Canine Intelligence: Going into the Mind of Your Dog

February 20, 2013 · Posted in Assistance Dogs, Service Dogs, Training · Comment 
Dr. Brian HareDr. Brian Hare, canine cognition researcher

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Brian Hare on the Working Like Dogs radio show at www.petliferadio.com. Dr. Hare, the Director of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University, is the author of The Genius of Dogs. Also, he is the co-founder of the innovative website www.dognition.com. This website contains instructional games on assessing your canine’s cognition.

Dr. Hare and his Duke University research team have revolutionized the way we think about canine intelligence. Through their research, they made the following three important discoveries:

  • Animals use many types of cognition to survive (for example, learning skills from others, remembering the location of food, inferring the solution to a new problem or deceiving others during competition).
  • Different animals rely on different cognitive strategies. Asking if a crow is more intelligent than a dolphin is like asking whether a hammer is a better tool than a saw. Each animal has strategies to solve a unique set of problems.
  • Animals rely on a toolbox of strategies that depend on a variety of factors. Just because an animal tends to use a certain strategy to solve specific problems doesn’t mean he or she will always apply that strategy to all types of problems.

After reading The Genius of Dogs and chatting with Dr. Hare, I decided to log on to www.dognition.com and sign Whistle up to complete his Dognition Profile. I wanted a better understanding of Whistle’s thought process and thought Dr. Hare’s inventive series of games would help me to discover Whistle’s particular genius.

The Dognition website was easy to navigate. For a $59 fee, Whistle and I easily began the process of assessing his canine cognition. After paying the fee, I began completing the questionnaire. It took about 15-20 minutes to answer a series of questions about Whistle’s behavior in different situations and scenarios. I was reminded that there were no right or wrong answers, and most importantly, this was not a test. It is a tool to identify how Whistle’s mind works.

After completing the survey, a series of games appeared on the screen. The games were divided into cognitive dimensions such as: Empathy, Communication, Cunning, Memory and Reasoning. Whistle and I needed a human partner to complete the games. Also, we needed some simple household items such as: sticky notes, plastic cups, paper and dog treats.

I asked my husband, Franz, if he would like to participate in the games. He is a scientist so, it was easy to pique his interest and engage him in the process. We realized that the games were going to be somewhat time consuming. So, we scheduled some time during the weekend to begin the exercises.

It took time for Franz and me to become comfortable with the exercises. It helped to read the instructions and then, watch the accompanying videos. Whistle, on the other hand, jumped right in and loved every second of it. Each category had different tasks and instructions. Once trained, we performed the tasks and recorded the results.

As a wheelchair user with minimal abdominal strength and balance, I found some of the exercises physically challenging. However, Franz and I would interchange the roles and responsibilities for each game. As a result, I still felt like the lead research scientist on the project, even though Franz and Whistle performed most of the physical activities.

We began the exercises utilizing my desktop computer. However, we quickly realized that using a mobile iPad would be a lot easier and more efficient way to record our results. We used the iPad for the remainder of the exercises and it made the process much easier to accomplish.

It took us about three hours over a day and a half to perform all the games and record the results. The software was user-friendly and saved the results automatically. We paced ourselves and tried not to overexert Whistle. Whistle had 3-4 outdoor breaks during the time. Although to be honest, we were more exhausted than Whistle. Whistle loved every second of it. I think he was having flashbacks to all of his assistance dog training.

Once the exercises were completed and our information was logged into the www.dognition.com site, we received a simple report that explained Whistle’s cognition style and the strategies he relies on to solve a variety of problems.

It was no surprise that Whistle was identified as a “Charmer”. The report stated Whistle is, “a smooth operator, the Charmer relies on his secret weapon – you!” It went on to explain that Whistle has excellent social skills which means he can easily read my body language. The report described how he has a keen understanding of his physical world, but he prefers to depend on me as his ally and partner. Based on the results of Whistle’s actions during the exercises, it was determined that he will rely on me for help before he tries to figure out a problem on his own. We are extremely bonded.

It was interesting to read all the information the report provided regarding Whistle’s cognitive dimensions of Empathy, Communication, Cunning, Memory and Reasoning. The results validated many of my perceptions of Whistle’s behavior. It also enhanced my confidence in Whistle and the bond we have developed. I knew he and I were bonded, but it was nice to see it documented in the results of these interactive exercises.

We had so much fun participating in the profile exercises, and wanted to continue working with Whistle.

As I came to the end of the written report, I was excited to see a section called Next Steps. It wasn’t the end after all. I was delighted to learn that Dognition offers an ongoing membership where we could continue receiving tips and activities prepared especially for Whistle from Dr. Hare’s canine training experts. We could also receive new findings about how all dogs think and how Whistle’s strategies compared. Based on the valuable information we’ve already gained, we are definitely considering purchasing the annual Dognition membership.

Although I have been partnered with an assistance dog for over 20 years now, I am still amazed every day by the intelligence and devotion these animals exhibit. Dognition.com is another way that we can continue exploring and expanding this incredible relationship.

