Smart Dogs, Dumb Dogs

Occasionally you’ll hear someone talk about how smart their dog is.  The Brown Bear, for example, will rave about the intellectual abilities of standard poodles.  The Soccer Goalie will brook no argument that border collies are the smartest breed around.  And Russell argues that his dog Betty, who is not a purebred, is as quick-witted as they come.

hvrzriwAs for us — well, our Lab Dusty was well trained and seemed reasonably bright, and Kasey, our poodle, was clever.  Our Lab Penny?  Well, she was generally amiable if sometimes stubborn, and always hungry.

Those of you who are convinced your dog is the next animal Einstein might be disappointed to learn the results of a study published recently in Learning and Behavior.  It determined that “[t]here is no current case for canine exceptionalism” and, in reality, dogs are pretty ordinary compared to other “carnivores, domestic animals, and social hunters” like wolves, chimpanzees, and cats.  What’s more, dogs aren’t at the top of the charts when it comes to sensing human emotions.  The article linked above notes:

“Even more surprising, dogs do not appear to be exceptional in their ability to perceive and use communicative signals from humans. According to the domestication hypothesis, dogs have been bred to be especially sensitive to human cues such as hand signals. As Lea and Osthaus note, dogs can indeed use human cues. However, contrary to the domestication hypothesis, they are far from unique in this ability. For example, the reigning champions of the ability to follow human hand signals are the bottlenose dolphin and the grey seal.”

So why does everybody other than Lab owners think their dog is intellectually gifted?  It’s called the Lake Woebegon Effect.  Everybody thinks that they — and their pets, too — are above average.  The article notes:  “In a study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, researchers had 137 pet owners rate both their own pet and the average pet on a range of traits, including intelligence. The results revealed that the people rated their pets as above average on desirable traits and below average on undesirable traits.”

So, in all likelihood your dog isn’t a wunderkind.  So what?  They’re good company, they willingly will sport funny hats, and scientific studies also show that people who have dogs may enjoy health benefits from the companionship they provide.  Our canine pals may not be geniuses, but they’re good to have around.

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Treeless

I suppose you could argue that anyone living in a place called German Village should be required to have a Tannenbaum, but Kish and I have never had a tree here. My Grinch-like attitude is that, while Christmas trees smell nice, they’re really too much of a hassle to bother with unless you’ve got kids at home and lots of presents to stash under the boughs. I should add that the one memorable year when the family dog couldn’t resist trying to slurp water from the tree stand and repeatedly knocked the tree over, crushing ornaments that had been treasured heirlooms, crumpling presents underneath, and leaving the family room in our old house strewn with pine needles and glass shards, undoubtedly influenced my anti-tree sentiments.

But even if you don’t have a hulking, rapidly dried-out green object in your living room, you can still be festive around the holidays. Kish is good at adding the little touches that remind you that Christmas is just around the corner. Some snow-dappled pine cones, a Santa-themed holder for holiday cards, a few poinsettias and strategically displayed individual ornaments, and voila! –you’ve captured the Christmas mood.

And no risk of dog-related incidents, either.

Where Do Dogs Come From?

The New York Times recently published a fascinating article on ongoing research into the origin of dogs.  By collecting and analyzing the DNA of current dogs and the remains of their long-dead forefathers, scientists are hoping to determine when man’s best friend first appeared on the scene, and where.

When people have thought about the origin of dogs at all, they’ve assumed that dogs are simply domesticated wolves, first developed long ago when hunters shared food with wolves and trained them to become reliant on, and loyal to, humans.  Scientists now believe that’s probably not what happened.  They note that, although dogs and wolves are so closely related they can interbreed, there are important differences in their physiology and especially their behavior.  Some scientists now hypothesize that dogs were, in effect, self-selected, and some variation of ancient wolf began to follow tribes of early human hunter-gatherers because scraps of food were readily available, and became tamer and tamer in their interactions with humans because the friendlier wolves were much more successful in getting food and breeding — which is the ultimate key to evolution.

IMG_0548But where did the domestication process happen, and when?  Most scientists believe it happened 15,000 years ago, and the process was so rapid that by 14,000 years ago people were burying dogs, sometimes along with humans.  Others believe that dogs are much older and that the domestication may have occurred as long as 30,000 years ago.  As for where dogs first developed, the candidates range from Europe to Africa to Siberia.  To try to answer some of the questions, scientists are collaborating on a vast world-wide DNA collection process and are hoping that, if they assemble enough data, they may be able to trace origins and find useful clues to answer these questions.

They are important questions, and not just for the dog lovers among us.  (In fact, one of the scientists involved in the project, far from being a warm and fuzzy dog fan, contends that the modern house dog “may have evolved into a parasite.”)  The period of human evolution from 30,000 to 15,000 years ago is shrouded in mystery, but clearly something was happening as humans progressed from roving bands of hunter-gatherers to multi-family tribes that formed settlements, built permanent structures, grew crops, and eventually created the first cities and organized civilizations.  It is not far-fetched to speculate that the training and domestication of dogs, and their assumption of their familiar roles of protector, fellow hunter, and treasured friend, may have been an important part of that settling down process.  Those of us who have and love dogs certainly can attest that there is a strong bond between humans and canines and that, in many respects, the bond makes dog owners better people.

