On the Intelligence of Dogs

Smart, but still just a dog

If you’ve ever seen the animated television series Family Guy you know that the smartest member of the Griffin family, by far, is Brian the Dog. Because this is television Brian talks, and he is intelligent, sensitive, articulate, and worldly. At bottom, though, Brian is still a dog, and if you toss a stick Brian has no choice but to chase it even as he protests “Please don’t do that.” So Brian’s intelligent but there are clear limits to his intelligence.

The Curmudgeon is not a dog person. Years ago he heard (the apparent myth) that dogs were not permitted at all in China and he declared himself a proponent of the Chinese way of life for something that had nothing to do with the search for a superior squid and beef congee. The Curmudgeon is so not a dog person that back in his bachelor days, when he frequented online dating sites (and no, to answer a question that’s been asked a few times recently, never, ever Tinder), he asked, in his profile, “Must I REALLY love dogs?” because he was amazed – okay, annoyed – over how many women wrote “Must love dogs” in their own profiles.

Ninnies.

Is that cute or is that cute?

Mrs. Curmudgeon came with a dog, though, and it was clear pretty much from the start that she – Mrs. Curmudgeon, that is, not the dog – was special enough that he wasn’t going to walk away because of a twenty-pound mutt. Sable is an absolute cutie, as you can see for yourself, and as The Curmudgeon has written in the past, her sweet and affectionate disposition usually compensate for her utter unwillingness to respond as desired to ANY command. Actually, The Curmudgeon is working on that and thinks the training is starting to take, if only a little.

Although there’s a reasonably good chance he’s only deluding himself.

But what really puzzles him is the question of canine intelligence: how smart are these pooches?

Sometimes they seem really smart. Sable, for example, can tell simply by Mrs. Curmudgeon’s movements sometime between the hours of eight and eleven in the evening when she’s about to be taken for a walk and goes, as The Curmudgeon’s late father like to say, “Hog ape-shit wild.” (Don’t ask.) She knows, when she sees you with a bag of trash or recycles that you’re about to take outside, that this means the side door is going to open, offering her an opportunity to run into the yard. And she gets melancholy when she sees a suitcase because she knows someone in the house is going away and she’s probably being shipped off to the dog-sitter. That’s even when Mrs. Curmudgeon is the only one leaving and even though Sable loves the dog-sitter, who refers to Sable as her god-dog. (The Curmudgeon does not take care of Sable by himself.)

But then you have…other times when they don’t seem nearly as smart. With Sable, if you point to something you want her to see she looks not in the direction in which you’re pointing but at the finger doing the pointing. Similarly, when two people are sitting beside one another and one of them passes gas, audibly, the non-gas passer will look at the other person, but a dog, and Sable, will look toward your tuchas, from whence the sound came. Sable plays “go fetch” – at times, she even makes it clear that she wants to play it – but only sort of actually plays it: if you pick up one of her toys that makes noise and toss it she will enthusiastically run after it and run back with it – but then run right past you with the toy in her mouth. She absolutely will not chase after a thrown ball, much to The Curmudgeon’s regret because The Curmudgeon is a thrower.

She eats funny, too. When The Curmudgeon first met her she ate her regular dog food out of a bowl but if you gave her a treat she would carry it off to another room to eat, apparently concerned that someone else in the house might covet her Milk-Bones. After two $400 teeth-cleanings, however, the vet recommended a change in dog food – to something you need a prescription for, for heaven’s sake. The new food is treat-sized, however, so even now, after two years of eating this “new” food, Sable still picks up one piece at a time from her bowl and spirits it off to another room for consumption.

Lassie she is not.

And then, of course, there’s the licking. The Curmudgeon understands that animals lick their fur because it’s a form of grooming, but Sable licks her dog bed – actually, she’s a bed-hopper who has beds in three different rooms in the house, which allows for a whole lotta lickin’ – and she also licks her… bottom.

How intelligent can an animal be if it licks its own..well, you know?

Yet there are still other signs of intelligence. Simply utter the word “walk,” for example, and she goes, well, hog ape-shit wild, running and jumping and spinning in circles. You can’t say that word under any circumstances because she zeroes in on it immediately and goes nuts. When she got wise to “walk” The Curmudgeon and Mrs. Curmudgeon adopted an alternative to “walk”: “stroll” – as in “Are we going to stroll tonight after The Blacklist?”

Well, after using “stroll” for a while Sable eventually figured out what that means, too – and you can tell because her ears perk up with excitement when you say it. She then gets out of her bed and heads excitedly toward the front door.

Striking a pose

So that seems like intelligence.

But if you say “cable,” “table,” “Mabel,” or “able” those ears also perk up because she thinks you’re talking to her. The Curmudgeonly Sister, an elementary school teacher whose academic minor was special education, has suggested that this is a form of a learning disability.

So The Curmudgeon and Mrs. Curmudgeon realize they are going to have to develop new euphemisms for “walk” because “stroll” no longer masks intent until a decision is made to stroll. The term du jour is “Enjoy the great outdoors,” and we are wondering how long that will last before we need to change it again. And even though both Mr. and Mrs. have decent vocabularies – the speed with which Mrs. Curmudgeon completes the New York Times crossword puzzle is dazzling, alarming, and even, The Curmudgeon must confess, a little arousing – we are eventually going to run out of synonyms and euphemisms for “walk” and will need to start using terms completely unrelated to the process of putting a dog on a leash, taking it outdoors, and encouraging it to do its business on the neighbors’ lawns.

One evening recently The Curmudgeon began riffing, as he is wont to do on occasion – surely you don’t have trouble imagining this? – about the wholly unrelated terms that might be used for this purpose and somehow landed on “Juicy Fruit.” At that moment The Curmudgeon’s stepson entered the room, heard the term, and shyly suggested that he thought it was being used in his presence as a surrogate for an entirely different kind of activity: one between two consenting adults who feel a specific type of physical affection for one another.

At that point the conversation ended – but neither Mr. nor Mrs. Curmudgeon will ever think about the act of chewing gum in quite the same way again.

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Comments

  • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On February 22, 2018 at 5:49 pm

    Ha! Methinks you love this dog as much as Mrs. C does!

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