There has recently been an increase in demand for assistance dogs; dogs specially trained to help individuals with a disability such as visual, hearing, mobility impairment, autism spectrum disorder, and or post-traumatic stress disorder [1
]. Many organisations breed or purchase puppies for this purpose. Before being trained and assessed for their ability to safely function in various places and situations, these puppies must be reared, starting as young as six to 12 weeks [3
], for up to 16 months before they are suitable for advanced training, which prepares them for their specific work role. Puppy raisers, typically volunteers recruited either from the public [3
] or from institutions such as higher education and correctional settings [4
], provide care and opportunities for the puppies to learn and become familiar with a wide variety of environments and situations.
Although assistance dog provider organisations generally oversee the puppy-raising practices of their volunteer raisers, research has found that puppy-raising outcomes vary widely amongst puppy raisers [6
]. Although very little information is available about graduation rates for assistance dog puppies in general, it has been reported that approximately half of all guide dog puppies fail to qualify and work in their intended role [1
]. This high failure rate is unacceptable for various reasons, such as economic inefficiency and welfare of the dogs after being disqualified and rehomed [11
]. It is of interest, then, that one primary reason for failure is dogs having behaviours unsuitable in public places, defined broadly as behaviours associated with aggressiveness, distractedness, stress and fearfulness [12
]. Experiences during the raising period are critical to puppies’ behavioural development [14
], and could help reduce puppies’ anxiety and fearfulness if appropriately managed [17
]. Since raisers have a high degree of control over their puppies’ experiences during this time, it is essential to understand what helps and what hinders the practices of puppy raisers.
Research has found that puppies’ behavioural outcomes vary among puppy raisers and in favour of those with more experience. Serpell and Duffy [6
] found that puppies of raisers who had raised multiple puppies were less aggressive and less fearful when encountering strangers or unfamiliar dogs. Body sensitivity to touch, an undesirable trait generally associated with avoidant behaviours, was also higher in puppies raised by less-experienced puppy raisers [6
]. It is unclear, however, exactly why experienced puppy raisers produce more favourable outcomes.
It could be that multiple-time puppy raisers have had more opportunities to acquire knowledge and practice relevant puppy-handling skills, which leads to an increase in their competency. Fratkin [18
] reports that experienced puppy raisers rated themselves more highly on the understanding of puppies than inexperienced puppy raisers. Additionally, puppies raised by raisers who self-reported as more knowledgeable and more experienced were also rated significantly more favourably by their raisers on traits relating to dogs’ attachment to their raisers, and trainability [18
]. These differences are noteworthy and suggest the formation of secure attachments by the dogs to the raisers. Attachment styles are well established in human relationship research and refer to how a person reacts to the demands in their relationships, with characteristic styles typically developing in infancy [19
]. Research in dog–human relationship suggests similar patterns of attachment to those between children and their parents [22
]. Dogs with a secure attachment style are more confident to independently explore novel objects in the presence of their owners [22
]. Conversely, dogs with an insecure attachment style constantly seek proximity to their owners and typically display signs of distress during separation from their human attachment figures [22
]. Given the evidence that children receiving a high quality of care during infancy exhibit higher rates of secure attachment [25
], it may be reasonable to expect differences in attachment styles in puppies in Fratkin’s [18
] study as they were raised by raisers with various levels of experience and understanding of puppy raising.
Literature indicates that behaviours associated with insecure dog-owner attachment types (e.g., seeking attention from handlers, becoming agitated when owners show affection to other people, dogs or animals), and/or lower trainability (e.g., less responsive to commands, and less controllable when in public spaces) [26
] are generally considered undesirable in existing research on assistance dog puppy raising [16
]. An alternative explanation for why multiple-time puppy raisers produce better puppy outcomes could be that puppy raisers who are successful at puppy raising the first time around are more likely than others to continue raising subsequent puppies. In either case, successful puppy raisers should ideally be encouraged to continue to raise subsequent puppies to improve success rates and outcomes for assistance dog organisations and their future handlers. Therefore, the organisation plays a vital role in ensuring positive experiences for, and enhancing retention of, puppy raisers.
