A Dog Can Help You With That …

Whatever you need help with, chances are, a dog can help out. Need help finding your way around? Easy-peasy. Need a guide who also lets you know about important sounds? Dog’s got that handled too.

Funny thing is, not too many humans believe that dogs can do all that (and more). Fortunately for some people, Guiding Eyes is an organization that takes chances on people — and dogs.

As someone who’s sure that we haven’t come close to tapping dogs’ full potential, I see this as a sign that Guiding Eyes (or GEB) really “gets” dogs in a way that few people, even dog professionals, do.  This understanding leads the organization and its trainers to willingly take on challenges that few people would even think possible: Tasks that require a belief in dogs’ ability to be adaptable and to become creative problem solvers, for example. GEB dogs do things that it’s really not possible to teach them without a shared understanding and buy-in to shared goals, so the trainers have to know that dogs are capable of higher-level thinking, problem solving, and working toward goals.

What do I mean? GEB places dogs with a tremendous variety of clients, including individuals who have both visual impairments and another disability, such as a mobility or hearing impairment. The clients whose dogs alert to sounds as well as guiding range from people who are legally blind and hard of hearing to individuals who are both blind and deaf. I could be wrong about this, but I believe that GEB is the only U.S. guide dog school that is willing to provide these clients with a guide dog. In any case, it was the first organization to do so.

As registration opened for the Guiding Eyes continuing education weekend, a number of these grads registered. Planning committee member, grad, and GEB consumer outreach and graduate support manager Becky Barnes Davidson waved a magic wand and somehow found funding to bring a cadre of interpreters to the weekend, ensuring that all of the grads could participate fully in the events.

Deborah and Gypsy walk togetherI had the opportunity to chat with one of these grads, Deborah Groeber. She got her first Guiding Eyes dog in 1987. GEB didn’t yet have its “Special Needs” training program, which got off the ground in 1990, but, Deborah said, it was the only guide dog school willing to try training a guide for her.

Having guide dogs has, of course, made a tremendous difference for Deborah, especially in her frequent travels. She describes traveling with her dogs (current guide Gypsy is her fifth) as “phenomenally different” from traveling with a cane.

“I think Gypsy is a great match for me because she loves going from the suburbs into the city every day, loves taking trains, buses, escalators, stairs, revolving doors and working obstacles and construction sites. She is bright, confident and self-motivated, but she also loves praise and food rewards,” Deborah said.

Deborah is about to participate in another unique Guiding Eyes program. Gypsy is nearing retirement, and Deborah’s next guide will be a member of GEB’s new program, Running Guides.

Running Guides perform the usual guide dog work as well as guiding their partners while running. The first Running Guide team graduated in 2015. And Deborah’s dog will, as Gypsy has, learn to alert her to sounds, such as smoke alarms, phones, and doorbells. Deborah knows how to teach her additional alerts as needed. Sometimes Gypsy figures it out on her own, too.

Once, not long ago, Gypsy alerted her to a carbon monoxide alarm when Deborah’s husband was traveling for work. Gypsy is not allowed in the basement, Deborah explained, but she kept alerting to the basement door, because she heard the unexpected sound of the alarm. She’d not been trained to respond to that sound, but somehow understood that it was an urgent problem. Deborah got both the CO and smoke alarms, Gypsy told her which one was making noise, and she was able to respond and resolve the problem.

That story underscores the connection and communication that develop between members of a guide team. Many of us plain old pet-dog owners, who have the good fortune to be able to see our dogs’ body language and hear their vocalizations, are nonetheless unable to figure out what they are telling us. And I bet most of our dogs would react to an alarm and try really hard to get us to do something about it. That we’d all die of carbon monoxide poisoning anyhow would not be the dogs’ fault…

As someone who has tremendous faith in dogs’ abilities to figure things out, communicate, get what they need, figure out what their humans need, and so much more, I am not amazed that a single dog can perform both guide and hearing work, with a side gig as a personal fitness trainer. I am impressed that enough people at Guiding Eyes believed in dogs back in 1987 to give combined guiding and hearing dogs a try, and that the organization is continually coming up with new ways to stretch and grow the partnerships between their amazing dogs and clients.

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Animal Wise

Animal WiseI got a copy of Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise soon after it came out in paperback … then let it sit on my shelf for ages. I finally picked it up after hearing an NPR broadcast of a talk she gave in March 2015. She was wonderful! And so were her animal stories!

