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Over Easy: Are Dogs as Smart as Their Owners Think They Are?

  • (Shawn Braley illustration)



For the Valley News
Friday, November 23, 2018

Recently, the New York Times strayed from the daily trauma of our national politics with a piece provocatively titled, “Your Dog May Be Smart, but She’s Not Exceptional.”

Oh, yeah? Tell that to Lassie, or Rin-Tin-Tin, or any of the can-do canines awarded the title of “Wonder Dog” through the decades. It’s a long list. A quick online search turns up Tippy, Zoey, Darla, Buster, Rocky and even Taco the Wonder Dog.

But scientists aren’t swayed by that sort of thing. A study published in the journal Learning & Behavior insisted that dogs don’t outrank other animals in “canniness and intelligence.”

I’m not sure how they are so certain. Dogs are not burdened with SAT prep in their puppyhood, and don’t fret about cognitive decline as they age. No sudoku puzzles for them; they just nap more in their dotage, which shows a certain wisdom.

Researchers compared dog smarts with those of wolves, cats, chimpanzees, dolphins, horses and pigeons. Most of them are scarce in West Lebanon, so my observations are limited. Pigeons, to my eye, seem second-rate, content to idle on phone wires as they gossip. From afar, chimps seem quite smart, but they sometimes fling excrement, which makes me doubt their emotional intelligence.

Cats are plentiful here, and it is no insult to dogs to say that cats are at minimum their equal. They won’t wear funny hats without complaint or retrieve anything unless it’s their own idea. It’s said that a dog likes a job; cats are their own bosses.

From what I’ve seen, dogs can seem pretty bright at certain moments but then dumb as rocks, which they might try to chew. We once had a sweet dog, Muffin, who was not aggressive at all, very nearly a pacifist. Yet for some reason she would merrily chase skunks. She was sprayed at least three times, and I don’t think she took any lessons from it, other than it was my job to clean her up.

Dogs can be easily manipulated. Tell them there’s a caravan of cats approaching from Mexico, and dogs will lose their minds, growling, barking, running in circles, even though it’s a rare dog who knows much geography. To them, Mexico is just down the street, a clear and present danger.

When I was a kid, I fully believed in canine exceptionalism. Lassie the TV collie, as described by scriptwriters, was more responsible than any of my friends, and far more useful in an emergency. If someone yelled “Lassie, get help!” she did not fail. There were no diversions to sniff trees, chase cats or roll in rotten things.

In an emergency, the dogs I have lived with would have been, at best, confused. Get help? They would have run 10 feet in the direction in which I pointed, then stopped. At best, they would have located a tennis ball and dropped it by my limp body as I succumbed to a rattlesnake strike. Some help.

Times readers came to the defense of their dogs. One man said his dog’s superiority was clear. “He gets me to do whatever he wants,” he wrote. A woman agreed, offering her own take: “My dogs have trained me throughout the years. Two ex-husbands have tried and failed.”

Recently, while visiting coastal Maine during off-season, when seagulls and old people dominate, I saw a man who had high regard for his dog. “Please behave, Molly,” he said as they stood outside a shop in Ogunquit. The owner did not tug on the leash. Apparently Molly was acquainted with etiquette and needed only a reminder. Who doesn’t like a dog with manners?

Even dogs’ names suggest change. Many years ago, they typically were called Spot or Rover, both lacking gravitas. These days top dog names, according to dogtime.com, are Bailey and Max for males, and Bella and Lucy for females. The appellations are familiar and affectionate. But dogs are not named Euclid, typically, or Ptolemy. There are limits.

Whether or not dogs are tops in brainpower, they have a special status. When I reflect on the changing role of pets over my lifetime, I find it remarkable. Some years ago, when the idea of a dog park was first promoted locally, I exclaimed, “The whole Upper Valley is a dog park!”

This is their world, as the saying goes, and we are just living in it — and providing food, cleaning up, praising them, fretting about their maladies and moods, etc., etc.

When I was a lad, dogs were allowed to roam and cats were as replaceable as brake pads. But now, our culture is pet-centric. I see many dogs leading people on walks in West Lebanon, much more so than a couple of decades ago. Dogs make guest appearances in stores, planes, the front seats of cars, even the laps of drivers. So far surgeons and Supreme Court justices don’t bring their dogs to work, but I don’t know how long they can hold the line.

In the end, I think dogs’ real genius is their ability to read humans and connect with them. As families trend smaller, companies lay off people to plump up profits and Twitter replaces actual talking, loneliness afflicts the nation. We too are herd animals, but our herds have dispersed.

Still, there is one forever-faithful creature who will reliably stand, or sit, by your side.

He will think you are brilliant. Propose an afternoon walk and he will say, through body language as expressive as a dancer’s, Great! Wonderful! The Best Idea Ever! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! You are amazing! You are astounding!

No wonder people think dogs are so smart.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.