Saturday, November 7, 2009

good dog, smart dog...and service horses?

animals are freakin smart. considering what we give them, it is amazing what they can do for us. the times this week asked the question, just how "smart" are service animals? the old learning vs mimicry argument that has been the crux of so many animal study arguments over the years.

i don't know why it is so hard for some people to accept that animal cognition goes beyond mimicry. one of my favorite case studies over the years has been the infamous Koko, the gorilla. Koko has been the focus of Dr. Penny Patterson's life for over 25 years. Koko has a vocabulary of over 1,000 words (sign language) and understands over 2,000 spoken english words. there is a really wonderful documentary from the late 70s by a french director Schroeder that documents Koko's life to that point. i don't see how anyone could see it and believe Koko is simply mimicking for treats. there is a whole foundation around KoKo now, and honestly it's a little depressing. here is this amazing creature, clearly intelligent, with wishes and desires of her own--primarily to have a baby, who has no companions of her own species and is used to raise money and hock bizarre children events.

but that is maybe a different issue than service animals, though can we really judge whether animals have wishes and dreams and that higher intelligence, like primates Koko and her brother had?

well i think they are pretty smart. the recent times article talks about labradodle, Jet, who "has been trained to anticipate seizures, panic attacks and plunging blood sugar and will alert his owner to these things by staring intently at her until she does something about the problem. He will drop a toy in her lap to snap her out of a dissociative state. If she has a seizure, he will position himself so that his body is under her head to cushion a fall."  damn. that's pretty good.

i've been following the amazing abilities of service animals for a while. i remember one fascinating case of a dog helping a iraq vet who suffered from post traumatic stress. among other things, this dog went ahead of his owner to check corners and blindspots. the soldier would have attacks when surprised which manifested even walking down aisles. the dog was able to warn the man of approaching strangers, and thus alleviate the surprise and avert the attack.

this article also talks about dogs' ability to preempt behavior-similar to the dog "warning" of strangers- but even more significantly, dogs who sense seizures before they happen, who can interrupt suicide and self mutilation. dogs and possibly cats have also been shown to "sniff out" and identify cancers!

it's not just dogs. miniature horses are used by some blind people, primarily because not only are they smart, but can live up to 30 years--the same time would take some 6 or more service dogs. another times piece pointed out the far reaches of service animal varieties: "first it was guide dogs for the blind; now it’s monkeys for quadriplegia and agoraphobia, guide miniature horses, a goat for muscular dystrophy, a parrot for psychosis and any number of animals for anxiety, including cats, ferrets, pigs, at least one iguana and a duck."

though it may seem all too much, i think it is hard to disregard the relationships between these animals and their, well... patients. Jim Eggers is a man with "bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies and homicidal feelings" who uses an assistance parrot, Sadie, to help control himself. the man has been arrested on numerous occasions due to his outbursts and actions. now (at least at the time of the article) his parrot Sadie rides in a pack on his back. when Sadie senses an episode coming she "talks him down, saying: “It’s O.K., Jim. Calm down, Jim. You’re all right, Jim. I’m here, Jim.” fascinatingly, Sadie is not a trained service animal. abused and abandoned, she was given to jim as a gift from a friend who worked at a pet store. Jim nursed her back to health. when jim was in the midst of episodes he would yell out “It’s O.K., Jim! You’re all right, Jim! Calm down, Jim!”

as parrots do, she started copying him. he found she calmed him down better than he did himself and he started rewarding her for it. eventually, she preempted his attacks. crazy

then there is "Helping Hands" which breeds and trains capuchin monkeys to aid quadriplegic and other people with severe spinal cord injuries or mobility-impairments. monkeys really are the best because their little opposable thumbs mean they can do just about everything.

but thinking of poor koko, monkeys worry me.  a service animal has very little choice in their "profession." puppies don't get to choose a life risen by inmates then a lifetime of hard work for a fragmented human.

while i may feel ambivilant about primate helpers, so close to human already, in the "good dog, smart dog" article Dr. Clive Wynne who studies dog cognition and has worked with dogs that understood over 1,000 words has some advice about thinking about service dogs: “I take the view that dogs have their own unique way of thinking,” Dr. Wynne said. “It’s a happy accident that doggie thinking and human thinking overlap enough that we can have these relationships with dogs, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that dogs are viewing the world the way we do.”

note that neither cody nor kayack, pictured above, had a skill set that went much beyond digesting anything they could get their tongue on.

chui has other priorities.

1 comment:

  1. My Goodness! An anthology of animals. But don't sell Kayak and Cody short. Whenever I fell down the side of the mountain, one of them and usually both would stumble down and donate their back for me to hold on to while they dragged me back up. I cannot always say that they were clean, but none-the-less they offered. And, they also nudged you if you were just feeling down, just to let you know that they loved you. (I hope) Yes Chui has her own agenda, but she clearly loves you, too.



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