SITE VISIT: Paws and Stripes

A few weeks back, I was sitting in my chiropractor’s waiting room when I spied a special issue of National Geographic entitled Animal Minds. According to this special issue, animal cognition is a hot area of research these days. It would appear that ethology—the study of animal behavior—is making a bit of a comeback. At my Bowlby Less Traveled blog site, I have mentioned many times that John Bowlby—arguably the father of attachment theory—pulled heavily from ethological studies. Sadly, with the rise of brain scanners and brain studies in the 1980s, ethology was placed on the back burner. Presidents were not stepping up to announce the Decade of Animal Studies (as they did for brain studies). I was heartened to see that new life was being breathed into departments of ethology.

As I glanced through this special issue of Nat Geo (as branding gurus are wont to call it), I was amazed at the level of cognitive prowess displayed by animals from gold fish to elephants. In particular, I was amazed at the level of Executive Function skills displayed by higher order animals, such as mental time travel, planning, and being able to make self–other distinctions. As an example, researchers have observed certain primates housed in zoo environments collecting and stashing hoards of small stones in the morning only to hurl them at visitors in the afternoon. This behavior takes both planning and an ability to engage in mental time travel.

Fast forward to last week and I’m conducting a site visit at the Albuquerque-based Paws and Stripes. Paws and Stripes matches service dogs with vets dealing with the challenges of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury). Once again I was blown away by stories of incredible levels of animal cognition, specifically, canine cognition.

As announced in an earlier post, the FHL Foundation made a $25,000 grant to help build a Community Conference Room at the new Paws and Stripes administrative and training facilities. This grant is part of a $1.5 million expansion program designed to create a national training center. By forming a human–animal bond, Paws and Stripes hopes to provide vets with relief from the symptoms associated with PTSD and TBI. Paws and Stripes’ motto says it all: “We Believe In Changing Lives, Two At A Time.”

During my site visit, my hosts—Lindsey Stanek (CEO and founder), Stephanie Barger (Director of Programs), and Richard Grainger (Director of Development)—regaled me with some simply incredible stories. I was told about one vet who suffers from regular headaches as well as migraines. This vet takes different medications depending on the type of headache s/he is experiencing. These medications can adversely interact one with the other if not taken according to a strict schedule. This vet will hold out both hands with one type of medication in one hand and the other type in the other hand. This vet’s service dog will then nudge the hand holding the appropriate medication. It gets better. Apparently this service dog is able to detect the aura of a migraine, which can occur tens of minutes before the onset of the actual migraine. This service dog then alerts his/her companion of an impending migraine. By taking migraine medication at the first sign of an aura, migraine medication is at its best as far as mitigating the symptoms associated with a migraine, such as light and sound sensitivity as well as feeling nauseous.

I was then told about a vet who is diabetic. This vet’s service dog is trained to recognize the indicators associated with low blood sugar and alert his/her companion. It goes further yet. In the event the vet is not able to get up, the service dog is trained to get a container of honey and bring it to his/her companion.

If this is not amazing enough, how about a service dog that knows to disobey a command. My hosts told me that service dogs will regularly disobey a command to leave the house because they know that the vet has forgotten something important, like keys or even medication. In his 2005 book entitled If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind, ethologist and cognitive scientist Vilmos Csányi writes about how service dogs for the blind often have to disobey commands if following such a command would put each of them in danger (like moving into the path of an oncoming car). To disobey a command, a dog must both know the mind of his/her companion (and the intent of the command given) and the nature of the environment they are in. Csányi calls this “third order cognition” or the ability to think about thinking. As talked about in the National Geographic article mentioned above, animal researchers call this metacognition or the ability to think about thinking.

In the military (as in law enforcement and firefighting), trust is key. You have to know that your fellow soldier (or fellow law enforcement officer or firefighter) has your back. These dogs have their companion’s back. These dogs have their companion’s mind in mind. Mind in mind operations are yet another form of metacognition. As attachment researchers (such as Peter Fonagy and Dan Siegel) will point out in their work, these mind in mind operations are key components of any secure attachment relationship. These service dogs act as cognitive scaffolding for their companions. It’s a scary feeling to feel yourself cognitively slipping into the fear centers of the middle brain (such as the amygdala). Such experiences are not uncommon when PTSD symptoms obtain. A service dog can act as cognitive scaffolding, as a surrogate prefrontal cortex (home to the Executive Functions). In this way, the vet does not lose him or herself but stays largely grounded in the here and now. How amazing is that?

Here’s a final thought. I know the big push these days is to develop mechanical caregivers using AI or artificial intelligence. This push is spurred on by the care crisis in countries like Japan and even here in the US. But rather than putting so much effort into mechanical caregivers, why not put some effort into CI or canine intelligence. For me personally, I’d rather have a canine with a slobbery tongue and wet nose have my back than a mechanical caregiver with computer chips and servo motors. That’s just me. And, yes, I’m biased. I’m a big time dog lover. And I’ve had three great four-legged kids, each of the Labrador retriever rainbow: black, chocolate, and yellow.