Can a Guide Dog “Know” Its Owner Is Blind?

A white guide dog in its working harness

Last week, while perusing my usual (i.e., prodigious) range of blindness- and vision-related news, blogs, and links, I discovered a fascinating post on the Psychology Today blog, entitled Professor, Does My Dog Know I’m Blind: Can we know what animals know about what we know?

Dr. Herzog and the Human-Animal Dynamic

It was authored by Hal Herzog, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University, whose academic research explores the psychology of human-animal relationships. He is also the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals, which further explores the human-animal dynamic.

I realized that Dr. Herzog had touched upon two of my favorite subjects: the “theory of mind” and, of course, blindness. Theory of mind, stated simply, is the ability to recognize that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions (i.e., mental states) that are different from one’s own. And blindness, as many readers know, represents my lifelong work and study.

Needless to say, Dr. Herzog grabbed my attention and held it. Here is an excerpt from his blog post that explains his immersion in this arcane – but interesting – discipline:

My proverbial fifteen minutes of fame came this fall when [my new book] was published, and for a couple of weeks I found myself doing two or three radio interviews a day. The most interesting interview was in the middle of the night – a two hour-long, call-in marathon …

Even at three in the morning, the interview seemed to be going fairly well until a guy I will call Leo phoned in. First he asked me a question about why people love their pets, but then he blurted, “Professor, do you think my dog knows I’m blind?”

The question stopped me cold. I had no idea that Leo was blind and I didn’t know if his dog did either. But Leo had raised a complicated issue – what do our pets know about the inner lives of their owners? First, I fumbled around a little, but then I confessed to the show’s 4.5 million listeners that I didn’t really have clue about what Leo’s dog thought about his owner’s limited visual abilities.

Does a Guide Dog “Know”?

It’s an interesting question: Can/Does a guide dog know (or “know”) that its owner/handler is blind? Dr. Herzog explored this question, too:

But what about trained guide dogs? I vaguely recall mumbling on the radio that night that a [guide] dog would surely know that its owner was blind. Was I correct?

Three of my experts referred me to a set of elegant experiments recently conducted by a French cognitive ethologist named Florence Gaunet. If I was right, guide dogs should be less prone than pet dogs of sighted owners to look toward their owners’ faces for help when it comes to, say, locating hidden food or soliciting a round of play.

To my surprise, however, Gaunet found that this was not the case. Indeed, in one of the articles she flat out wrote, “Guide dogs do not understand that their owners cannot see them.”

Perspectives from Animal Science

The comment section contained several interesting perspectives from a number of cognitive and animal scientists who are also wrestling with this issue.

From Stanley Coren, Ph.D.:

Dogs have what psychologists call a “Theory of Mind” … That is one reason why, when a dog is trying to solve a problem, he will look back at the human that he is with frequently, trying to see if he can get clues or information that we might have to help him with his task.

If the dog’s owner is blind, it is unlikely that he will understand that condition; however, he will recognize that there some things in the world which he sees, but his owner does not respond to and he may, in fact, try to compensate or to assist his owner by providing information about those things.

From Stephen Zawistowski:

I do think that the dog in question will know that something about the blind owner is different. This would be similar to the ability that predators have to pick one member of a herd out because it is a bit slower, more awkward and easier prey.

I do not think the dog will know that the person is blind. This would imply that the dog understood vision as a sense, and blindness as a loss of that sense, and I don’t think we have evidence in hand to support this. The conservative position would be that the dog can determine that the blind person is not functioning the same as a other people and alter their behavior towards the person in response.

A Guide Dog User’s Opinion

What struck me, however, was the paucity of responses from blind people themselves, including blind and visually impaired guide dog users. I found only one such response on the comments page, from a blind guide dog user named Kerry Levins:

I do not believe my Dog (Pedro) has any concept that I am blind; I do not believe the concept means anything to him at all. He does, however, adapt to my limitations, certainly more so than my fellow man seems to.

In practical terms, this means that he will move out of the way if I am walking toward him in the house. When we are out of the house and in social situations he will maintain physical contact with me pretty much constantly.

At the end of the day, though, it is entirely possible that these behaviours are simply responses with the psychology of a pack where I am the Alpha. In this way, that I have a handicap … is rendered a moot point in my relationship with my dog, simply because I fulfill the role of his Alpha and I don’t believe he cares much beyond that!

The Bottom Line: Science Isn’t Sure

Dr. Herzog concluded his essay with the following statement:

The bottom line is that even the best scientists are unsure whether Leo’s dog knows that Leo can’t see. Though it has not been done, we could easily design an experiment to find out whether the pets of sighted and blind individuals treat their owners differently.

But Leo raised the much more difficult question – what do our pets think about us? Leo goes a step further than the philosopher[s]. He asks, Can we ever really know what a dog knows about what its owner knows?

Your Comments, Please

I am most interested in what our blind readers and guide dog users have to say about this topic: What has your experience been? What anecdotal information can you provide? I look forward to your comments.