Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How to be a good conversationalist

I am a dog person. Not one of those kinds of dog people who believe that you can't be a dog person and like other animals. I have known a few (mostly cat people) who think you must choose one or the other. I used to have cats, and remember those days fondly-I still pet and cuddle the cats of my friends and family when I see them. But when I started being owned by dogs, it was all over. On Sunday, the New York Times Week in Review published an article called "Good Dog, Smart Dog" by Sarah Kershaw. She talked about how much we're beginning to understand about how much dogs can learn, and just how much smarter dogs are than we ever gave them credit for. At the end, Ms. Kershaw cited a Dr. Clive D.L. Wynn, psychologist of the University of Florida who said that we should be careful about comparing dog intelligence to human intelligence; dogs can learn quite alot, but have a different way of thinking than we do.

My husband and I have had four dogs in our ten year marriage. The first was a border collie mix who was a 9-11 rescue. From the moment he and I locked eyes I became his human. His name was Nestor, and he was brilliant and intuitive, but he also had severe separation issues, presumably from his time as an orphan of the 9-11 attacks, and he became increasingly aggressive and after several biting incidents had to be put down in April of 2007. I was devastated, and still get misty eyed when I think about him.

The second dog we got was intended as a companion for Nestor. She was a lab who was already six years old when she came to live with us. She was a gentle though dominant soul, and lived to be twelve. We lost her this past February. After we lost Nestor I thought we would be a one-dog home. I was so lost without Nestor, with whom I had been attached at the hip for more than five years-I just wasn't ready to bring another dog into the house yet. What I had not bargained for was how much Maddie grieved for him. She had been so dominant, I thought she would be happy to be an only dog. But she broke my heart-lingering to sniff at the places he marked (and yes, I do observe their behavior enogh to notice a difference.) I finally convinced my husband that we should get another dog to be a companion for Maddie. He wanted something smaller, so we agreed on a beagle. I watched a beagle rescue in Illinois, and we settled on a beagle-mix, named him Darwin. Darwin was a sweet dog, but so completely out of control that we still haven't been able to tally the stuff he destroyed-shoes, hats, electronics, anything he could reach. And whatever he was mixed with made him bigger than a regular beagle, so he could reach quite alot. He was also a master escape artist. Once I got our backyard fence secure enough that he couldn't go under it anymore, he started going over. But one he did that and his collar got caught on the fence, I was afraid for his safety and decided to surrender him to the rescue. I still wrestle with guilt over that, and feel like a terrible "dog mom" for giving up on him. I truly hope he found the right family that could channel his energy and keep him safe.

After Maddie died we weren't going to get another dog. We agreed to get a cat-less labor intensive, easier to leave alone, etc. But shortly after Maddie was gone I told my husband that I just didn't want to be a home without a dog. So I went to the local shelter, got there before they opened, and started walking through the kennels in the first building, thinking to myself, "It has to be a small dog, it has to be a small dog, but I could love any one of these guys." I think it was around the seventh kennel that I saw this scruffy little terrier pull herself to the door and look at me as if to say, "I think you're my mom." I said, "Yeah, I think so too." I later found out that Abigail had been brought into the shelter as a stray, and that the day I found her was the first day she was available for adoption. When I got her home, I couldn't believe anyone would not try to find this baby-she had obviously been worked with. She was already nearly housebroken, she knew a few basic commands, and she was a quick study on others. Even though they hadn't even bathed her or brushed all the burrs out of her coat, she was the perfect dog for our family.

I could describe the intelligence of our dogs in this way: When I am cooking, all the dogs like(d) to lie in the floor near the stove, in case anything accidentally dropped to the floor, and I would carry on conversations with them. Maddie, the lab, would like it me as if to say, "Ok, Mom, but could you pet me now?" Abigail, the terrier mix, will look at me as if to say, "Yeah, Mom, could you hurry up? I'm bored, and I want to chase squirrels and grasshoppers." Darwin, the beagle would look at me as if to say, "Whatever. Can I have some food?" But Nestor, the border collie would look intently at me as if to say, "I understand completely."

One thing that was suggested in Sunday's New York Times article was that what dog intelligence has given them is not a capacity to think and learn like a human, but perhaps the intuition to understand our signals and what it takes to please us. That sort of empathy is a great gift. I don't think any of my dogs would ever have given me a frying pan for Mother's Day as my husband did-they care too much about my feelings, and whether it is intuition or abstract thought that gives them this ability, it is extremely important. It has always been important to humans to feel understood.

So discussions about what dog intelligence really is may be irrelevant. Dogs and humans are irrevocably bonded-in the past, the survival of each species was dependent upon the other. I say, let's stop using human yardsticks to measure them against us, and just keep throwing new things to them and see if they learn. I'm almost certain we will continue to be surprised and gratified by the result.s

No comments: