Monday, November 30, 2015

What The Seeing Eye Dog Saw

A little factoid that people have occasionally quoted to me is that the average dog is about as smart as the average two year old child. Google it; you'll see many references. But as with many google friendly factoids it is silly. It is a soundbite oversimplification of complicated science. In fact, the specific research paper that gave birth to this only demonstrated that the average dog recognized as many words as the average two year old. English words mind you, not dog words. This actually makes the "average dog" seem astonishingly smart to me. Especially since my own dog sometimes seems to recognize as many words as a cucumber does (but he's very handsome).

There is no doubt that human intelligence is extremely broad compared to dog intelligence. Our own intelligence applies itself vigorously to taxes and fashion and philosophy and physics and indoor plumbing and why the freaking OS update won't install properly and a million more things. Dog intelligence is not nearly as broad, but where it needs to be it is exceptionally deep. Whenever I think about smart dogs I think about one particular patient, Sierra McNabb. (Incidentally, throughout the blog I've change all the names. I probably don't really need to, but it seems like the polite thing to do.)

Sierra was a seeing eye dog. She was a golden retriever from central casting - the kind you see in happy suburban family advertisements for life insurance and Jeep Grand Cherokees. She belonged to Roger McNabb, a spirited single older gentleman, also from central casting - the kind you see at the bar telling boisterous jokes to the bartender and buying rounds for strangers. Roger had not been fully blind that long and Sierra was his first guide dog. He had flown out east to meet her and to go through the final stages of the training with her. It goes without saying (although watch me say it anyway) that they were inseparable and that she was indispensable to him. Sierra knew how to guide him to the post office, to his doctor's office, to the 7-11 and, my favorite, not just to the liquor store, but right to the specific location in the specific aisle where Roger's favorite whisky was. Not just a smart dog, but a useful dog. Try to get your two year old to do that for you.

One incident made it clear to me however that there was a deeper thought process at play with Sierra rather than just a robotic response to commands. In common with 90% of golden retrievers Sierra had recurrent ear infections. Those infected ears were very sore and Sierra hated having them handled and looked at. She would sit obediently enough and permit the examination, but her eyes said, "Why do you keep doing this? Don't you know by now what's wrong you fool?"

One day Roger was due to bring her in at 10:00 am. He lived within walking distance and was always very punctual, making allowances for weather or anything that might slow them down. By 10:10 I was already a little concerned. The receptionist called his home, but there was no answer. Just then we noticed Sierra and Roger walk past on the sidewalk out front. Sierra took a quick furtive glance at the door, but kept moving ahead. A moment later they came back, walking the other way, again right past the door. The receptionist ran out to get them.
Roger was flustered, "I count blocks and I knew we had gone too far, so I turned her around. We went back and forth like that four times! I don't know what got into her; I know she would have seen the door. I've never known her to be so confused."

Confused? Hardly. Sierra and I exchanged the most fleeting of glances: she knew that I knew that she knew...

From that day forward we would keep a careful lookout at the door when Sierra and Roger were due.


  1. I really LOVE stories about smart dogs like this...It makes me chuckle out loud! If I had a dog that could lead me to MY favorite scotch whisky, well, THAT would just about be a dream come true! ��

    1. Unfortunately my dog isn't nearly that smart. He's beautiful and he's sweet, but... not smart. You can't have everything!