Dogs have more jobs now than ever before. They help people with disabilities, and their presence can even help make sick people feel better. Dr. Hare speaks with several experts in the field of working and therapeutic dogs, and concludes that our furry friends have a rare and unique ability—plus the desire to work—to be our best friends.
St. Petersburg College student. Betsie has cerebral palsy and acquired Service Dog Hansen III in August 2015.
Guide Dog Mobility Instructor at Leader Dogs for the Blind.
CEO of Canine Companions for Independence.
Brian Hare: “DogSmarts” is brought to you by Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind—a breakthrough in pet nutrition created to nourish a dog’s mind. Is your dog’s food feeding your dog’s brain? Discover more at BrightMindEffect.com.
Canines and humans are not just connected by companionship. In fact, we are evolutionarily linked. We’re tied together by something far more complex—our brains.
Join me as we take a peek into the inner workings of the canine brain through the lens of human cognition. With a mix of stories and interviews from leading psychologists, anthropologists, veterinarians, and dog owners, we’re going to tackle questions of memory, word learning, nutrition, and even love.
I’m Brian Hare, Founder of Dognition, and Professor at Duke University in Cognitive Neuroscience.
Welcome to “Dog Smarts”.
BH: Dogs can bridge a cognitive gap for those who need it - they have more jobs now than ever before. They help people with disabilities; some perform miracles and detect health problems simply through smelling; they even make people feel better just by being present. Dogs have a rare and unique ability, plus the desire to work with, to be our best friends, and our helpers.
Bestsie Hughes (BHH): I've had Cerebral Palsy since I was born. It's something I've always had and had to live with, but I've always tried to persevere through it because there were many hurdles I've had to go through. There was a couple doctors that said I would never walk, talk, or go to a normal school.
BH: That’s Betsie Hughes. She’s 24. And she has a service dog named Hansen the Third. A chocolate lab.
BHH: We're a team and I have people come up to me in stores that remember Hanson's name, not mine, which I’m OK with because I’m just filler!
BH: Betsie graduated with Hansen in August 2015 from CCI, that’s Canine Companions for Independence. She applied through CCI to get a service dog because she wanted to be more independent.
Paul Mundell is the CEO of Canine Companions for Independence. A CCI dog is a dog who helps people with disabilities. And I think Paul has just about one of the coolest jobs in the world because he spends his whole life trying to help dogs help people to live more fulfilling lives. So, what are some of the abilities that CCI dogs have to help people? I sat down with Paul to talk about a dog’s motivation to learn.
Paul Mundell: They're doing a variety of tasks and we're relying on kind of an instrumental learning ability the dog has, and to do that, the ability that we're really relying on is the dog's motivation to want to learn. Not only can they communicate with people and understand what we're saying, or when we make a gesture for example, when we point to an item, for somebody who's nonverbal perhaps, that we want the dog to pick up, they understand what we're asking them to do. That's a rare and really unique ability and that ability plus the desire to work with us and be partners with us is really the basis that we're relying on.
BH: Jamie Togal is a Leading Supervisor at Leader Dogs for the Blind. He says that because of a Leader Dog, the perceptions of canines have changed over the years to the point where guide dogs are probably considered the pinnacle of what a dog can achieve, especially as a working dog. I sat down with Jamie to ask him about leader dogs who help those who are blind.
Jamie Togal: We have a breeding program because the behaviors and the types of temperament that they need to display are so specific and unique, that the vast majority of our own dogs are from our own breeding program. And once they're born they are paired with foster families and they’re raised for the first year of their life off site, in homes learning basic socialization and obedience et cetera in preparation for their return to formal guide dog training, which is roughly at one year old. Some say that it would be better if they were older but we like the dogs to have as long a working life as possible for our clients. So we've found 1 year is a great time to start training. They go through 17 weeks of formalized guide dog training with instructors. Throughout that time that they’re being trained, we're also doing research on the clients who have applied to our organization for a guide dog. While we're training the dogs we are also looking to pair those dogs with the people that they match the best. And that I can tell you is an art form in itself because you're balancing so many factors of the dog’s, not only its physical characteristics - size, strength, speed, but also its emotional characteristics that the dog displays, temperament and lifestyle needs the person may have. So it's a very skilled act that we do when we match a dog to one of our clients.
BH: What about their cognitive skills? Do you see any cognitive abilities that you think are important that dogs are relying on when they're successful?
JT: One of the most important cognitive skills that a dog can display is the ability to generalize. We have historically, it was always believed that dogs don't generalize very well to different situations. I know for certain in our line of work that we are looking for dogs that have the ability to generalize well. So, basically meaning when they cross the street here, when they’re training in Rochester, they understand that the same rules that apply crossing the street here apply anywhere else in the world.
JT: And that is definitely something that we look for is dogs that have the ability to generalize well and quickly if possible.
BH: So they learn some principles and then the idea is they can apply them flexibly in a variety of contexts. It's not that they have learned some rules they have apply reflexively is what you’re saying is that they actually have to make some inferences sometimes.
JT: Absolutely yes. We do a wonderful job I believe of exposing the dog and training the dog in a lot of different situations, but we'll never encounter all of the things our clients will encounter once they go home with their dog. So we need dogs that are capable of adapting with the limited guidance that a blind or visually impaired handler can provide.
BH: We’ll be back with more DogSmarts... I’m Brian Hare.
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BH: So now we’re going to go back to Betsie.
BHH: Let me tell you at first I was so not sure about even getting a service dog. I'm so glad I did it because he just is there for me when I need him and he does the small things that really make a big impact. He retrieves items off the floor, he takes off my socks, and he's just such a wonderful personality. He's right there for me when I need him. And he's very in tune to what I'm feeling. Comfort can be given without words sometimes and he's just amazing at that.
BH: There’s been outstanding developments recently that prove there are more benefits than detriments to the interactions between animals trying to help people. So not only does it benefit people when they interact with a dog, it also benefits the dog.
Many thanks to Betsie Hughes and her CCI Service Dog, Hansen the Third; Jamie Togal, a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor at Leader Dogs for the Blind; and Paul Mundell, CEO of Canine Companions for Independence. Thanks to all of you.
‘Dog Smarts’ is produced by Panoply Custom Studios and is sponsored by Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind—a breakthrough in pet nutrition created to nourish a dog’s mind. Discover more at BrightMindEffect.com.