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Intelligent Disobedience in Dogs

Today we would like to brag about a dog's ability to make important "judgement calls," something guide dogs must be able to do when they apply what is known as"intelligent disobedience." While the word "disobedience" gives the negative idea of a dog who ignores what he's asked to do and just does as he pleases, when we add the word intelligent in front of it, it brings disobedience to a whole different level! From something considered negative, disobedience becomes something remarkable, a quality that is sought in guide dogs working as a team with their owners for their protection and safety. So today let's learn more about intelligent disobedience in dogs, how it's trained and let's take a look at some examples of how it's applied.

A blind man with his guide dog in Montreal, 1941.

A blind man with his guide dog in Montreal, 1941.

What is Intelligent Disobedience?

Intelligent disobedience, also known as "selective disobedience" is observed when a service animal willingly disobeys the owner's instructions because it isn't safe to do so.

Service dogs are taught this quality so they can make better decisions for their owners when the need arises. This entails important "judgement calls" on the part of the dog in critical situation.

Need an example on how a dog would apply intelligent disobedience? Here are a few examples:

~At a crosswalk, a blind person listens for traffic and tells his guide dog to move forward, when a car that was not there a second ago, suddenly appears. The dog notices the car and refuses to move, thus disobeying the owner's request to forward.

~A blind person is walking in the park, and at a certain point, the guide dog refuses to walk because there are low tree branches in the path. While the dog can easily walk underneath the branches, the low branches may actually injure the blind person as he walks through them. The blind person tells the dog to move forward, but the service dog disobeys.

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How is it Trained?

dog blind

As the service dog training progresses, the dogs are exposed to situations that become gradually more and more complex requiring increased problem solving skills.

The dog must learn not only to stop at intersections and navigate around crowds, but also must learn to avoid obstacles such as lampposts, mailboxes, strollers and shopping carts that are in the way.

Dogs must also learn to avoid potholes, narrow passages, construction sites, objects lying in the path and uneven surfaces.

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Do Dogs Fall Off Cliffs?

Yes, dogs fall off cliffs and these accidents aren't even uncommon. As we hike with our dogs, we may sometimes overestimate our dog's senses. We may take for granted that dogs naturally know what areas to avoid to prevent falls. However, the number of dogs who fall off from cliffs each year, proves to us that it makes perfect sense to protect them from a potentially life threatening fall.

When guide dogs encounter such obstacles, they must guide their owner around them or stop in front of them. While this entails lots of training, a dog's natural skills and perceptions also play a role.

"Through consistency, repetition, and praise a guide dog can learn to work effectively around overhangs and branches." Guide Dogs of America

How is intelligent disobedience trained? According to Service Dog Central in the case of the low hanging branch, the trainer walks with the guide dog towards a low hanging branch. When the cane hits the tree branch it makes a noise that is a cue for the dog to understand that something has happened. The trainer may say "ouch!." The team repeats the scene several times until the dog learns to consistently walk around the branch.

To help the dog generalize, the same scene is repeated in several different locations and situations so the dog learns to apply the same walk-around behavior. Watching for low hanging branches entails lots of training especially considering that looking up is not a natural behavior for a dog, so the dog must become fully aware of the person he's guiding and always keep him in consideration, despite the fact that the dog can easily walk under or jump over obstacles.

While loads of training and repetition helps train these dogs and many training schools invest time in simulating street-like scenarios on their training sites, it's impossible to cover all real-life situations, so it must be said that a lot of "on the job learning" occurs throughout a guide dog's life. A great amount of teamwork is required in safely crossing a street, and as the team gets to know each other better, a strong partnership forms that's built on mutual respect and trust.

"In the case of guide dogs for the blind, the dog is not a substitute for vision but rather helps the person with inadequate vision when he or she faced with the problem of safely moving through the world, an activity that normally sighted individuals rely upon their eyes to do." ~ Stanley Coren

Did you know? Guide dogs do not "read" traffic lights as dogs don't see colors the same way we do. Instead, the blind person listens for the sound of traffic, and then, with the help of the dog, decides whether it's safe to move across the intersection.

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Photo credits:

A blind man with his guide dog in Montreal, 1941, Wikipedia, public domain

A blind woman learns to use her guide dog in a test environment, by BrailleligaCC BY-SA 3.0 nl

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