A little while ago, we received an excellent question on Twitter from @mrlent about training dogs to alert for a fainting condition caused by heart rate. (See his original question here.) Our answer is going to take a few more characters than the 140 limit on Twitter, so we thought we would post it here.
Dogs have an amazing ability to respond to extremely subtle stimuli, sometimes so subtle that neither humans nor machines can pick up on them. It will seem like the dog is alerting to a condition. However, the dog is technically responding.
You may have heard of Diabetic Alert Dogs, and even though they have the word “alert” in their name, they are still responding to a stimulus, in this case an odor that the body produces when blood sugar drops. These dogs are trained to perform specific behaviors when they smell that particular odor.
Dogs that “alert” for seizures are also fairly well known. These dogs perform a behavior before a medical crisis arises, sometimes signaling their partner when a seizure is going to occur. However, these dogs are still responding to something, not alerting. We just aren’t sure what the dogs are responding to, which makes it seem like they’re alerting.
A dog could be trained to respond to a fainting condition. We have actually trained and placed several dogs with individuals whose primary disability involved fainting or loss of consciousness. A dog could easily be trained to retrieve a telephone, pull an emergency cord, cover the person with a blanket, dial 911, alert someone else in the house, etc. The only way a dog could be trained to alert to a condition would be if the person knows of specific things that usually occur before he or she loses consciousness. It is possible to train the dog to respond to these things, thereby creating an “alert” before the person faints.
Some of the dogs we have trained to respond to a fainting condition have developed alert behaviors. However, they are still technically responding to something – we as human just aren’t able to perceive what they are responding to. In order to train a dog to perform a behavior, we need to be able to perceive specific cues or stimuli.
When teaching doesn’t equal learning
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