Tuesday 10 January 2023

Assistance Dogs 101: Intelligent Disobedience

Now you've probably read the title of this post and thought, what on earth is that? How can an assistance dog be disobedient and intelligent at the same time????

Well, it's quite an amazing skill for an assistance dog to develop. At times, while an assistance dog is work mode, there are some skills, commands or tasks that we may not want the dog to obey. A really great example is a Guide Dog - they are trained in intelligent disobedience during their intense training before being placed. If the dog is given an unsafe command from their handler, for example to walk out onto a busy road, they are taught to disobey the command.

When a dog is taught intelligent disobedience they are taught to use their own judgement and not respond to the command or cue given by their handler if it is not safe to do so, ie: walking out into oncoming traffic.

In terms of cognitive thinking, an assistance dog who is taught an intelligent disobedient skill is using their cognitive behaviour and/or as they are thinking from their handlers perspective. An assistance dog, such as a guide dog, could easily obey the command and walk into oncoming traffic, but from the handlers perspective this is quite dangerous. The dog is able to understand this and interpret the environment around it at that given time.

During Henry's training he was taught an intelligent disobedient skill in that he was taught to ground himself when sitting at the edge of a road. As L holds his own leash that is attached to Henry, if L went to walk off without Henry being given the command to move forward, Henry will ground himself  to keep L safe.

We've witnessed this skill a number of times since Henry was placed with us back in 2021. The most impressive time was when we were on a family outing on the Sunshine Coast. We had just got out of our car and began to explore when L started walking towards the road. Henry pulled myself towards L, then got between L and the road and gently began nudging L back onto the grassed area. All without being given a command.

More recently we have seen both Henry and Alaska display intelligent disobedient skills, both without being taught.

Late last year we were up at a very large shopping centre with Alaska - it was Henry's day off as he'd had a busy week. Both L and Daddy Superhero were off having haircuts and I was doing some public access training with Alaksa.

Unbeknownst to me, my anxiety levels were rising and Alaska was picking up on the levels. I initially thought that Alaska was misbehaving as as we were walking, she would walk around the front of my body and stop in our path. What Alaska was in fact doing was showing her intelligent disobedience skills be alerting me that I needed to stop and take a break. I found a place to sit and Alaksa immediately lay over my lap to give deep pressure therapy. At the time I didn't realise just how amazing that skill was for Alaska. Now? Wow!

Henry has also shown us his intelligent disobedience skills late last year, While Daddy Superhero was in hospital recovering from his open heart surgery, Henry would regularly push myself, or one of the little superheroes to our couch at home and as soon as we'd sit down. Henry would lay on our laps providing deep pressure therapy.

The first occasion that Henry did this to me, I was attempting to give him the command of place, to redirect him to a mat in our lounge room. He was definitely disobeying that command as he recognised that I needed to sit.

And if witnessing an assistance dog showing it's intelligent disobedient skills isn't amazing in itself, the intelligent disobedient skills have no effect whatsoever on the dogs willingness to obey commands.

Henry, and Alaska, as well as other assistance dogs seem to readily understand that the refusal response to a command is expected and accepted of them when there is a potential hazard or obstacle in the path. For a dog, that is some really impressive cognitive thinking!