Posts Tagged ‘Dogs’

Without a Dog

Being a writer, and a dog fancier clean to the bone, I appreciate a good story about canine behavior and the influence dogs can have on people.

That’s why I was so taken by a recent essay in Bark Magazine by Katherine Goldberg, a veterinarian in Ithaca, New York. Goldberg wrote about Sydney, a female pooch she rescued in 2006 from a garbage dump in Bucerias, Mexico.

Although now thoroughly acclimated to being a house pet, Sydney is quite self-sufficient, as you can imagine a former street dog would be. So, when Sydney ran off one day in September — disappeared, lit out — Goldberg set out anxiously to find her — but wasn’t too concerned about the dog’s well being.

However, a few days later, with Sydney still missing, Goldberg’s anxiety began to escalate. She undertook an all-out search. She posted missing-dog flyers. She set traps baited with food.

The experience had a greater impact on Goldberg than she expected. She later wrote this about her feelings during the time Sydney was on the run:


Days four and five were scenes of increasing despair and decreasing function. Overwhelmed by calculations of how many years it had actually been since I’d lived without a dog, and preparing myself for that new reality, I was raw and just plain lonely.

We take for granted the presence of a dog — even a quiet one who doesn’t do much and isn’t very soft.

Until there is no dog, it is hard to imagine how much space one actually occupies just by curling up on a small circular cushion that L.L. Bean calls a bed.

Without a dog, there’s nobody to check in with, out of the corner of your eye, just to feel a sense of “you and me, we are both here now” — a sense that, as it turns out, is pretty damn important.

Without a dog, days have less structure — no going home to let the dog out, or feed, or tend to — and while structure doesn’t always equal meaning, I think that with a dog, it does.

Without a dog, being one person in one space is surprisingly lonely. With a dog, there is connection.


Yes, the story had a happy ending. Sydney reappeared at the door of a nearby residence — dirty, but healthy and well-fed, thank you very much. This is how Goldberg described her great relief:


One glass of red wine later, breaking my firm “no dogs in the bed” rule, I buried my face in Sydney’s dirty coat, speckled with vegetation and ticks, and breathed her in. It was the first time in five days that I was alone in my house without being lonely.

As I write this, Sydney is sleeping on her bed after a thorough brushing, tick-picking, and bath. I wish I knew what she was thinking, but I suppose that is one of the mysteries of dogs.

I breathe more deeply knowing that the air in my home is full of dog-ness once again, but I have no idea how we can love them so much.

All I know is that I will probably love her more now that she is outfitted with a GPS device on her collar.

My dog Paco, grabbing a few mid-morning z's. The print is "Master Bedroom" by Andrew Wyeth.

My dog Paco, grabbing a few mid-morning z’s. The print is “Master Bedroom” by Andrew Wyeth.

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The short story below cries out for an introduction laced with puns about dogs. I will resist that temptation and allow the tail itself to do the talking.


Just Call Me Irish

By Richard Wilson
Published in Future Science Fiction, June 1958

The housing development near the university was newly finished. Salesman John F. (“Call Me Happy”) Horman had waited a week for the tenants to become settled before making the rounds with his sample electric rat trap and his order book.

He began at the southwest corner of the project and knocked at the first door. As it opened Happy went into his spiel. Toward the end of his second sentence, he skidded to a stop in the middle of a syllable when he realized he was talking to a dog. A female dog.

Happy was confused. “Is your master in?” he asked.

“Just a minute,” said the dog.

The door closed and Happy stared hard at it. Then it opened again. A larger dog stood there. “What can I do for you?” asked the larger dog.

“This is ridiculous,” said Happy. “When I asked that other dog if her master was in, I meant the master of the house, not her master.” He consulted the list of names of the families who lived in the project. “I was looking for a Mr. Setler.”

“Setter’s the name,” said the dog. “They misspelled it. I’m the master of the house. Is there something I can do for you?”

