Friday, November 6, 2009

How Smart are Dogs?

We all like to think of our dogs as being two (or perhaps even one!) step removed from Einstein. Much of this is not mere pride -- dogs accomplish some pretty remarkable things, and can be trained to do tasks both astonishing and profoundly useful.

This past week, the New York Times took a look at one such furry friend named Jet. If you don't feel inadequate after reading this, well, you're probably more interesting than the two of us:
He is both a seizure alert dog and a psychiatric service dog whose owner has epilepsy, severe anxiety, depression, various phobias and hypoglycemia. Jet 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.
Sounds pretty amazing, eh? You're not the only one who is impressed:

In September, the Army announced that it would spend $300,000 to study the impact of pairing psychiatric service dogs like Jet with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. Both the House and Senate have recently passed bills that would finance the training and placement of these dogs with veterans.
Well, here's the rub: are these dogs aware of what they're doing? Are they "thinking" or are they merely responding in conditioned ways to certain stimuli (the way, for example, Jill does when she is near a french fry).

One researcher at the University of British Colombia has attempted to figure this out, by giving dogs language tests and other intelligence exams meant for toddlers. Based on that, he has categorized different dogs by how many commands they can learn. Shadow, Jill's dog, will be pleased to know that Poodles are one of the smartest dogs according to this researcher. Another researcher, however, at the University of Florida, argues that dogs are simply deeply sensitive to the human beings around them, and that through conditioning they can effectively mimic the traits of human thought.

We're not sure of the truth. But we challenge anyone to deny that Zeke, Billy's Portuguese Water Dog, is not interested in the latest developments in fluid dynamics....

1 comment:

  1. I have read many times of the amazing things that dogs can do to assist their human. It makes perfect sense that we call dogs man's best friend.