Co-operative interactions between blind persons and their dogs

Studies of British and Hungarian blind owners and their dogs

source: Sz. Naderi, A.Miklosi, A. Doka, and V. Csanyi
Applied Animal Behaviour Science vol 74 no 1, 11 September 2001
starts p59, 22 pages long

Cooperation has been analysed in a number of ways, and involves working together towards the same goal. Sometimes dominant animals use aggression to force submissive animals to co-operate, and such behaviour cannot be called a complex cooperative interaction. Species with strong dominance hierarchies may cooperate less, as is shown by observing monkey species. Flexible dominant hierarchies appear to be necessary for cooperation, or attachments formed between members of a group.

Dogs and humans have long cooperated, and cooperation between blind owners and their dogs is an example of complex cooperation. Training includes teaching the dogs to walk straight ahead in the middle of pavements, unless obstacles are present, without turning corners, unless a command is given, ensuring that owners do not bump their heads, and tackling traffic.

The first study investigated how different training methods used in Britain and Hungary affected cooperation between owners and their dogs. This study involved 20 blind owners from Britain, 7 of whom used Labradors, 3 used yellow labs, 3 used golden retrievers, 4 used lab-golden retriever crosses, and there was one collie-retriever cross, one poodle retriever cross, and one German shepherd (GSD). They had all owned their dogs for a minimum of one year. There were 14 Hungarians with 9 GSDs, four Labrador retrievers, and one Airedale.

The owners were videotaped taking a walk with their dogs, and the videos were analysed to see which initiated actions. The British and Hungarian groups showed marked similarities, and patterns emerged. Blind people were likely to initiate much of the starting, turning, slowing down and stopping, whereas dogs appeared to have full control of initiation only in the case of avoidance. The dogs and their owners took turns to initiate activities, though dogs were more likely to initiate in long sequences, sometimes with three to four actions initiated by dogs followed by one action initiated by owners.

A second study looked at differences between trained dogs with blind owners, and naïve pet dogs with blindfolded owners, in terms of their ability to go through obstacle courses. There were 18 guide dogs, 9 Labrador retrievers, 5 German shepherds, 3 Golden retrievers, and one Rottweiler. There were 13 pet dogs, 9 Tervueren, 2 Groenandael, and a Malinois and a Boxer.

The trained guide dogs and blind owners made fewer mistakes, and were faster. Blind dog owners were more willing to allow their dogs to take the initiative for longer, or guide dogs did not need their owners to interfere in tackling some of the obstacle. However, the differences between the guide and pet dogs were not as great as might have been expected.

Behaviour does not appear to have been affected by breed in either study, and a larger-scale study would be needed to detect the influence of breed.

Guide dogs have been trained using operant conditioning methods, and their role has been seen as leading their owners. However, ethology shows that cooperation is involved in leading owners, with both participants playing important roles.

Initiation rates differed between pairs of dogs and owners, with some dogs initiating more whereas with other pairs, the humans initiated more. In no case, however, did either the owner or the dog initiate more than 80% of the activities.

The similarities found between the British and Hungarian owners and dogs may be because the owners and dogs had got used to one another, and some parts of trained behaviour were altered or disappeared.

The ability to cooperate seems to be partly inherited, since some pet dogs also showed this ability. Guide dog training seems to depend partly on dogs’ innate ability to cooperate and observe humans. Cooperation can be understood at an action level (eg avoiding, starting, etc) and at a program level (eg travelling to a shop). Both parties have to be able to follow an initiator at action level, and both have to work out who is initiating and take turn in initiating for continuous cooperation. Dogs are unaware of owners’ planned actions, and owners do not have visual information. A rapid interchange of situation-dependent leadership is made possible through co-operation. A relaxed hierarchical relationship appears to have emerged between humans and dogs, which has helped foster this kind of co-operation. Effective interaction is only possible if each party can take the lead, or accept the other party taking the lead, and a mutual ability to change roles of initiators is needed for this interaction to happen.

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