“I don’t know.” Happy Horman took off his glasses, wiped them, replaced them on his nose, replaced his handkerchief and looked at the large reddish animal in the doorway. “This is very strange. Are you a talking dog?”

“Obviously.” The dog swatted a fly with his tail. “Are you a talking man?”

“Why — yes.”

“Then why don’t you say something? Are you with the housing project? Because if you are, I wish you’d do something about the sink. It leaks. And my son Whiffet is getting tired of lapping up after it. Besides, I think it’s undignified.”

“Mr. — ah — Setter,” said Happy, mustering his faculties, “I represent the Ohm Electric Rat Trap Company. Our slogan is ‘No ‘ome should be without one.’”

He laughed emptily. “I think you’d be interested in a little demonstration I’d like to make for you. That is, I think you’d… ”

The door opened wider, and the dog who had first spoken to Happy appeared. “Irish, dear,” she said, “will you please come in or go out? The kennel’s getting cold.”

“House, Maureen, not kennel.”

“House, then. But why not ask the gentleman in?”

“Yes, won’t you come in, sir?” said Irish. “If you don’t mind the place being somewhat littered.”

Happy went in and sat on the edge of a normal wooden chair. He looked around with interest but so far as he could see the furnishings were those of an average dwelling. It did not look at all like a doghouse, though it unquestionably was a dog’s house.

Irish curled himself comfortably on a couch while Maureen excused herself, saying it was time the younger whelps were fed. “I’ll be glad when they’re weaned,” she said. Happy Horman blushed.

“Mr. Setter,” Happy said, “please forgive me if I seem curious, but just how — that is, why, uh — how come you’re living here?”

“Why not?” Irish said. “I’m eligible.”

“But I thought these houses were set aside for veterans?”

“I’m a veteran,” the dog said. “Want to see my honorable discharge from the K-9 Corps?”

“Oh. But you have to be a student, and you have to be married, I thought.”

“I am married, sir,” Irish said in a hard voice. “You don’t think I’m just living with the bitch, do you?”

Happy coughed in embarrassment. “Please, Mr. Setter, I meant to imply no such thing. But how can you be a student? At the university, that is? I realize that we’re all students of human nature, heh heh, you especially, of course, being a — a canine.”

“Dog is good enough. No need to get hifalutin. Would you like to hear the whole story?”

“Why, yes, I would.”

“It began about 1949,” Irish said, settling himself more comfortably. “My master (before I became my own) was Professor Neil Wendt, the big nuclear physics man on campus. Or should I call him the nuclear physics homo sapiens?” he asked archly. Happy laughed hollowly.

“I don’t fully understand, even now, what exactly Wendt was doing but I was his constant companion, his dumb animal friend. Then one day, as I reconstruct it, I was affected by radiation and when Wendt called me I said ‘Coming.’ Just like that. I don’t know who was more surprised, Wendt or me.

“After some preliminary confusion we sat down and talked the thing out. We found that we could be of considerable help to each other. I suggested a few improvements in his equipment, having had a dog’s eye view of it from underneath; though actually it made little difference because in a few weeks the Atomic Energy Commission took the whole thing over.

“In the meantime he went with me to the dean and with a little coaching I was able to pass the examinations and was awarded a bachelor’s degree. You a college man, sir?”

“Er, no,” Happy said.

“Um. Well, later, when I was working toward my master’s I realized there were more important things than books. I refer to the Korean War. So, as any red-blooded American dog would do, I enlisted.

“The K-9 Corps is a fine organization, in its limited way, and I was very quickly promoted to sergeant. But the caste system! Absolutely unfair. I had heard about openings in Officer Candidate School and inquired about them. My first sergeant laughed at me but by dogged persistence I got to see the regimental commander.

“He was sympathetic but had to refuse my application. Said there was nothing in the ARs about it. What a welter of dogma those army regulations are! So I was forced to finish out my army career as an enlisted dog. True, I finally made master sergeant — though they claimed it was stretching a point for a dog to become a master — but my hackles still rise when I think of the indignities I suffered under the myth of racial superiority. What a blow to one’s pride to be forced to write ‘animal’ opposite the word race, when almost everyone else was able to write ‘human.’ ” Irish glared so at Happy that the salesman winced.