Animal Wise talks about many species of animals. She does save the best for last, though. The final chapter, on dogs and wolves, includes interviews with and visits to the labs of nearly all of my dog-cognition-research heroes (Adam Miklosi, Vilmos Csanyi, Jozsef TopolPeter Pongracz … she reveals why Hungary is the center of the dog cognition universe, too … but Juliane Kaminski, Julia Fischer and Brian Hare also get their due).

Morell does a fantastic job of grabbing readers’ interest with great storytelling. Who can resist reading about rats who laugh or ants who teach — and evaluate their students? I sure couldn’t.

She then describes the science behind these discoveries in laymen’s terms and explains why these discoveries matter. And best of all, her discussion of the research is not All About How Great It Is for Humans. In fact, her epilogue eloquently puts to rest (thank goodness) the idea that the only reason to study animal minds is to compare them unfavorably with humans’ minds and to keep on isolating the qualities that make humans superior. “Instead,” she writes, “given that we now know that we live in a world of sentient beings, not one of stimulus-response machines, we need to ask, how should we treat these other emotional, thinking creatures?”

While this is not light reading — heavy on the science — it’s well worth the effort and is, actually, a very friendly way to learn a lot about animal cognition science.

Jana and Wylie Go to College

Jana and Wylie got accepted to Eckerd College and, last week, attended their first class, a math class. They were students in the Dog Behavior Project, a cognition study run by the psychology department. Your dog can participate too, if you live in the Tampa Bay area! The application is simple.

The dogs were excited when we got there. A human class was just letting out, and some of the students said hello. The dogs got to explore the psych lab for a few minutes, and they could tell that other dogs had been there.

Then it was time for class. Jana got to go first, so we went into the testing room. There was a chair for me, two bowls on the floor at the other end of the room, with one student serving as tester and a student who recorded what Jana did.

The current study is hoping to determine whether dogs can count or judge quantities. The tester drops treats into bowls, and the dogs get to choose one of the bowls. For each trial, she drops a different number of treats into each of the two bowls, with the dog watching. Jana got Charlee Bears, which she loves.

We went in and sat down. I told Jana to wait and held her collar loosely. She sat facing the tester. Once the treats were in both bowls, Jana was allowed to choose which bowl she wanted, run to the bowl, and eat the treats. The researcher is supposed to grab the treats in the other bowl while the dog is eating. Some “control” trials have treats in only one bowl.

No one looks good in these graduation hats!

Jana watched intently each time treats were being dropped into the bowls. When I said OK and let go, she ran to a bowl. She chose the larger number of treats eight out of 10 times; I have no idea what happened those other two times. She was definitely paying attention. She also, not surprisingly, ran to the second bowl each time she finished eating her treats and barked at the researcher when she found it empty. What tells me that she was really paying attention is that, in the “control” trials, when the researcher had not placed treats in the second bowl, Jana did not bother going there.

When Jana finished the last trial, she brought me the empty bowl. I am sure Jana thought this was the best class ever! She would happily have done 20 or even 50 trials.

Then it was Wylie’s turn. Unfortunately,  in his first two trials, the researcher forgot to pick  up the treats from the second bowl, and he was able to get both sets of treats. From then on, he showed a clear “side bias,” always choosing the same bowl. He only got the larger number of treats six out of 10 times, but in his defense, I think he was misled about the nature of the task. My guess is that he figured that it didn’t matter which bowl he went to first. Also, he’s just not that excited about Charlee Bears. If she had put tennis balls in the bowls …

Both humans and dogs enjoyed participating in this study, and we’d do it again. Some of the studies are longer-term, with the same dogs coming back for several sessions. It’s a fun way to spend time with your dog and learn more about how her mind works.

It also shows how far dogs have come. Even as recently as 15 years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find published academic research that focused on dogs. Now, researchers all over the world are exploring dogs’ thinking and problem solving abilities. Some of the best work is being done in Hungary, at the “Family Dog Project” at Eötvös Loránd University.

But it’s not necessary to go that far afield. Eckerd is just one of several U.S. colleges and universities where dog cognition labs recruit local canine “students.” Others are the University of Florida, Duke University, Barnard College, and the University of Kentucky. Researchers are looking at a variety of topics ranging from canine facial expressions, such as the “guilty” look to dogs’ responses to human gestures to how dogs form trusting relationships.

I get excited about anything that gives me a window into my dog’s mind. I often wonder what she’s thinking. These studies might help us better understand of our doggy best friends and improve our relationships with them. Then again, the researchers might confirm something that I have long suspected about Wylie — that he regards humans as bumbling, inept, and not very smart, and he knows that, if only dogs had opposable thumbs, the world would be a very different place.