a great way to conduct a controlled study where you can start to look at the contributing factors that make these dogs successful. And it was also exciting to be able to do this longitudinally, following them from puppyhood to their graduation or release from the training program.”

Coddled puppies less likely to successfully complete training

Bray worked on the project alongside Dorothy Cheney of the Department of Biology, Robert Seyfarth of the Department of Psychology, James Serpell of the School of Veterinary Medicine and others. They conducted their research at The Seeing Eye, a New Jersey-based organization that raises and trains puppies to serve as guide dogs for the blind, and their findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers embedded themselves in the breeding facility, observing and recording video of 23 mothers raising a total of 98 puppies through their first five weeks of life. The goal, Bray said in a statement, was to determine whether or not they could differentiate the moms based on how they interacted with their dogs – for example, how much time they spent in close proximity with the puppies, or the amount of time they spent licking or grooming their offspring.

A measure of salivary cortisol levels (used to gauge stress in dogs) found that those mothers that were more vigilant in caring for their puppies had higher baseline levels and were more likely to experience higher spikes in cortisol when their puppies were temporarily removed from them. In addition, the researchers found that those puppies whose moms were more attentive tended to be less likely to graduate from the organization’s guide dog training program.

Nursing style seems to have an impact, but underlying cause remains unknown

Specifically, dogs whose mothers nursed them while laying down instead of sitting or standing up were less likely to succeed, the researchers found. In addition, the temperament and cognitive ability of the dogs were associated with their success or failure in the program. The study adds to the overall understanding of the long-term impact of maternal style, the authors noted, and could help guide dog training programs identify the best candidates for their training.

Why would nursing style matter? Seyfarth explained, “If a mother is lying on her stomach, the puppies basically have free access to milk, but, if the mother is standing up, then the puppies have to work to get it. A hypothesis might be that you have to provide your offspring with minor obstacles that they can overcome for them to succeed later in life because, as we know, life as an adult involves obstacles.”

The researchers reported that their findings establish a link between maternal behavior in canines and the behavior of those dogs later on in life. However, they noted that more research is needed to determine exactly why the more attentive mothers were more likely to have puppies that failed in the training program. It could be because of the helicopter parenting style itself or because the dogs they picked up on their mothers’ anxiety, or it may be genetic, Serpell said.