“But that’s all over now, Mr. Setter,” Happy said. “And now you’re back at school. What field are you in?”

“Anthropology, of course,” Irish said. “But we’ve talked enough about me. What was it you had to show me, sir?”

“I really don’t think you’d be interested,” Happy said. “It’s something you certainly would have no use for. You see, it’s a rat catcher, and surely you of all ani — er, of all people, wouldn’t –”

“Well, I don’t know. I don’t see why not. I suppose you might argue that I’m perfectly capable of catching rats myself. It’s true that I’m still a young dog, but I don’t have the time for sport that I used to. Suppose I take a look at your model.”

Relieved to be in action again, the salesman rose and plugged in the cord of his electric rat trap. With a rubber rat he demonstrated its possibilities.

“Well, I’ll be doggoned,” Irish said. “Maureen, come in and look at this gadget.”

The female dog (as Happy preferred to think of her) came in. She also marveled at its efficiency.

“Let’s get one, Irish,” she said. “It’ll save us an awful lot of work.”

“I think I will,” Irish said. “If you’ll make out an order for us, sir? That’s fine. Just put the pen in my teeth and I’ll sign it. There.”

Happy handed over the receipt, discreetly wiped the doggy saliva from his pen and prepared to go.

“Drop in any time,” Irish said. “You might like to come in some evening and tear a bone with us.”

Happy forced a chuckle. “You’re quite a wag, Mr. Setter,” he said daringly, and was relieved when his customer broke into a barking laugh and closed the door after him.

Happy Horman took several deep breaths of air, then turned back to look at the house. No one was visible behind its windows. He looked at his order book. There was the bold signature: I. Setter.

He shook his head, shrugged and went to the next house. He knocked. A fat young man opened the door.

“I beg your pardon,” Happy said, “but is your dog in?”

Irish setters

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My dad was a career military officer, and his lot in life was packing up and moving on. Which meant it was the family’s lot, too.

In 1960, after a tour of duty in Germany, Dad was transferred to Atlanta. We were back in the States and within a day’s drive of our relatives.

A few years earlier, when we shipped out to Europe, we had left behind the family dog, Pudgy, a delightful little black and white mutt who mostly belonged to me. We left Pudgy in the care of my grandparents, Leila and Frank Byrd.

Leila and Frank lived in Suwanee, just north of Atlanta. Silly me, I assumed I would get my dog back after the tour in Germany was over. It didn’t happen. Pudgy had become Frank’s dog, and that was that.

But Dad had a friend, who had a friend, and one day, Dad brought home a new family dog: a majestic adult male Alaskan Malamute named Timber Trail Kimo.

Kimo had it all — the papers, the lineage, the demeanor, the grand appearance. He was a magnificent animal. Dad even mused, with dollar signs in his eyes, about hiring Kimo out for stud.

Although regal in bearing, Kimo was 110 pounds of pushover. He was amiable, quiet, never any trouble. When my baby sister Betty climbed on his back and yanked at his fur, Kimo endured it without complaint.

When Kimo joined the family, we lived in a rented house in an Atlanta suburb. Kimo seemed content with a small fenced back yard and life as a house dog. Everyone was surprised that he adapted so well.

That year, while I was off at college, Mom and Dad purchased some acreage in Suwanee not far from Leila and Frank. A new house soon went up, and the Smiths began a new life in exotic Suwanee, Georgia.

Kimo blossomed in the new environment. He loved the freedom of a 3-acre pasture for a front yard. He joyfully chased small critters through the woods. For Kimo, Suwanee was dog heaven.

Although the house was inside the city limits, it was quite remote, surrounded by forest in all directions. And Kimo was not restrained. He might follow my brothers to the bus stop, then snooze on the patio for a while, then disappear into the woods for an hour. Always, he reappeared before anyone wondered where he was.

