When my Seeing Eye dog wants my husband Mike’s attention, she sits down, looks his way, and bats her big beautiful brown eyes. To get my attention, she butts her head against my computer chair. If I’m standing up, she nudges my hand. Whitney drops the ball at Mike’s feet when they play catch. When she’s playing catch with me,Whitney places the ball right in my palm. That way she doesn’t have to sit there waiting while I grope around trying to find the dang thing.
Does Whitney know I can’t see her? A post on the Psychology Today blog refers to a French researcher who did some experiments to try and find this out. Well, not just about Whitney. About guide dogs in general. Do they look toward their blind user’s face less often than dogs with sighted companions do when they need help finding a hidden piece of food? Or when they want to play? The researcher’s answer was clear: “Guide dogs do not understand that their owners cannot see them.”
A bunch of cognitive and animal scientists with opinions of their own left comments to the Psychology Todayblog post, and one of them explained that dogs have what psychologists call a “Theory of Mind.” That’s why they look to the human they’re with when trying to solve a problem: they’re trying to get clues or information from us that might help them with the task. Most of the experts who commented agreed that a guide dog does not know that his human is blind, though. “This would imply that the dog understood vision as a sense, and blindness as a loss of that sense,” one of them wrote. “I don’t think we have evidence in hand to support this.” Many of them agreed that a guide dog can figure out that hey, this human I’m with isn’t responding the same way I am to all this stuff I’m seeing around us! As a result, a guide dog learns ways to compensate and help by giving us the information we need to get around safely.
Whatever the answer, I sure am grateful to this energetic two-year-old copper-colored companion of mine. In less than a year with me, she’s already determined that I don’t function the same way others do, and she alters her behavior towards me in response. I don’t need any more evidence than that. Whether she knows I’m blind or not, I do know this about her:she is one smart dog.