Saturday, April 28, 2012
Assistance Dogs, For When Mere Obedience is Not Enough
Dogs made the spectacularly successful decision to partner up with humans so long ago we have only myths and legends to describe the origins of this ancient bond. They now live with us in every region of the globe. Some earn their way through hard and dangerous work, sniffing out bombs or guarding livestock. Others win our affection through their sheer charisma, and are awarded lifetime benefits including lodging, board and a decent medical package.
They depend on us, and are great students of the human race, exquisitely attuned and responsive to the small and unconscious signals that we send. In some ways they know us better than we know ourselves. It's a survival skill that works both to their advantage, and to ours.
The phenomenal canine ability to read humans has opened the way for a new role for dogs as service animals for people with disabilities. This afternoon I got to watch a magnificent coppery-coated Golden Retriever named Stan (above) show what he could do. Drop your pencil? Stan will pick it up and put it in your hand. TV remote out of reach? Stan is all over that. He'll find it and deliver it to where you sit. Your change fell in the snow? Stan can recover it, and will drop it in a bucket for you. Dogs are used to assist everyone from MS patients to victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, whom they will awaken from a nightmare. All of which is impressive, but we ask of them even more demanding behavior. We ask them to use their judgement to challenge us when we are headed for trouble.
These dogs are reared for "intelligent disobedience" They know us so well that they will resist and even obstruct us when we are unaware of imminent harm. According to the trainers from Alaska Assistance Dogs, canines can tell when a diabetic is experiencing dangerous levels of sugar in the bloodstream and will insist that their charge pay attention to the problem. A friend in Kenai who suffers from Parkinson's told me that her assistance dog can sense when she has a fall coming and will do its best to dissuade her from walking. She reports that when she doesn't pay heed she soon regrets it when down she goes.
This of course requires the human involved to pay attention, evaluate the situation, and decide whether the dog has a point. Then admit that Fido is right and that they are wrong. Ouch.
Are dogs really that smart? Smarter at times than humans? Let me answer that question with a question. When was the last time when Timmy had to save Lassie from falling down a well?