However, as the months passed, one hour turned into several hours. And slowly, it became routine for Kimo to be absent for much of the day. Not always, but regularly.

Mom and Dad were a little uncomfortable about it, but not enough to put Kimo on a rope or in an enclosure.

Then came the Piglet Incident.

One day in the fall, Dad purchased a young spotted piglet. Dad’s intention was for the little thing to grow up to become bacon, pork chops, fatback, and ham.

Over the years, the Smiths raised a succession of porkers. They all had names, were halfway to being pets, and ultimately, ended up stocking the family freezer.

But the spotted piglet resided at the Smith house for only about two minutes. The pig broke free from Dad and sped away at full speed, squealing in panic. Kimo took off after him.

It was over in a heartbeat. The mortally wounded piglet had to be put out of its misery.

Although Dad had lost his investment, he tried hard not to blame Kimo. Kimo acted on instinct, Dad said. The dog couldn’t resist fleeing prey. It was a freak occurrence.

Instinct, it probably was. A freak occurrence, no.

At some point that year, Mom and Dad heard that Kimo had been seen a few times roaming the woods with a group of other dogs. Most of them, like Kimo, were local pets that fell together in a loose-knit pack. They were just dogs enjoying life. There were no reports of trouble.

That came soon enough. On various occasions, the dogs were seen overturning trash cans, barking at livestock, treeing cats, and chasing dogs that weren’t part of the pack.

For a time, Dad kept Kimo restrained, and fewer stories surfaced about the roaming pack. Which meant, most likely, that Kimo had been its leader.

The conclusion was unavoidable that step by step, Kimo was undergoing a metamorphosis: he was leaving his humans behind and being drawn to the wild. Looking back, I think it was inevitable.

After Kimo had been restrained for a few weeks, Dad decided that maybe the roaming thing was in check. Kimo was allowed more freedom. All seemed well.

Then, suddenly, Kimo was gone for good.

The Suwanee pack wasn’t seen again, with or without him. But a few months later, a newspaper in Forsyth County, on the other side of the Chattahoochee River, reported that a pack of dogs was on the loose there.

The pack was led by a large dog, wolf-like in appearance. And this time, the pack was involved in serious wild-dog stuff.

At various times, the pack attacked pets, broke into a chicken coop, and menaced a farmer. The sheriff’s office and some local men were searching.

We heard about the pack a number of times after that, most notably when the dogs isolated and killed a calf.

For a long time, the pack stayed ahead of the authorities. Eventually, the stories faded away.

My guess is, the pack leader — and surely it was Kimo — finally was killed. I can’t imagine another explanation.

In addition to his fascinating story, Kimo left behind another legacy.

For 10 years after Kimo came to Suwanee, half the dogs born within 25 miles had his distinctive coloration and physical characteristics.

Timber Trail Kimo.

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Testing My Volunteer Spirit

After my chat with the boy on the hillside, Paco and I continued north along the new section of the Swimming Deer Trail.

About 50 yards beyond the houses, the trail ends at a graded area that slopes down to one of the branches of Sandy Creek. In the wetlands, Sandy Creek has multiple channels.

Ahead was a long row of red marker flags. They stretched in a long curve across the graded area, over a branch of the creek, across a narrow sandbar, over another branch of the creek, up a hillside, and out of sight.

I studied the scene for several minutes, trying to picture the boardwalk following the curve of the flags. Then we turned around and headed back toward the car.

All was quiet when we passed behind the row of houses on the bluff. The boy was gone.

A long time later, about 10 minutes from the trailhead, I heard voices ahead on the trail. I got out Paco’s leash and hooked him up.

(The park requires dogs to be leashed at all times, but that’s a silly rule.)

Soon, four hikers came into view, chattering happily. The group consisted of two 30-something women, a 30-something man, and in the lead, a wiry older gentleman. It was Walt Cook.

