This week the news featured a very clever dog. A cancer detector.
"The K9 Medical Detection NZ Charitable Trust, the University of Otago and a full medical advisory team are now working together to use dogs as a diagnostic tool to sniff out prostate cancer."
Heck. That's pretty impressive, I think as I eye our two dogs. They are tiny. They are hairy. They bark a lot. Are they well trained? No, they are not. Could they be trained? Be a bit more useful? Hmm, they are rather stuck in their naughty little ways.
Alfie is somewhat more sensible than Lola, who is highly strung, verging on neurosis.
This developed after she was chased by big dogs when we first moved out to Ruakākā.
She was gone all that day and night. In the early hours of the morning we heard a vague scratching at the back door. It was Lola, thank goodness. It was my birthday and I was sure the planned celebrations and revelry would be thwarted by the gloom of a missing dog.
Ever since then she's barked insanely at any other dog or new person.
When Gary Butt came around last weekend for the Ruakākā Surf Day, he brought his dog Kura. Kura is huge - a labrador crossed with a bear. She is cool, calm and well behaved, the complete opposite of our hysterical hounds.
Gary brought Kura because she had always been popular with the kids at the surf day, and indeed she was again. She cruised around enjoying pats and strokes from many of the participants. In the past we have even had a dog that surfed with them.
Disabled people and dogs have quite a history. Obviously guide dogs have been assisting blind people for decades. More recently therapy dogs, assistance dogs and mobility dogs have become very popular.
My friend Huhana Hiki, a scholar of disabilities research and legal theory and a disabled activist, has one.
I have always been slightly cynical of mobility dogs. Do they really help? Are they a gimmick? Maybe it's my own poorly performing dogs that are giving me a somewhat negative perspective. (If I fall over, Alfie helps by licking my head).
I rang Huhana to ask about her experience with her mobility dog. She talked about Finn, an 11-year-old huntaway-beardie collie who she has had for nine years.
"What's the best and the worst thing about him?" I ventured, barely disguising my cynicism.
"He is loyal, playful, enthusiastic and loving,'' gushed Huhana.
She then went on to say the worst thing about having Finn is people and their behaviour around him.
When I, um, dug further, she explained: "People screaming at us for having him in a restaurant or mall, people letting their kids pull his tail and hit him, people patting him without asking then getting offended when we ask them not to."
I, er, nosed into how helpful Finn was for Huhana.
"Well," she said, "he picks things up, gets the mail, helps me if I fall, he can get my phone if I'm unable to, he opens and closes doors and he's my companion."
Wow! Turns out Finn was a rescue dog and was only the second dog to graduate from the Wiri Women's Prison dog training service, followed by six months of specific training as a mobility dog.
Huhana then had one-on-one training with him for two weeks.
"So was it worth it?" I timidly enquired.
"He certainly is worth it!" she responded emphatically.
"He has taught me patience and love, he works hard, and at times when I am sick he is key to helping me get well."
Impressive. I am going to view our Sydney silky terrorists in new light. I now know what they are capable of. I have great expectations of agility, obedience and general high performance. Yeah right!
Jonny Wilkinson is the CEO of Tiaho Trust - Disability A Matter of Perception, a Whangārei based disability advocacy organisation.