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TideWriters Tales
I Could Have Told You That
By Jean Keating

    Last week’s headlines screamed out the news that “dogs are smarter than previously believed.” I hope this startling revelation didn’t cost me too much of my tax dollars. Paying a bunch of ‘behaviorist’ some hundreds of thousands of monetary tokens to conclude what most of us pet owners could have told them for free does not impress me.

    I certainly would have gladly informed anyone who’d listen that dogs think, reason and act on their reasoning. Indeed, it seems to me that dogs’ only exhibited stupidity is in putting up with the arrogance of human pronouncements of superiority based on the tiresome ‘we build fires and have a spoken language’ dodge. Dogs recognize human speech as well as animal communications. And they read body languages and thoughts as well. If you think not, just try to find one when you’re planning a trip to the vet, or get out of the house alone when you’re going to the drive-through chicken place. And I’ve yet to hear of a dog who destroyed 300,000 acres of forest by starting a fire.

    I already suspected that dogs reasoned things out and planned their responses accordingly, long before I met a little three-month old named Spice. It started with another Papillon puppy. I stupidly named him Mischief Maaca—pronounce that ’ maker’. So he decided that if he had the name, he might just as well have the game, and went from one prank to the next his whole life long.

    Mischief was a lap dog, a bed dog. His role was that of companion. He and his mother shadowed my feet wherever I went if allowed to, or waited patiently in the entrance way for my car to bring me home again. For eleven years he slept quietly beside me, sharing my pillow, being careful not to disturb my rest until my breathing and movements signaled I was awake and ready to begin another day with him and his mother. Until the late evening hours on a night his dam developed breathing problems.

    So what is a little five-pound bundle of fur supposed to do when his dam goes into congestive heart failure and needs the help of a human? First off, he had to reason that a human’s help was necessary. Then he had to awaken the nearest human. Now awakening me right after I’ve gone to sleep is no easy task. A fierce thunderstorm won’t do it. An earthquake or the roof falling in might. Mischief settled for standing on my chest and digging at the covers until he pulled them off me. He continued to dig until he finally woke me. At this point, he began tugging the collar of my pajamas in the direction of the pillow upon which his dam was struggling to breath. Only when I awakened sufficiently to respond with a “good boy” and to jump up, run around the bed, and begin examining his dam, did the little smartie back away and watch me work.

    So I already knew that the soft flowing fur and large butterfly ears covered an active, reasoning and sometime manipulative brain when I decided to bring little Spice into my home and life. Not wanting to make the four hour drive alone around the Washington beltway to Silver Spring to get her, I invited my friend Kathy to go along for company. While I’m wrote the check to adopt the three-month old, Spice crawled up in Kathy’s lap, looked my friend in the eye, planted a kiss on her nose and said, “You’re mine.”

    I brought little Spice home after dropping off my friend Kathy in Richmond; Spice cried all the way from Richmond to Williamsburg. Spice gladly responded to leash training, but would not walk around a show ring with her ears up unless her Kathy was on the other end of the lead. I fed, watered, cared for, trained her, but it was Kathy she waited day after day to see. Four months could pass between visits from Kathy, but each time Kathy was greeted with excessive tail wagging, ear waving and dancing feet. She ignored my existence completely. By Spice’s third birthday, I gave up on any plans that included Spice living with me. 

    Kathy and I consulted on Spice’s future, and concluded that a change of lifestyle was necessary—Kathy’s. Kathy sub-let her apartment that prohibited pets and rented a small home where she could welcome Spice to live with her. Spice walked away from my home and my life—she’d never been a part of it anyway in her way of thinking —with head and ears held high, ‘smiling’ at her Kathy all the way. I could almost ‘hear’ the reassuring dialogue, “I forgive you for taking so long to take me home, I know you’ve been busy.”

    When Spice decided that the family needed to expand, she picked out a beautiful 125 pound German Shepherd Dog [GSD]—who was already bonded to a reasonable looking and behaving human male—and proceeded to court them both. Two years later, Kathy married the reasonable looking human and Spice got her family complete with lovable and trackable Dutch, the GSD. Christmas pictures were a hoot with Spice attempting to mother and direct her blended family in seating arrangements.

    Dutch and Spice ate from bowls set side by side, the tiny dish of the Papillon and the huge bowl of the GSD looking almost comical in comparison. Each behaved with perfect table manners, avoiding any intrusion into the other one’s dish. Then in his twelfth year, Dutch became ill with a slow moving cancer. He lost interest in eating and would often leave his food untouched in his big bowl. On her own, Spice developed her own means of encouraging her friend Dutch to eat. She would go to his bowl and extract a single piece of his food from the dish, carry it a few inches from the bowl in a line between dish and wherever Dutch was lying and drop it, then go to Dutch and lick his face. If Dutch remained where he was lying, she’d go back to the dish, get a second piece of food, and bring the second piece a few inches past the first piece in the line toward Dutch and drop it, returning to Dutch to again lick his face. Toward the end of his life, Spice often spent the better part of an hour laying a food trail between Dutch and his bowl, each piece of the trail accompanied by her encouragement to the sick dog to get up and eat. For more than a year, it was her efforts more than anything else that would finally achieve a response from Dutch to eat his way along the trail of food back to his dish.

    No one taught her this behavior. She developed it on her own, as an attempt to help her aging, ill friend. The behavior stopped the night Dutch died. Though his food dish remained down and full of food for a few days after his death, because no one thought to empty it, Spice never again found reason to touch the food in that dish.

    I don’t need a government grant and ‘behaviorist’ to tell me dogs are capable of thinking and reasoning, capable of far more than learned ‘Pavlovian’ responses! Just watching and crediting them with the examples of their reasoning power will tell any of us that.

    Spice’s Kathy sends Christmas pictures still. They seem a bit empty without Dutch. I wonder what Spice is planning next by way of getting another dog into her family. 

© 2002 Jean Keating All Rights Reserved

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