Whistle and I are up for the challenge. Are you? Please let us know if you and your dog have completed the Dognition Profile. Whistle and I would love to hear about your experiences!

How’s your assistance dog’s off-lead recall?

October 3, 2011 · Posted in Assistance Dogs, Training · 6 Comments 
Whistle off-leash

How’s your assistance dog’s off-lead recall? Whistle is an amazing assistance dog and he spends a lot of his time working with me. However, I try to give him several times throughout the day and evening when he can spend some free time in the backyard relaxing and just being a dog.

When he and I were first working together, I really had a hard time getting him to come back to me whenever he was off-lead. He was thoroughly enjoying the sunshine and outdoor smells and was in no hurry to come back inside.

I tried to entice him by making it worth his while to return. I began offering him a tasty treat whenever he would come when I called. That strategy has been pretty successful. However, lately, it seems that when he goes out for his free time in the backyard, he is less anxious to come back inside when I call him.

I was curious if anyone else has this issue with their assistance dog. If so, how have dealt you with it?

Helping Hands: Monkeys as Service Animals

February 25, 2011 · Posted in Training · Comment 
service monkey

Have you caught the recent articles in New Mobility and Action about Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled? Helping Hands is a national nonprofit organization based in Boston that serves quadriplegics and other people with severe spinal cord injuries or mobility limitations by providing highly trained monkeys to assist them in their daily activities.

I don’t know about you, but I have always been curious about monkeys as service animals. What kinds of tasks do they do? Who’s a good candidate for a monkey? Do they go out in public? My list of questions goes on and on.

I recently had the opportunity to visit with Megan Talbert, the Executive Director of Helping Hands, on Working Like Dogs at www.petliferadio.com. Megan’s passion for these amazing primates was crystal clear. And, she demystified a lot of the mystery around these little helpers.

Megan explained that Helping Hands staff and volunteers train monkeys to perform a variety of tasks, such as putting a CD in a CD player, scratching their partner’s nose, picking up the phone, or adjusting their partner’s eyeglasses. And, if you are a person with a disability, you know firsthand the kind of impact these types of tasks can have on our independence and self esteem.

The monkeys participate in intensive training at the Helping Hands’ Monkey College in Boston, MA. Megan described how the monkeys are trained through positive reinforcement. When they do something correctly, they are rewarded with verbal praise and small food treats such as peanut butter or oats. Helping Hands staff have also come up with some clever alternative devices to help people with disabilities to independently dole out the treats both verbally and physically, thus establishing them as the alpha.

To raise, train, and place one monkey costs Helping Hands about $40,000. And miraculously, recipients do not have to pay for their new helpers. Helping Hands covers ALL the costs involved with receiving and maintaining the monkey. This is a huge gift considering the ongoing vet maintenance and care that goes into one of these highly trained animals. Megan and her staff, board and volunteers are responsible for raising all the funds to support the training, placement and ongoing care of the monkeys.

Given the current waiting lists for service dogs, I was glad to hear Megan encourage individuals interested in receiving a monkey to contact Helping Hands. She said that they never know if someone who applies will be a perfect match for a monkey that is nearing graduation; however, she encourages people to send in their applications.

As anyone who is partnered with a service animal knows, it takes work and commitment from both partners to make a solid working team. It was so exciting to hear about the many ways monkeys are working with their partners with disabilities. I hope you will listen to Megan’s interview on Working Like Dogs at www.petliferadio for more information about Helping Hands.

I am always so moved by the human and animal spirit. When people without disabilities hear about someone who is a quadriplegic or someone who has extremely limited mobility and who minimally leaves their home, they tend to think of them as vulnerable and “less able”. And, let’s face it; they tend to feel sorry for us. Not me. I think it is the coolest thing in the world to think of these folks as the “privileged ones” who have the unique opportunity to bring a capuchin monkey into their lives, to develop an incredibly special bond with that primate, and to have that primate be their personal assistant! How awesome is that?!?

Did you happen to catch “Through A Dog’s Eyes” on PBS?

April 26, 2010 · Posted in Service Dogs, Training · Comment 
Through a Dog's Eyes

I have been waiting all week to watch Through A Dog’s Eyes on PBS. It finally aired this evening and it was a beautiful documentary of a group of individuals with disabilities who were receiving their first assistance dog through the Canine Assistants program in Georgia. The program highlighted several individuals’ experiences at the training camp and for the first few months after they returned home with their new service dog.

The program reminded me so much of my own training experience almost 17 years ago when I was placed with my first service dog, Ramona, in a similar program. Similar to these individuals, I was so inexperienced and naïve to the nuances of living 24/7 with an intelligent dog.

The documentary took me back to my own first day at Team Training and the anxiousness I was feeling as I met the other participants with disabilities and the dozens of trained dogs that were available to be placed with us as our new service dog. I will never forget how the trainer opened a door and beautifully groomed young vivacious dogs began pouring into the room. They were the most gorgeous dogs I’d ever seen and they were full of boundless energy and excitement.

