Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

What Assistance Dogs Can and Can't Do

If we can't define the specific tasks needed, an assistance dog can't help.

I recently published a pair of articles about a new variety of assistance dog designed to help people with Alzheimer's disease, dementia or other forms of memory impairment (to see these click here or click here). In both instances, after the articles appeared I was greeted by a flood of comments, some extolling the abilities of assistance dogs in general, some expressing doubt as to whether dogs could be adequately trained to be useful in such cases, and some simply wanting more information about how one trains and creates such dogs. My overall impression was that a lot of people simply did not understand what the function of an assistance dog is, and the capabilities and limitations that they bring to their jobs. Therefore I thought it might be useful to give readers a glimpse into the process by which one takes a puppy and turns it into a service dog. As an example let's use the most familiar form of assistance dog, namely guide dogs for the blind.

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I will not go into the details of the selection of dogs for such jobs, although this is obviously a vital component. Clearly the dogs need intelligence, willingness to learn, ability to concentrate for long stretches, and a controllable activity level since they will often be asked to be quiet and unobtrusive for extended periods of time. Any signs of aggressive tendencies, nervous temperament, fearfulness, or extreme reaction to cats or other dogs will take them out of the program.

All dogs in a guide dog program arrive partially "pre-trained" and socialized. This is because most programs have the dog reared in a puppy raising home until it is 14 to 16 months of age. In that foster home the puppy is taught basic dog obedience commands and learns how to interact with people. Then the dog is returned to the guide dog training facility where it will spend, 4 to 6 months in intensive training, depending upon the program. Traditionally this training will be done using praise, petting, play and non-food-based rewards (since the concern is that the dog will become food focused and thus easily distracted by its presence) although more recently clicker training with food rewards is used in the early phases of training, and then both the food and the clicker are phased out.

Now you must understand that the most important thing we must do, before we even think about training an assistance dog, is to look at the needs of the handicapped individual and determine which specific actions a dog can perform to fill in the gap. We must specify precise, trainable, behaviors since we can't just say to the dog "Help out where you can." Keeping that in mind, what is it that the guide dog is actually supposed to do? First, the dog learns the basic commands for navigating the environment namely: forward, left, right, stop, and backup. In response to these commands the dog is supposed to be able to lead a person in a straight line from point A to point B. In addition the dog should stop for all changes in elevation, the most common being curbs and stairs. When the dog stops it waits for his companion to feel out the edge and to respond appropriately. These stops at curbs are not only important as a matter of safety, but they also orient the person, since counting curbs is the way that blind people often know where they are and how close they are to their destination. However the dog is not only required to look straight ahead but also to check for overhead obstructions, such as low hanging tree limbs. When these are found the dog is supposed to either to lead the person around the overhead hazard or to stop until their companion can detect the problem. When leading a person the dog has to avoid obstacles and avoid spaces that are too narrow for a person and a dog to walk through side by side.

A number of the people who wrote to me seemed to believe that guide dogs could do two things which they clearly can't, namely determine the route to a new destination and also to read traffic signals. The fact is that the guide dogs take their cues and commands from their human partner and it is ultimately up to the blind person to determine the route that they take. Obviously through repetition, these dogs may remember a familiar route, but it's up to the human to determine the actual path that they navigate. One of the benefits of the guide dog, however, is that when moving about in snow, ice, mud, and other rough conditions, the dog can map out a clear route from a distance. This saves a lot of time and trouble in comparison to trying to find the way by investigating every pathway using a cane in order to find the right one.

Perhaps the most common misperception about guide dogs is that they read traffic lights and tell the person when to cross the street. This is not the case since dogs are colorblind (click here for a discussion of dog color vision). The blind person must listen to the sound of traffic and decide when it is safe to move across the intersection. However one key behavior that is trained into guide dogs is "intelligent disobedience". This means that if the dog feels that any command which he has been given will result in exposing himself and his companion to danger, the dog is trained to refuse the command and wait until it is safe to move.

There are additional commands that are often taught to the guide dog, depending upon the needs and desires of the blind person. A common one is to find a chair or other place to sit while another is to find an elevator. A frequently taught command is to locate the pushbutton at crosswalks. Other commands might include finding a particular person by name, finding a trash can, or finding a common object such as his owner's purse. The selection of additional commands that are taught to the dog depends upon the particular guide dog training program and the environments and living conditions of the blind person.

As you can see the guide dog, like all assistance dogs, has some very specific functions to perform and all of these are well within the intellect of an intelligent dog. In some respects, the real key to creating an assistance dog is still involves determining which specific functions, narrowly defined, that the individual with a handicap is missing, and then establish what specific actions the dog can perform to assist that person. As we can see in the case of guide dogs for the blind, the dog is not a substitute for vision but rather helps the person with inadequate vision when he or she faced with the problem of safely moving through the world, an activity that normally sighted individuals rely upon their eyes to do.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

 Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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