I’ve encountered Walt four or five times over the years. We’ve met on local trails a time or two and chatted briefly. A few years ago, we spent a morning working together on a trail maintenance crew.

Walt is a pleasant, friendly fellow, and I always recognize him. But he never remembers me. Or Paco, for that matter.

Each time, when he introduces himself anew, I take no offense. I find it sort of amusing, even endearing. After all, Walt is busy, important, and 80-plus years old.

“Hello,” said Walt when the four hikers reached us. He smiled and extended a hand. “I’m Walt Cook.”

In his other hand was a bundle of red marker flags. I smiled and shook his hand. “I’m Rocky Smith. This is Paco.”

Paco, tail wagging, had assumed his self-taught, belly-to-the-ground position. One of the women cooed and petted him.

The second woman backed away slightly. While being scratched and petted, Paco looked up at the second woman with a Border Collie stare.

Paco has a very intense stare, but it’s benign. The woman didn’t know that.

Standing back as far as the narrow trail allowed, she observed, “Why do they always focus on the person who’s afraid of dogs?”

“Mr. Cook,” I said, “This trail is a whole lot longer than it used to be.”

Walt allowed as how that was true. He said they were on their way to the boardwalk site to place the final marker flags.

Wow, I thought, they’re hiking the trail instead of driving to the neighborhood on the bluff and walking 30 yards. I was impressed.

Walt spoke earnestly, but as usual, showed no sign of recognition. He took his turn petting Paco, but didn’t seem to remember him, either.

A few minutes later, Walt and his friends had continued north, and Paco and I were almost back to the car.

Both of us were tired. In the past, patrolling the Swimming Deer Trail required an out-and-back hike of six miles. From now on, the out-and-back is going to be almost nine miles.

Walt and the parks people are sorely testing my volunteer spirit.

Paco leads the way on the Swimming Deer Trail.

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Not Enough Black

In my last post, I introduced Walt Cook, retired University of Georgia forestry professor, greenspace advocate, and trail-builder extraordinaire.

For decades, Walt has designed and built high-quality hiking trails throughout the region. Athens is Walt’s home, so trailwise, Athens gets a lot of his attention.

Last year, Sandy Creek Park was in the news because of talk about building a boardwalk across the wetlands where Sandy Creek flows into Lake Chapman. The project had been going nowhere because of the high cost.

Then an anonymous donor (anonymous to the public, but probably not to the insiders) offered to pay half the cost of building the boardwalk — half being about $160,000.

Being rational people, the mayor and the council moved quickly to accept the offer before the donor reconsidered.

However, the parks department people politely tried to slow the project down. They favored a boardwalk along the shore of the lake instead of inland through the wetlands.

The free money, however, was contingent on building a wetlands trail.

In a last feeble attempt, the parks people noted at a public hearing that extending the Swimming Deer Trail through the forest to the location of the boardwalk would cost $40,000.

Walt Cook, the trail-building man, now in his 80s, but sound as an oak, stood up. He announced that he had already marked the best route for the trail, and he offered to complete the construction at no cost.

The parks people gave up. The council approved a trail and boardwalk through the wetlands.

Late one morning about two weeks ago, Paco and I drove to Sandy Creek Park to do our monthly duty and patrol the Swimming Deer Trail. We parked at the trailhead, and for the next hour, proceeded up the trail. It was a weekday. We had the trail to ourselves.

Three miles out, when we reached the customary end of the trail, I could see that Walt and his crew had been busy. The trail no longer ends there, but continues down a long slope into a ravine, up the other side, and out of sight.

I wasn’t sure how far the new trail went or how long the hike would take us. But no way could I resist finding out.

The new stretch of trail, I discovered, not only continues all the way to the site of the future boardwalk, but except for blazing, is completely finished and ready for foot traffic.

The trail is level and dry, winding easily around the hillsides and staying 10 feet or so above the wetlands. The area is under a canopy of hardwoods. Several small streams flow down to the lake. Fingers of the lake reach inland here and there. Truly a beautiful setting.

