New breeding programme aims to improve quality of assistance dogs

Summary

A project founded by a UGent professor is working with partners abroad to ensure that fewer assistance dogs are rejected during training and help eliminate orthopaedic disorders

Dog-loving volunteers needed

It takes time and effort to train assistance dogs, so it’s frustrating when things go wrong. Sometimes the dogs have behavioural traits that stop them being effective guide or signal dogs, while others develop orthopaedic problems before they are fully trained.

“Only 60% of the dogs that start training as assistance dogs make it, and 40% are rejected along the way,” says Bart Broeckx, a professor in the Laboratory of Animal Genetics at Ghent University. “The financial consequences for assistance dog associations are quite high – they lose more than €10,000 per rejected dog – and there are long waiting times for disabled people who need a dog.”

As well as researching the genetic factors behind these problems, Broeckx is one of the founders of Purpose Dogs, a non-profit organisation working on a better breeding programme for assistance dogs in Belgium. “Our goal is to reduce the rejections, to improve cost efficiency and further improve the quality of assistance dogs for disabled people.”

Good breeding stock

Part of this work involves using the latest screening methods available at the university to select the best dogs from which to breed. Orthopaedic disorders such as hip or elbow dysplasia, which are common in bigger breeds such as labradors and golden retrievers, can be detected using X-rays and CT scans. Meanwhile, DNA screening can flag up dogs carrying genes associated with other conditions.

Only 60% of the dogs that start training as assistance dogs make it, and 40% are rejected along the way

- Bart Broeckx

Then there are behavioural tests to see if dogs are confident enough to fulfil assistance roles, or if they fall short, for instance becoming anxious when confronted with unfamiliar situations. All of this information is then subject to a statistical analysis that indicates good breeding stock. “You also have to be lucky,” Broeckx adds. “It’s statistics, so it’s never 100% certain that a dog will not develop a disorder.”

This approach to breeding assistance dogs has already proved effective in the US, where Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York has achieved remarkable results. “In a couple of generations they managed to reduce hip dysplasia from the normal percentages to less than 1%. So, if you breed properly, it can go quickly and you can find a solution relatively easily.”

The challenge of repeating this in Belgium is scale. “If you breed just one or two litters a year, that’s much too small. But if you have a large breeding population, and combine that with the necessary statistical tools and optimal testing and screening, then from that moment on you can achieve something.”

Working across borders

To meet this challenge, Purpose Dogs is set up to work across Belgium, and has built close links with partners abroad. Breeders in France, Switzerland and the US have all contributed dogs to get the programme started. “This means we are beginning with optimal genetic material, instead of starting from zero.”

The next challenge is to find a balance between the need to grow and selecting only the best dogs. “If you have a substantial population you can select relatively easily and keep only a couple of dogs to breed from, but when you want to grow you have to produce more dogs.”

The organisation will also need more funding, and more volunteers, particularly families willing to host the growing puppies. “It is really important that our dogs are in family situations, and it’s difficult to find volunteers for that job.”

The first litter of puppies is expected any day now, but it will be a while before these dogs go into service. “Puppies born now will only be fully trained in 2020, but by then we hope to have grown substantially,” Broeckx says.

Photo courtesy Purpose Dogs