Concerning program engagement and satisfaction, insufficient instructions for effective puppy-handling techniques and lack of technical support were found to be detrimental to the experiences of first-time puppy raisers [28
]. Chur-Hansen, Werner, McGuiness and Hazel [28
] found that lack of preparation and organisational supports impaired first-time puppy raisers’ experiences in such aspects as their psychological, physical, and social well-being. These researchers interviewed nine first-time puppy raisers at one guide dog provider organisation, across four time points (i.e., before the puppy’s arrival, and at week one, month three and month 13). In the first interviews, respondents reported high expectations for their puppies and anticipated that they would receive positive puppy-raising experiences. However, at the latter three time-points, they repeatedly reported struggling with their puppy’s undesirable behaviours and experienced resentment regarding a lack of support and responsiveness from the organisation. These participants reported a need for support, including: more preparation before their puppy’s arrival; a more accurate description of the required workload; more training and information, feedback and reassurance from the organisation; and access to a support group. Another common feature was that puppy raisers loosened the rules of the organisation in times of difficulty. Lack of organisational support, therefore, appeared to affect not only the puppy raisers’ experiences but also their tendency to strictly adhere to puppy-raising instructions.
Lack of organisational guidance leaves puppy raisers in a position where they have to rely on their own ideas about puppy handling techniques, which may not be suitable [29
]. Koda [29
] conducted a study to explore how puppy raisers coped with puppies’ undesirable behaviours when not receiving any formal guidance on puppy raising, except for a request to not physically punish the puppies. Although the program in Koda’s study was provided by a guide dog training organisation, the participants were informed that the lack of formal instruction was part of the design of the study and not the provider’s standard practice, and that their puppies would not become future guide dog candidates. Observing at-home practices, Koda found that puppy raisers resorted to personal techniques (e.g., ignoring or distracting a puppy) to stop undesirable behaviours. However, most of the techniques they used were not effective at addressing their puppy’s problem behaviours (e.g., biting, vocalising, damaging household items).
These findings suggest that a lack of support and training in effective puppy handling and training techniques is likely to lead to less than optimal puppy-raising outcomes. While this situation, in which raisers were not provided with any guidance at all, may be unlikely in practice, it is clear that puppy raisers’ practices vary depending on their experience [6
] and appear to be affected by levels of organisational support and guidance [28
]. In this study, we aimed to further explore what is helpful and what needs to be improved to enhance puppy raisers’ experiences and their ability to engage in optimal puppy-raising practices.
4. Summary and Conclusions
Assistance dog puppy raising is generally a demanding job, especially for inexperienced puppy raisers. Previous research has suggested that experienced puppy raisers are more successful in puppy raising [6
], but has yet to explain why. This study aimed to explore what helps and what hinders quality of assistance dog puppy raising. The results reveal three categories of factors that experienced puppy raisers and staff reported as affecting puppy-raising practices, namely intrapersonal factors
, social support
and puppy characteristics
. Figure 2
illustrates proposed interrelations and effects of these factors on puppy-raising practices
, which then directly influence puppies’ future behavioural outcomes. The intrapersonal factors include expectations, competency, passion and perseverance. These factors influenced puppy raisers’ perceived ability to raise puppies effectively, and whether they went on to raise more puppies and, hence, gained further experience and competency. This model extends upon the mediation model proposed in Figure 1
to suggest that, although experience contributes to raisers’ puppy-raising knowledge and competency, it is only one of several factors contributing to their overall puppy-raising practices. Social supports refer to different support types (informational and emotional), and sources of support (staff/organisation, other puppy raisers, family and friends) available to assist with puppy raising. While competency takes time and experience to develop (through perseverance), puppy raisers with low competency may benefit from receiving informational and emotional support from various sources when challenges arise. In addition, inexperienced raisers may find it more manageable to handle less-demanding puppies, or to practice puppy-raising skills with ‘easy’ puppies before engaging in their own puppy-raising practice.
Following on from the current findings, future research in assistance dog puppy raising should quantitatively measure the factors we identified at an individual level, such as puppy raisers’ competency and program engagement, and at a contextual level, such as overall supports received by puppy raisers. The contextual variables could then be correlated with puppy raisers’ practices and used to inform predictive models to establish which factors are most influential in determining puppies’ behavioural outcomes. While selecting competent and committed puppy raisers and less demanding puppies may be an ideal option, it is not always practical. Organisations may, therefore, need to take advantage of different sources and types of supports to ensure their puppy raisers have (1) realistic expectations of their puppy raising, (2) efficient learning and skills acquisition, and (3) sustained motivation to provide high-quality puppy-raising practices (see Table 2
for a summary of influencing factors and practical recommendations). If puppy-raising practices can be improved even marginally, such that fewer puppies fail to succeed, the potential benefits for assistance dog organisations and the clients and communities they service could be profound.