Eventually, we came to an area I knew about, but had never seen: a small residential neighborhood deep in the woods that backs up to the park property.

The homes there were built years ago at the end of a remote rural road on a bluff above Sandy Creek. Nowadays, from their back porches along the bluff, the homeowners look down at park property and a new hiking trail.

In several back yards, shiny new NO TRESPASSING signs faced the trail. No one was in sight. Quietly, we continued past the houses.

Then from the hillside above me, a kid’s voice said, “Hey, mister, what kind of dog is that?”

I looked up to see a boy, about age 10, looking down at me. He was sitting cross-legged under a large tree in his back yard. He had the familiar accent of a local fella.

“Mostly Border Collie,” I answered. “He herds like a Border Collie.”

“He don’t look like no Border Collie.”

“I got him from Animal Control. He may be a mix.”

“He’s too white. Not enough black in his coat.”

“Well, Border Collies come in all patterns and colors,” I said. “Even red.”

“I never heard of no red Border Collie.”

I decided to change the subject. “You got a dog?”

“She’s in the house.”

“What kind of dog is she?”

“We don’t know.”

“What’s her name?”

“Maggie. She’s old. Older’n me.”

“His name is Paco,” I said. “He’s getting old, too.”

The boy went silent. The conversation was over. Paco and I continued down Walt’s new trail.

More about the Swimming Deer Trail and Walt Cook in my next post.


Google Earth image of the wetlands above Lake Chapman.

Section of boardwalk on Cook’s Trail.

Paco (mostly white, mostly Border Collie) on the Swimming Deer Trail.


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“I have a sweet tooth, and sugar makes me hyper,” said my granddaughter Sarah, age four, out of the blue.

Sarah and I were seated side by side in folding chairs outside the garage at her house. Facing us in another chair a few feet away was her sister Maddie, the seven-year-old, busily writing a lesson plan. We were playing school.

At the time, I was grandkid-sitting while Mom and Dad were Christmas shopping.

“Actually,” Sarah continued, “I have two sweet teethiz — one here and one here.” She carefully touched the dimple on each cheek by way of illustration. “That means I get twice as hyper.”

I nodded solemnly. “Wow, you have two of them,” I observed. “Do your parents know?”

“Yes, they know. They told me about it.”

“All right, class!” Maddie interrupted. “Settle down! Everyone take your seats!” Sarah looked over at me and shrugged.

“Today, we’re going to learn about caring for pets,” said Maddie. She spoke with a robust, effortless air of authority, having been schooled, as it were, in proper classroom procedure for lo, these several years.

Sarah also played her role correctly, for the same reason. I did my best to follow their lead.

Using a stuffed dog as a prop, Maddie demonstrated the correct way to pick up, hold, pet, and feed your pooch. Then she had us repeat each lesson, to prove we were paying attention. We were, of course, graded on our performance.

Next, Maddie administered an oral quiz, beginning with me.

“Rocky, name five breeds of dog,” she said, holding her pad and pencil at the ready.

Ha, I thought, this is too easy.

My dog Paco is a Border Collie, so I said, “Number one: the Border Collie.”

Maddie wrote on her pad, then looked up. “Okay, that’s one,” she said.

Maddie and Sarah also have a dog — a Treeing Walker Coonhound named Lola. “Number two: the Treeing Walker Coonhound,” I said.

Maddie wrote that on her pad and looked up. “You have two points so far. Go ahead.”

“The Miniature Schnauzer,” I said confidently.

She looked up in surprise. “The what?” she said.

“Miniature Schnauzer,” I repeated.

“Never heard of it,” she replied. “You now have two right answers and one wrong answer.”

“Hey, no fair!” I said. “The Miniature Schnauzer really is a breed of dog, honest. I can’t help it if you don’t know that.”

“Okay, new rule!” she said. “Name five breeds of dog that I’ve heard of!”

Indignantly, I said, “Bishon Frise!”

“Wrong again. