Every time I turn around these days, there is some new “miracle” or modern wonder designed to make life easier. Often it is related to computer technology, but not always. One thing that amazes me in particular is the progress being made with various types of service animals, for the blind and disabled, and I am sure I am not even aware of all the useful options that are available. But I am still in awe. For instance, these dogs can be trained to detect the aura of an oncoming seizure in epileptics, or sense a change in blood sugar in diabetics. And, of course we all know about seeing eye dogs.
For a long time now, I and some of my baby boomer friends have joked about getting a twelve year old to go with us to social events, shopping outings, plays, movies, even on vacation with us. It could be someone’s neighbor kid(s) or some child one knows from church or temple, a bright kid with computer skills and reasonable savvy who would like to earn a bit of money and would not roll his or her eyes or get all twitchy hanging out with “older adults.” Who knows, maybe there could even be a merit badge in it for a scout. Their task, should they choose to accept it, would be to remember where we parked the car, where we left our keys, where we put our glasses or sun glasses (on top of our head no doubt), remind us not to leave our umbrellas on the floor next to the table in the restroom, etc. Don’t laugh. If you aren’t to this point yet, you will be at some future date. Then you will think this is a good idea.
But now I’m thinking that an equally good idea – maybe even a better idea — might be a service dog. Trained to do the same things as one might pay a twelve year old to help with: find your keys, find your misplaced cell phone, misplaced TV remote, misplaced garage door remote, misplaced checkbook, half of a missing pair of earrings, guide you to your car at the mall when you forget what level you parked on, etc. Oh – you didn’t know what CRAFT stands for? It is an acronym – Can’t Remember A Freakin’ Thing.
I can picture it now. I have a service dog named Max. I’m getting ready to go to work or to the store and I can’t find my keys. I turn to trusty Max: “Max, car keys!” Max trundles off to find my keys, which he has been trained to do, and he comes back with them in his teeth. Or, he goes to the refrigerator and paws at the door. I open the door, and there next to the left over pizza from last night are my keys which I had absent-mindedly put there when the phone rang and interrupted my train of thought. Or Max returns dragging a pair of jeans, and the car keys are in the pocket. Or, I’m at the mall and I can’t remember where I parked. “Max, find the car!” And Max arfs knowingly and trots off, looks back to see if I’m following, and leads me to middle of level four, Green, 4H. There’s my Highlander. Wow, is he smart of what? And he even carries one of my plastic bags as he goes along.
Now this sounds like a swell idea, but the problem is getting such a dog trained for the right tasks. It would be nice if I could just go to a “blind school” like one does to get a seeing eye dog. But in this case, maybe I would have to hire someone like Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer from cable TV. Or maybe I could get one of those people who trains dogs for Universal Studios or the movies, or for TV. I would need some assistance determining the best breed. If possible, I would like a dog that is not too big, like perhaps a beagle. I am a cat person after all, and so getting used to a big dog would be tough. A Portuguese water dog would be great because it is not too big and it is hypo allergenic. And it would be nice if the service dog gets along well with cats; I wouldn’t want to give up my cats unless I were desperate.
The dog would have to learn the names and appearance of common objects, like keys, glasses, sunglasses, TV remote, checkbook, umbrella, purse, BlackBerry, passport. With the right dog, I think this is possible. I saw a segment on ABC TV with Diane Sawyer featuring a dog that was trained to recognize a large number of stuffed toys by name and appearance. The owner put all the stuffed toys on the far other side of the room and mixed them all up in a jumble. Then he would tell the dog “Find froggie.” The dog would go to the other side of the room, survey the pile of toys available and pick up the correct one out of thirty or so items, then come back with the stuffed frog in its mouth. Then after a number of such commands, to show how well-trained and smart the dog was, they tried another experiment to see if the dog could use deductive logic. Without giving the dog any advance notice, they added a new toy to the mix of already known items. In this case, it was a small stuffed doll with grey hair sticking out in unruly disarray and it resembled the scientist Albert Einstein. Then the owner asked the dog to go find Einstein. The dog went to the pile of toys and surveyed it for a few seconds, then picked up the Einstein doll in its mouth, and brought it back. Pretty impressive.
So we have documented evidence that dogs are smart. We’ve seen them on Letterman doing stupid pet tricks. And years ago there were Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. Look at all those times Lassie saved Timmy, trapped in a cave where a boulder had fallen and knocked Timmy unconscious and then a flash flood occurred and started to fill the cave entrance with water. And Lassie runs for miles back to the farm to get help and barks furiously at June Lockhart who is busy hanging wet clothes on the clothesline to dry. And of course it takes her a few seconds to get it. Duh, Timmy’s in trouble. Or Rin Tin Tin would run for miles to summon the cavalry from Fort Apache, on three legs because he had been hit with an Indian arrow in one of his paws. He might have to crawl the last half mile. Those TV dogs were smart and persistent. And there was also the famous Bullet who belonged to Roy Rogers.
And these dogs, if they were trained properly, could stay near to an Alzheimers’ patient, and guide the individual back home if he wandered off, or summon help. A breed of dog that is naturally a herding dog – like an Australian sheep dog would be excellent at this. It could even wear a tag: I am a service dog to Fred Farkle who has Alzheimers’. Please call our guardian at 555-1234.
Obviously my swell idea doesn’t appeal to everyone. I ran the idea by a friend, and her response was: “I’m waiting to have my own personal robot to manage my life and make sure I get to appointments, a la ‘The Jetsons.’ It doesn’t need to be fed and won’t have bad days. I’ll just plug it in every night to recharge.”
Aah well, to each his own. But there is a certain tactile, warm-and-fuzziness to a dog that just isn’t in a robot. And after HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” well, I’m just a teeny tiny bit leery of getting too chummy with a computer-based critter. It wouldn’t bite in the same sense as a dog, but still it might want to exact revenge if given the wrong task. I’ll have to think more about my options.