The 10, six-week-old Labradors are the face of a major research project by Guide Dogs to better understand what makes a successful working guide dog partnership. More than 3,000 trainee pups across the UK will have saliva swabs taken in a few seconds and sent for DNA sequencing.
Guide Dogs will take the data bank of 3,000 full genome sequences and combine it with their internal health and behaviour data. They will then use artificial intelligence technologies and machine learning to identify relationships between genetic sequences and any health issues, however minor, that develop in its dogs.
This data will be used to guide the charity’s breeding programme and ultimately boost the ‘success rate’ for puppies becoming fully-qualified working guide dogs. Scientists will also map the data against the behaviour of the dogs – allowing a better understanding of the complex relationships between genes and how dogs develop throughout their lives.
Experts at the charity are working alongside staff and volunteers, project partners and academics, such as those from the University of Nottingham on the project.
Guide Dogs has also been helped with the project by pet food brand Royal Canin UK & IRE, which has provided some initial funding for the proof-of-concept phase, including DNA collection and storage.
Says Dr Tom Lewis, Head of Canine Genetics at Guide Dogs:
“When we breed puppies, we strive to ensure that they are as healthy as possible and deliver the best training to give them the best possible chance of becoming life-changing guide dogs for people with sight loss.
“We already have extensive health testing in place for our breeding dogs and want to build on this success and find more ways to identify detrimental health conditions. By breeding a guide dog that is less likely to develop a hereditary illness, we can keep them in a vital working partnership and ensure a better quality of life for both guide dog and owner.”
“Born to Guide is one of the most exciting projects the charity has ever been involved in. By using artificial intelligence, we can have a greater understanding of the genes that are present in the best guide dogs and what it is that makes them such incredible partners for people with sight loss.”