Monday, November 30, 2015

What The Seeing Eye Dog Saw

A little factoid that people have occasionally quoted to me is that the average dog is about as smart as the average two year old child. Google it; you'll see many references. But as with many google friendly factoids it is silly. It is a soundbite oversimplification of complicated science. In fact, the specific research paper that gave birth to this only demonstrated that the average dog recognized as many words as the average two year old. English words mind you, not dog words. This actually makes the "average dog" seem astonishingly smart to me. Especially since my own dog sometimes seems to recognize as many words as a cucumber does (but he's very handsome).

There is no doubt that human intelligence is extremely broad compared to dog intelligence. Our own intelligence applies itself vigorously to taxes and fashion and philosophy and physics and indoor plumbing and why the freaking OS update won't install properly and a million more things. Dog intelligence is not nearly as broad, but where it needs to be it is exceptionally deep. Whenever I think about smart dogs I think about one particular patient, Sierra McNabb. (Incidentally, throughout the blog I've change all the names. I probably don't really need to, but it seems like the polite thing to do.)

Sierra was a seeing eye dog. She was a golden retriever from central casting - the kind you see in happy suburban family advertisements for life insurance and Jeep Grand Cherokees. She belonged to Roger McNabb, a spirited single older gentleman, also from central casting - the kind you see at the bar telling boisterous jokes to the bartender and buying rounds for strangers. Roger had not been fully blind that long and Sierra was his first guide dog. He had flown out east to meet her and to go through the final stages of the training with her. It goes without saying (although watch me say it anyway) that they were inseparable and that she was indispensable to him. Sierra knew how to guide him to the post office, to his doctor's office, to the 7-11 and, my favorite, not just to the liquor store, but right to the specific location in the specific aisle where Roger's favorite whisky was. Not just a smart dog, but a useful dog. Try to get your two year old to do that for you.

One incident made it clear to me however that there was a deeper thought process at play with Sierra rather than just a robotic response to commands. In common with 90% of golden retrievers Sierra had recurrent ear infections. Those infected ears were very sore and Sierra hated having them handled and looked at. She would sit obediently enough and permit the examination, but her eyes said, "Why do you keep doing this? Don't you know by now what's wrong you fool?"

One day Roger was due to bring her in at 10:00 am. He lived within walking distance and was always very punctual, making allowances for weather or anything that might slow them down. By 10:10 I was already a little concerned. The receptionist called his home, but there was no answer. Just then we noticed Sierra and Roger walk past on the sidewalk out front. Sierra took a quick furtive glance at the door, but kept moving ahead. A moment later they came back, walking the other way, again right past the door. The receptionist ran out to get them.
Roger was flustered, "I count blocks and I knew we had gone too far, so I turned her around. We went back and forth like that four times! I don't know what got into her; I know she would have seen the door. I've never known her to be so confused."

Confused? Hardly. Sierra and I exchanged the most fleeting of glances: she knew that I knew that she knew...

From that day forward we would keep a careful lookout at the door when Sierra and Roger were due.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Consider The Ostrich

Now consider the epileptic ostrich...

The three most common questions I am asked when someone finds out that I am a veterinarian are: (a) what is the most unusual animal you have treated, (b) how often do you get bit and (c) do you know why my aunt's cat has a rash? We'll ignore the third question, but rest assured the two will be addressed in Vetography. The unusual animal question is actually worth a few posts, so let's start with the earliest one of those.

The first "unusual animal" I encountered in my career, aside from my girlfriend's deranged cat, was an ostrich. This goes back 26 years to fourth year of veterinary school in Saskatoon. I no longer recall the ostrich's name, but for reasons that will become evident later let's call him Johnny. Johnny had been brought in for examination and treatment because he was having seizures.

Now think about that for a moment.

A fully grown ostrich like the one in question is eight feet tall and weighs 300 pounds. This is much bigger than me. This is much bigger than you (pardon the presumption). Moreover, he has legs that can reach fourteen feet in a single stride, claws the size of railroad spikes and muscle power enough to disembowel you. "Disembowel". Now there's a hazard you don't consider too often. At the best of times an ostrich has a brain smaller than it's eyeball, but when it is seizuring even that tiny speck of intelligence shuts down and something akin to blindfolded chainsaw juggling ensues.

The professor told us to take off our lab coats before Johnny was brought in.
"They like to peck at white things, like lab coat buttons," she said.
Or like the whites of eyeballs, I thought.

Johnny was brought in by an assistant. We regarded him with nervous anticipation. He regarded us with... nothing. To our relief Johnny did not appear to be in a disemboweling mood. His gaze was vacant and unfocused. The professor explained that they were medicating him to control his seizures and were still trying to work out the best dose. Consequently one of his two functional brain cells was disabled.

"Now watch this," she said. The professor reached into her pocket and pulled out a marshmallow. Then she pulled a vial containing pills out of her other pocket, removed a pill and shoved it deep into the marshmallow.

"Remember that they like to peck at white things?" She held the marshmallow out gingerly between her thumb and forefinger and sure enough, with lightning speed Johnny, who had seemed so stoned a moment before, lunged forward and gulped the marshmallow down in one impressively fluid motion.
"And that, class, is how you medicate an ostrich."

I have had call to make use of this knowledge exactly zero times, but it is a cool thing to know.
Johnny was led away again and we shuffled off to go dissect something, each of us relieved not to have become an instructive ostrich attack statistic. Seriously. Ostriches are as dangerous as sharks. And sharks are rarely, if ever, brought into a veterinary clinic.

An Emu rather than an ostrich, but the only photo of
me with a potentially disemboweling flightless bird.

Incidentally, the most famous ostrich attack ever was the one on Johnny Cash:
Yes, the world is a deeply weird place. You gotta love it.

And in closing, if you are ever attacked, heed the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, "If, when assailed by the ostrich, the man stands erect, he is in great danger. But by the simple expedient of lying down, he escapes all danger." But lie on your stomach Teddy. A handy illustration is provided below for you to print out and put in your wallet for reference: