Sunday, February 7, 2016

DARPA Maps the Brains of Working Dogs

The Defense Department is interested in identifying what in the brain makes a good working dog.  What makes a good bomb sniffing dog?  What do the brains of good service dogs have in common?

The Military Times carries the story.

The military funding — provided through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — is designed to identify markers in canine brain activity to determine which dogs are better suited to act as service companions or perform specialized military tasks.
For troops on the battlefield, that includes dogs detecting explosives, sniffing out drugs and assisting on security patrols. A Belgian Malinois named Cairo was honored at the White House in 2011 for his role in Seal Team 6's raid of Osama Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.
For veterans, the service dogs include guide dogs for the blind, assistance dogs for wounded warriors who lost limbs, and therapy animals for individuals struggling with post-traumatic stress.
Currently, about a third of the dogs that go into training programs for that kind of work work end up becoming functional service animals. But putting each through the training programs costs upward of $50,000.
“If we can improve that success rate from one in three to even one in two, we’re talking about the potential of dramatic savings,” Berns said.

Recent work on the project has included baseline brain scans of 50 golden retrievers and Labradors, all scheduled for service dog training. Researchers are matching key markers in the medical data to the dogs’ performance, with the hope of finding patterns.
Berns said the results so far have been promising.
“A lot of what a dog does is hard-wired in the genes,” he said. “Bad training can screw a dog up, sure, but you need the right raw materials in the dog to do the task at hand. If it works out, I would hope these biological markers get incorporated into the selection process as early as possible.” 
Color me a bit skeptical but not skeptical enough to not think it isn't an idea worth testing.

If the cost is truly kept at one million dollars, even if it was a million dollars a year for five years, this could be a great investment.  You only need to avoid training 20 washout dogs to recoup each year of expenditure.

I am a small government guy.  I do believe there is a lot of waste in the system but this is an example of the punch line driving the narrative.  "Pentagon Puppy Study" makes a rationale investment with large potential savings sound ridiculous.  People being what they are, rarely take time to question a headline that confirms their preconceived notion.

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