Where did Kasey, and Penny, and Dusty and George before them, come from, and how did their distant ancestors affect the development of human culture?  I’d like to know.

The Bone Burier

It’s interesting how dogs can be different.

IMG_0656Penny never met a rawhide bone that she didn’t want to immediately devour.  She would take it to a corner of the room, plop down, and use her paws and teeth to tear the bone to shreds and then consume it, with relish.  You didn’t know what Penny liked more — the pleasure of using her teeth to rip the bone apart or the full belly that she felt from gobbling down the wet and disgusting shards of rawhide after the destruction was complete.

Kasey’s beagle instinct, however, is completely different.  When you give her a bone she wants to go outside and bury it — right now.  And she wants to do it in secret, too.  Only Kasey can know where all of the bones are buried, and if she sees you spying on her she’ll grab the bone and pick a new spot, away from prying eyes.  Kasey seems to get multiple joys out of the experience, too.  She is a ferocious digger and likes nothing better than to put those claws to work sending clods of dirt flying.  And when the bone is safely tucked away she has the satisfaction of knowing that another bone is under the ground, secure and ready for later retrieval.

Interestingly, I’m not sure that Kasey ever digs up the buried bones.  She seems to get her enjoyment primarily from the burial job well done.

Post-Penny

We’re still in the adjustment period, of course, but we’re already getting a sense of what life will be like in our house post-Penny.

DSC04122There’s been a noticeable change in Kasey.  In the Penny era, Kasey had to eat her food immediately, because if she left anything in her bowl Penny would promptly chomp it down; now the dainty Kasey is happy to let her food sit for a while, aging like a fine wine, and might eat only a bit and leave the rest for later.  The dog anxiety level in the house seems to have dropped, too.  Penny always followed Kish around and would suddenly get to her feet and trot off as soon as Kish left the room, causing Kasey to bolt after her.  Now, without the Penny impetus, Kasey doesn’t seem to mind one bit if Kish is not in her line of sight.

The rhythms of the house have changed, too.  Penny was our canine alarm clock, whose voracious appetite ensured that no one in the house slept in past 5:30, and the official household greeter who wanted to get a scratch and pat on the head from everyone who came through the door.  I also thought of Penny this morning, when I noticed a stray crumb of bread on the kitchen floor from last night’s sandwich prep; Penny’s constant patrolling for any consumable item kept the kitchen floor spotless and free of all food debris.  And there are fewer scratches on the floor and dog hairs on the furniture.

It just shows that, when dogs are part of your family and household, they touch your lives in many ways, and you might not really notice all of them until the dogs are gone.

The (Last) Penny Chronicles

My name was Penny.

I’m not sure where I am now, but for some reason I don’t mind.  I was in pain, but now I don’t feel any pain at all.  My legs ached, and my belly hurt so bad I could barely stand it, and I couldn’t eat at all.  Now all of that is gone.

IMG_0323The last thing I remember is getting a big hug and a kiss from the Leader.  I will always remember the loving look on her face and how good that hug and kiss made me feel.  Then I closed my eyes because I was sleepy, and the pain was gone.  Everything was gone.  And I moved on to this new place.

I will miss the Leader, and Kasey, and the Young Masters who played with me and gave me treats.   I will even miss the old boring guy.  Poor Kasey will have to keep an eye on him now.  I hope that I will meet up with them all again some time.  But for now I feel happy and contented, like I’ve just eaten the best meal I’ve ever had. I feel warm, like a puppy in the sunshine, and protected, like I am still nestled against my mother’s fur.  I think I may find her here.

I am in a good place now, and I feel like I am moving and heading in some direction that will be even better.  I am eager to find out.

A Fond Farewell To A Good Dog

IMG_0909I’m saddened to report that we lost Penny today.  Her departure leaves a hole in the family and a gap at the top of the stairs where she liked to plop down and survey her domain.

Ultimately, a rapidly growing liver tumor got Penny, but she was a dog that always seemed bedeviled by physical problems.  She had arthritis in her legs, battled inflamed intestines, and was prone to ear infections.  We knew we had reached the point of no return when Penny’s primary raison d’etre — eating as much as possible as quickly as possible — stopped working for her.  At the end, she couldn’t keep food down at all, and when that happens to a Lab you know their time has come.

We got Penny when she was just a puppy.  Richard chose the name Penny because as a young dog Penny was copper-colored.  Her family nicknames were Pen Pal and Lug Nut.  She always had a quizzical expression on her face that made me chuckle, and she was a loving and affectionate creature.  For Penny, life was like The Simpsons song:  a stranger was just a friend Penny hadn’t met.  She never let her ailments get her down.

Penny was not an active dog; unlike our prior dog Dusty Penny didn’t like to run, or play fetch, or swim.  No, Penny’s interests lay more in just being a part of the family.  Next to eating, Penny liked nothing more than sitting on the couch to watch some TV and getting a hug from Kish now and then.  She followed Kish around the house like the children followed the Pied Piper and grew anxious if Kish was out of sight, even if only for a minute or two.  When Kish came back it was like Christmas and the Fourth of July rolled into one.

Penny was well-trained until her illness caused her training to fail her, and she was dutiful and faithful to the very end.  That makes her a good dog in my book, and we’ll miss her.