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Life as a Labradoodle may sound free and easy, but if you’re Jet, who lives in New Jersey, there is a lot of work to be done.
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.
Jet seems like a genius, but is he really so smart? In fact, is any of it in his brain, or is it mostly in his sniff?
The matter of what exactly goes on in the mind of a dog is a tricky one, and until recently much of the research on canine intelligence has been met with large doses of skepticism. But over the last several years a growing body of evidence, culled from small scientific studies of dogs’ abilities to do things like detect cancer or seizures, solve complex problems (complex for a dog, anyway), and learn language suggests that they may know more than we thought they did.
Their apparent ability to tune in to the needs of psychiatric patients, turning on lights for trauma victims afraid of the dark, reminding their owners to take medication and interrupting behaviors like suicide attempts and self-mutilation, for example, has lately attracted the attention of researchers.
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.
Hungarian researchers reported in a study last year that a guide dog for a blind and epileptic person became anxious before its master suffered a seizure and was taught to bark and lick the owner’s face and upper arm when it detected an onset, three to five minutes before the seizure. It is still somewhat mysterious how exactly dogs detect seizures, whether it’s by picking up on behavioral changes or smelling something awry, but several small studies have shown that a powerful sense of smell can detect lung and other types of cancer, as the dogs sniff out odors emitted by the disease.
Beyond these perceptual abilities, in which trainers can use the dogs’ natural instincts, some research has examined dogs’ actual cognitive ability, and found not just good doggie, but smart doggie.
“I believe that so much research has come out lately suggesting that we may have underestimated certain aspects of the mental ability of dogs that even the most hardened cynic has to think twice before rejecting the possibilities,” said Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and an author of several books on dogs.
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