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Assistance dog study aims to improve on 50 per cent success rate

A PhD candidate is investigating why only 50 per cent of puppies in assistance dog training pass muster.

Key points:

  • Jimmy Mai's research suggests that better support for volunteer trainers is needed
  • He says dog selection is one thing, but the high failure rate could be addressed with improved training methods
  • Academics believe the research could see more assistance dogs available for those in need

Jimmy Mai of La Trobe University is conducting interviews and surveys as well as keeping a close eye on puppy training take place in Bendigo.

He hopes an analysis of training structures will revolutionise the in-demand assistance dog program around the globe.

"Before my research, most research in this area focused on selecting the right puppies, but they need to learn," he said. "They learn from everything - they learn from their puppy raisers and anything that occurs in the public. My focus is the puppy raisers, because they will help those high-quality puppies learn in the right way."

Shifting the focus

Mr Mai says more support, improved training methodologies and collaboration with training organisations are the keys to greater success.

"The biggest difference is to look at the puppy raising practice not just from training methodology, not just the individual puppies, not just the raisers, but all of them," he said. "When we implement a program, we need to consider the organisation's facilities, the society as well as the raisers themselves. When we look at all those factors in relation to one another, there are connections that would make it a lot easier, and perhaps we can encourage collaboration with interdisciplinary research and also engage the public."

La Trobe University psychology and counselling department head Pauleen Bennett said a greater focus on the puppy trainers could lead to immediate benefits for the community.

"There's an enormous amount of people who would benefit from an assistance dog in Australia," she said. "The big question is how do you raise them? There's a black hole where dogs are fostered out into the community, but then the problem of half the dogs aren't good enough for advance training. From my knowledge, Jimmy's project is a world-first — looking at the raising program with volunteers and seeing what makes it work and what we can improve."

Source: ABC News

September 2021

Author details

Kimberley Price and Sarah Lawrence