Puppy reproduction

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Everyone’s interested in sex — even the reproductive strategies for wannabe service dogs. The potluck program featuring CCI’s breeding program drew a large crowd.

Adagio had to be neutered (last week). Brando (our third CCI puppy and the only one, so far, to graduate) also underwent castration at a tender age. That’s unlike Tucker, our first CCI puppy, whom we adopted when he was released for distractibility. (He’s now approaching his 14th birthday). Tuck wasn’t neutered until after he was in Advanced Training. Like him, none of the 5 female CCI puppies we’ve raised had to be spayed until after they left us.

Why the inconsistency? What we’ve been told over the years is that all female CCI puppies — whether they’re pure-bred labrador retrievers or golden retrievers or some cross of the two — may be chosen for CCI’s breeding program. The decision about whether birthing more CCI puppies will be their mission in life is not made until after they’ve reached the advanced phase of their training. In contrast, CCI only uses purebred labs or goldens as studs, and Tucker (100% labrador) was the only male we’ve had who met that qualification.

Okay.

But why only mate purebred males with all those cross-bred females? Steve and I had never heard any explanation for that until yesterday, when we attended a presentation by Esther Molina, the director of CCI’s national breeding program, based at CCI headquarters in northern California. Since she was in town, the staff at the Southwest Regional headquarters in Oceanside invited local puppy-raisers to a potluck dinner and informational program featuring her.DSC00225.jpg

A 23-year veteran with the organization, Molina has both raised CCI puppies and served as a breeder-caretaker before taking over direction of the national breeding program. She told us that some 70-80 females are producing litters at any given time. The girls require the services of only 29-40 males.

From what Molina said, it sounds like the decisions about who to mate with whom are exceedingly complex. But the organization now has vast amounts of multi-generational data to help guide it. A top priority is doing everything possible to breed healthy dogs. Any hint of a predisposition to hip, heart, or eye problems will disqualify the animal for reproduction, and advanced genetic testing is now enabling CCI to eliminate certain CCI Advanced Genetic Testing slide-x800.jpgproblems common in labs and goldens (e.g. exercise-induced collapse and progressive retinal atrophy).

Producing dogs with the perfect personality to be service animals is even more of a challenge. To do that more consistently, Molina said CCI is now testing canine cognitive ability and assessing the results across generations. It sounds like this is very much still a work in progress.

During the Q&A session, I asked my question about why only studs have to be purebreds (and not the dams too). Molina’s basic answer was that this policy simplifies life and makes it possible to preserve the characteristics of each of the two breeds used by the organization. If CCI bred lab-golden crosses (LGXs) with other LGXs for generation after generation, the results would soon be a separate LGX breed — a breed whose characteristics were less well understood than the original two.

At least I think that’s what she was saying. Molina spoke for a disappointingly small percentage of the program time. Steve and I had the impression that the large audience of puppy-raisers happily would have peppered the breeding program director with enough questions to make for a fascinating hour beyond what she was.

DSC00224.jpgAdagio, on the other hand, found our outing a bit taxing. He maintained a Down position nicely while we ate our servings from the potluck, but during the presentations he popped to his feet far too often. He’s been suffering from some minor intestinal upset, so it may have been that which made him want to jump up and go.

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Feedback!

It’s always satisfying to get feedback about science experiments in which one participates. We’ve just gotten some from the folks at Dognition. That’s the company/website set up by the Duke University  anthropologist who specializes in canine behavior research. I’d read about him and his work in the New York times about a year ago and was very excited when we learned last July that CCI had formed a partnership with Dognition, so CCI puppy-raisers would be able to participate for free, instead of paying the normal $99 fee.

We signed up, and last July Steve and I administered all the science-based games to Dionne to assess her empathy, communication skills, cunning, memory, and reasoning.We quickly got her assessment: of the 9 profiles types, she fell into the category of Charmer, the Dognition site informed us — gifted with “exceptional social skills.” She literally scored off the chart for memory, and her performance in the “Empathy” section also was extraordinary. “If most dogs are bonded to their owners, Dionne absolutely adores you,” the report informed us.

Now CCI has sent out some of Dognition’s broader initial findings about CCI pups who’ve been tested (almost 300 of them so far). Apparently, they’ve identified significantly more “Socialites” and “Protodogs” among the ranks of the CCI participants. “This is no surprise,” the report said, “because Socialites and Protodogs from a young age tend to be more bonded and use more collaborative strategies when solving problems…we are also starting to see differences within the 5 cognitive dimensions. Specifically in the Memory dimension, Canine Companions’ dogs are significantly more…reliant on their memory than most other dogs. It seems that dogs from Canine Companions naturally have an amazing memory, giving them the ability to remember many different commands and situations to help their owner.”

I’m a little confused by what it means that Dionne was a Charmer, rather than a Socialite or Protodog. Will it make her do better or worse in her Advanced Training? But we’re generally in the dark about Dionne at the moment, since she’s still in the kennels because of being in heat.

I did hear from the puppy program manager that the vet tech will begin testing Dionne to see if she can come home for a brief spell before the ceremony this Friday.

Watch this space for news!

Great dog info

Great dog info

Just read a fascinating article on the Quartz website: “Stop coddling your dog — he’s 99.9% wolf.” Written by Kevin Ashton and focused largely on the recent work of famed dog trainer Cesar Millan, the piece contains more information about dogs that was new to me that anything I’ve read in a long time.  Among the interesting tidbits: A century ago, there were about 1 million dogs in America, one for every hundred peopleFifty years ago, there were 30 million dogs, one for every six peopleToday, there are 80 million dogs, one for every four peopleEight million (one in 10) of these animals are in shelters.” And the fact that Hitler slept with a German shepherd.

More important is the bigger theme of what’s the best approach to dog training. The article should be of interest to not just puppy raisers but anyone who lives with — or just likes — dogs.

Tucker’s in touch with his inner wolf (sometimes)

Trouble aloft for service dogs?

CCI encourages puppy-raisers to fly with their pups, once they’re old and mature enough. This is in line with our mission of preparing the dogs for lives of service, where they need to be able to comport themselves well, even in cramped and distracting spaces. Nonetheless, Steve and I have never flown with one of our puppies. That’s partly because for short flights, we almost always fly on Southwest

Airlines, which does not welcome puppies in training. (The law requires them, like all airlines, to let actual working dogs come aboard.)  I understand that American Airlines, our most frequent choice when flying longer distances, does allow canine trainers in its cabins. But frankly, we both shudder at the thought of flying with any puppy for more than an hour or so. It feels like it would add stress to any pleasure trip and push any working trip into the red zone.

Still even though flying with a puppy is not on my personal to-do list, I felt uneasy reading the New York Times article about “emotional support” dogs and the growing (according to the Times) backlash confronting them. I had no idea that the federal Air Carrier Access Act allows you to take your dog with you, even on planes, for free (!), if you can get a mental health professional to write a letter saying that you need the animal’s comforting presence. Astoundingly, the emotionally supportive animal can even be a cat, a monkey, a miniature horse, of a potbellied pig, the article says.

One thing that’s clear is that discussions about animal access generate some very strong emotions in humans. By this afternoon, the article was topping the Times’s “most-emailed” list, and more than 400 readers had chimed in with comments (everything from, “Anyone who complains about a support dog should be beaten with a rolled-up newspaper,” to “My daughter will die of an asthma attack if she sits on a seat that once was occupied by an animal. If she has an asthma attack on a plane I will sue the airlines.”)

It’s enough to make me want to head for the hills — on a train.