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?


Adele said...

Hi Peter, I think part of these dogs' ability to be so helpful comes from the ways they are more focused on us than we are.

I have read two very interesting articles about assistance dogs this year, besides this post.
In a February New York Times article, one of the dogs they featured really helped a woman who was dependent on a respirator, and another who helped a boy who deals with severe disabilities from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Today the New York Times featured a US Navy veteran who has severe PTSD. She has also been greatly helped by a service dog.

I think the truth is that dogs are nicer people than most of us. They can really help. A couple of nights ago, I fell and had trouble getting up. Mostly I had trouble getting over being upset. My dog came to me and shared his doggy kisses and his gentle nudges. He helped me calm down, decide that even if I had not had Parkinson's I could have fallen that time, and I got up.

I love this dog portrait.

Adele Hensley
Clinton, MS

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Adele, thanks for the links. The articles were fascinating and heartbreaking. Not to quibble or pick flaws in what can obviously be powerfully helpful, but I wonder how the patients cope with the death of their assistance dogs. It seems like the trauma could be enough to undo much of the healing. The trainers that I saw touched on this obliquely, saying they wouldn't train short-lived breeds like Great Danes.

Patient-Online said...

Peter, I really enjoyed this piece. I don't have any first hand knowledge of service dogs, so this was very educational for me. I have a black lab, as you know, and she has a number of qualities that would lend themselves well to this type of assistance. I am always amazed at how she accommodates my gait difficulty by carefully waiting for me to pass ahead of her in doorways. Thanks for giving dogs of this nature some great press!

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Hey Dan, from what I learned, Labs are one of the three top breeds for assistance dogs, although it takes a bit longer for them to get it than the other two. The other two are Golden Retrievers, and German Shepards, if I remember right. Sounds like your Lab has a knack for the job!


Adele said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adele said...


You are right, love is risky.

My Grandpa is 94. He loves labs. He doesn't need an assistance dog, just a companion. Since he was about 80, every time one of his dogs has died, he has been heartbroken and said "never again." Somehow, the love of a good dog always opens his heart and lets him start again.

I think fourteen years of unconditional love might be worth the broken heart.

I used to sing with a person with a guide dog. When her dog became too old to be a service dog anymore, she switched dog helpers. The guide dog organization they worked with did not let people keep dogs in service until they died. They made sure the dogs had good safe homes and the people were not left without help.


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