They ran free through the large open room, sniffing our wheelchairs and jumping on some of our laps as they explored every inch of the room. We all sat their dumbfounded, secretly wondering which dog might be going home with us. That first day was so exhilarating and daunting.

As the trainer prepared us for the next two weeks of training, she made a comment that has always resonated in my mind. She said, “Your new service dog is not a robot. YOU have to motivate this dog to work for you. It is up to you to build the bond and the trust that will enable you to be an effective working team.” Boy, was she right. I have often thought of that comment over the years as I have transitioned from one service dog to another. Each time, I’ve had to start all over again and build the respect and trust with each canine partner.

Each dog has been different and exhibited sensitivities to different environmental and emotional triggers. They have different ways of playing and relieving stress. It takes a significant amount of time for me to learn my dog’s individual preferences and needs.

Building a relationship with a working dog is a commitment. Rarely is it automatic. Like any solid relationship, it takes time, work, perseverance and commitment. But when you think about it, these attributes really apply to all of the healthy relationships that we as humans hope to have, and I think that rings even more true for our relationship with our service dogs.

Whistle and I turned a corner in our relationship when I truly became sensitive to his needs and desires. When I learned to listen and to trust Whistle, he learned that he could trust and depend on me. I was the one who fed him, toileted him and played with him. He sleeps in my bed and he looks to me when he gets nervous. He is a part of me just like my wheelchair is a part of me. We have a reciprocal relationship. I help him and he helps me.

As I watched these new handlers on the documentary work with their dogs for the first time, I was reminded of all the work, sweat, and yes, even some tears, which go into building this unique bond between the canine and human service dog team members. It is one of the most beautiful relationships I have ever had the opportunity to experience and to observe. I am so hopeful for these new service dog teams. If they can learn to trust each other and if they will work hard together, then they both are in for a life altering experience that knows (nose) no limits.

Whistle passed the recertification test!

April 22, 2010 · Posted in Service Dogs, Training · Comment 
Whistle recertified

I am happy to report that Whistle completed his recertification requirements with flying colors! His Paws With A Cause field trainer, Dani, showed up at our house around 10:00 a.m. She had an array of paperwork that had to be completed. She asked all the usual questions about Whistle’s performance and overall wellness. After all the paperwork was completed, she enlisted my husband, Franz, to assist her by filming Whistle and me as we performed each command.

It was show time and Whistle and I began going through his repertoire of commands. We started with some of the simpler commands. Whistle was asked to perform a sit, down, and stay under Dani’s watchful eye while Franz captured the performance on video camera. We continued through the list of commands and finished with his most difficult command “Get Help”. In this task, Whistle is trained to locate Franz in our home and alert him that I need assistance. Once he alerts Franz, he is trained to return to me.

I don’t know why I was so nervous about Whistle’s performance? I guess I was nervous for Whistle. Or perhaps I was just worried that Whistle would pick up on my nervousness. I didn’t want him to think that I doubted his ability.

People always talk about the bond between a person with a disability and their service dog. It’s true, it is a unique bond that is difficult if not impossible to describe. I love Whistle so unconditionally that I wanted him to be successful. And yet, as I can only imagine how many parents feel, I couldn’t complete the test for him. He had to perform the commands. He was on his own, under the microscope and I was so afraid he might falter.

I have to say, I don’t’ know what I was worried about. I was blown away by Whistle’s professionalism and motivation. He genuinely loved working and it showed. He attacked every command with such precision. How could I ever have doubted his abilities? Whistle and I are together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Did I take his abilities for granted? Am I so used to his performance that I didn’t recognize it?

After Whistle completed all of his tasks in our home, we loaded up into my van and went to the local shopping mall. Once again, Whistle had to demonstrate his ability to perform each of his trained tasks but this time, he had to do it in public.

We arrived at the mall during the busy lunch hour. People were strolling around the mall looking for lunch and weekend bargains. Many people were beginning to stare as Whistle and I, along with Dani and Franz, huddled to discuss each task that Whistle would perform.

Once again, Whistle remained focused and deliberate as I asked him to perform each task. He ignored the onlookers and the food that was strategically placed in his path. Once again he performed flawlessly.

I have been partnered with a canine companion now for over 17 years and I am in awe of their unwavering dedication to us, their determination to help us, and the genuine pleasure they take in being by our side. I have said this before but I really mean it, I am the luckiest girl in the world to have the opportunity to live and work with a canine partner. They are truly amazing and they change the lives of their human partners in ways that can not be expressed or defined.

Whistle is officially recertified as a service dog for two more years. In two years, he and I will go through this exercise once again to demonstrate our ability to work together in public as an official Paws With A Cause service dog team.

After we said our good-byes to Dani, we returned home. Franz and I were so proud of Whistle. He had worked so hard and he had earned his recertification. We resumed our usual routine. I went back to work in my office and Whistle snuggled into his bed under my desk. After a few short minutes, I heard him snoring. He was curled up in a deep sleep, the poor guy was exhausted and I was elated.

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