How Can We Improve Working Dog Programs?

A new paper suggests ways to develop the welfare and performance of working canines.

How to improve the welfare and performance of working dogs
A search-and-rescue dog takes part in a training exercise. Photo: deepspacedave/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Have you ever stopped to think about the amazing variety of jobs that dogs do: herding sheep, chasing criminals, sniffing out cancer, assisting people with disabilities, supporting the military in the field, detecting explosives or narcotics, visiting sick people in hospital, pulling sleds, search and rescue, and so on. They bring a wide variety of skills, and work in diverse locations from cities to forests, mountains and farms. Yet there is no one body that investigates and evaluates the training and welfare of working dogs.

A new paper by Mia Cobb (Monash University) et al examines the role of working dogs and proposes a new canine performance science. Just as human athletes benefit from performance science, the same could be true for our canine friends. There’s a financial imperative too; for example, training an assistance dog can cost up to $50k. 

Each working dog organization does its own thing, and there is a high failure rate of dogs trained for specific roles. The authors say, “around half of all dogs being bred, or considered to work or race, fail to become operational.” In some cases the outcome for dogs is still good, as with a failed service dog that finds a home as a pet; but in other cases, unwanted dogs may be euthanized. 

A working Australian Shepherd dog herds some sheep
Photo: Mikkel Bigandt/Shutterstock

The section of most interest to readers of this blog is that on training. There are currently no required standards for the training of dog trainers (something that is also true of pet dog trainers). There is also no industry-wide consensus on the qualities of a good dog trainer, although research shows the importance of timing and consistency. The paper points to a need for accreditation of dog trainers, and the use of training protocols that follow quality assurance principles. 

Knowledge of learning theory is also key. The authors say, “a trainer with a sound theoretical education and ability to practice the basic principles of reinforcement may be of more benefit than an informally trained specialist who has worked only with one breed, or even one select working dog role within a breed.”

Some organizations have a canine breeding program and are involved in how the puppies are raised from the very beginning. Other organizations take rescue dogs and train them. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. For example, we know that early socialization is important for puppies, and a breeding program can ensure that dogs are socialized to everything they might encounter in later life. 

The authors point out that at the moment there aren’t standard definitions of behavioural traits such as ‘drive’. This adds to the difficulties of identifying specific traits in puppies. Advances in genetics may also be helpful (for example, if it is possible to identify and breed for particular features). Knowledge of a dog’s lineage can also be used to ensure greater genetic diversity and prevent problems due to inbreeding. 

While some working dogs live in a home or come home with their handler at night, others are housed in kennels. Dogs in individual kennels may be more likely to be stressed by the environment and miss out on species-specific company compared to those in group housing. In the course of their work, they may have to spend long periods of time in difficult environments such as the back of a truck or in the midst of a crowd. It’s hard to get a picture of how working dog welfare compares to that of pet dogs, since there is so much variety and limited research to draw on.

A guide dog (seeing eye dog) helps a man with a white cane navigate a slightly snowy path in a park
Photo: Jeroen van den Broek/Shutterstock

Although all these factors are important on their own, the real gains will come from looking at the picture as a whole. It is also likely that improvements in animal welfare will bring associated benefits in terms of improved performance. 

The general public is very concerned about some aspects of animal welfare, such as animals in captivity. The authors say it is only a matter of time before more attention is paid to the welfare of working dogs. Hence the time is right for their suggestions. The paper is a thorough examination of ways to improve both the welfare and performance of working dogs. No aspect is left out, from the equipment used to handle a dog to the amount people are willing to spend on veterinary care. 

This research demonstrates the exciting potential for canine performance science, something that will surely be of benefit to pet dogs as well.

The paper is essential reading for anyone interested in working dogs, and is open access via the link below. The first author, Mia Cobb, has kindly answered some questions on her research for us, so please come back on Sunday to read what she has to say.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Cobb, M., Branson, N., McGreevy, P., Lill, A., & Bennett, P. (2015). The advent of canine performance science: Offering a sustainable future for working dogs Behavioural Processes, 110, 96-104 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.10.012

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