Friday, November 25, 2011

Dumb Animals

I bet you’ve heard the term “dumb animals” before. There’s a perception that animals are dumb and that we humans are superior in every way. Well, I have news for you. Animals and birds are not dumb. Oh, I know some of you may disagree. I know I did at one time. That was before I learned about Alex and Chaser and before my first-hand experience with McDuff, a Scottish terrier therapy dog as smart as he was stubborn.

The December 2011 issue of National Geographic Magazine contains an article entitled, “Minds of their Own. Animals are smarter than you think.” In it we are introduced to Alex, an African grey parrot, and Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a psychologist from Brandeis and Harvard Universities. Dr. Pepperberg bought Alex from a pet store when he was a year old. She studied and work with Alex all of his life until his death in 2007 at the age of thirty-one.

Alex learned one hundred fifty words and could categorize them. He counted up to six and had a basic understanding of the abstract concept of zero. Alex knew colors, sizes, and shapes. When shown a blue paper triangle, he told Dr. Pepperberg the color, shape, and after touching it, what it was made of. He understood the difference between big and small, same and different, and over and under.

Alex picked up one liners from the lab workers like “calm down,” and “good morning.” He expressed frustration and boredom. When Dr. Pepperberg put Alex into his cage for the night in September 2007, he looked at her and said, “You be good. I love you.” Those were the last words she would ever hear from him. She found Alex dead in his cage the next morning.

In her research paper, “The Alex Studies,” Dr. Pepperberg provides ample proof that parrots are smarter than we’re led to believe. Dumb bird? Not Alex. He wasn’t parroting, he was thinking.

And then there’s Chaser, a black and white border collie with a vocabulary of over 1,000 words. John Pilley and Alliston Reid are the Wofford College psychologists who worked with Chaser for the last three years. John owns and trains Chaser and Alliston comes up with the experiments. Chaser knows 1,022 proper noun names for various objects. She understands that objects have names and knows that they may have more than one name. She can combine names and commands.

Pilley and Reid published their research in the Journal of Behavioral Processes. Through their work with Chaser we know that the learning capacity of a dog is greater than we originally believed. Pilley, who is retired, says that Chaser is so eager to learn that he has to go to bed at 8:00 p.m. just to get away from her.

Chaser is a celebrity with numerous TV appearances, YouTube video, and newspaper articles. No way Chaser can be called a dumb animal. And from my personal experience with a Scottie with off-the-chart intelligence and you won’t believe stubbornness, I know animals can outsmart us.

Dumb Animals? Here’s Kurt Vonnegut, Jr’s take on the subject: “We are impossibly conceited animals, and actually dumb as heck. Ask any teacher. You don’t even have to ask a teacher. Ask anybody. Dogs and cats are smarter than we are.”

What’s your take?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

You Have a Story to Tell

When I began to write Life with McDuff: Lessons Learned from a Therapy Dog on January 1, 2007, I knew the entertaining stories about my life with a mystical, stubborn beyond belief, and hilarious Scottish terrier would appeal to others. Before deciding to pick up a pen, or sit down at a computer and let the creative juices flow, you should know something. To become the author of a successful book about your life, you must have a compelling story to tell; one that will capture and hold the interest of readers from beginning to end. No matter how well written, a book about the life and times of the Bulgarian snail probably won’t capture the attention of large audience.

Each one of your lives is unique and contains stories that only you can tell. Perhaps about your childhood, good or bad, a heartbreaking romance, dysfunction family, or even about a special relationship with an extraordinary pet. Whether you know it or not, you have a story to tell.

Life with McDuff is about my Scottish terrier therapy dog, but my life is in it, too. I wrote about a domestic violence incident and a life-saving brilliant white light and the bitter divorce that followed. One of the valuable life lessons that McDuff taught me came during that turbulent time. He taught me how to forgive and get on with life.

I wrote about my mother’s home invasion, lengthy hospitalization in the Intensive Care Unit, and the heartache of disconnecting life support. Asking one person to decide when or whether another person lives or dies is a lot to ask. A precedent-setting jury trial with cameras in the courtroom, AP and local television news coverage, and reporters waiting outside the courtroom with bright lights and cameras followed.

After the loss of my job, I told about the cross-country trip from Columbus, Ohio, to Henderson, Nevada, with my son and McDuff. All of those events happened within a year’s time period.

McDuff was with me every step of the way during those hard times providing his special brand of therapy. When life literally beat me down to the ground, he was there to press his furry body against mine and lick the tears from my face.

McDuff’s outstanding therapy dog work in Las Vegas and Henderson landed us on television and the front page of newspapers. Nine years of my life on a journey with an extraordinary dog provided my compelling story. Look at your life. Do you have a story to tell?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What the Heck Is a Therapy Dog?

What the heck is a therapy dog? I asked that question the first time I heard the term. Later when I became a certified therapy dog volunteer and wrote the book Life with McDuff: Lessons Learned from a Therapy Dog, about the nine-year journey with my Scottish terrier, I answered the question many times.

Wikipedia’s definition of a therapy dog is “a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, people with learning difficulties, and stressful situations, such as disaster areas.” Therapy dogs were used after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Therapy dogs come in all sizes, breeds and mixture of breeds. The most important characteristics of a therapy dog are good temperament and the ability to get along well with adults, children, and other animals.

The American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test for therapy dogs can determine if a dog can handle sudden loud or strange noises, move around on unfamiliar surfaces, are not frightened around people with canes, in wheelchairs, or have unstable ways of walking or moving, and can get along with children, the elderly, and other animals.

Therapy dogs and service dogs are often confused. Wikipedia’s definition of a service dog is “a type of assistance dog specifically trained to help people who have disabilities including visual or hearing impairment, and also to help people with mental disabilities including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and severe depression.” People are most familiar with guide or seeing-eye dogs, but service dogs also assist in day-to-day activities like pulling wheelchairs, or carrying and picking up things for persons with mobility impairments.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, service dogs must be allowed to go anywhere their handler goes, including restaurants, schools, buses, taxis, airplanes, stores, and any other public place. Medical detection service dogs alert people with epilepsy, diabetes and hypoglycemia, and life-threatening allergies to substances like peanuts. Psychiatric service dogs assist people with panic disorders, PTSD, anxiety attacks, and severe depression.

Good temperament, health, physical structure, as well as intelligence and trainability are a must. Any breed or mixture of breeds can be used as a service dog, but Golden and Labrador Retrievers are often seen.

What should you do when you meet a service dog? Do not pet, make noises or call to it while it’s working. However, you may ask the handler for permission to pet a dog that’s not working. Do not feed a service dog. Talk to the handler, not just to the dog.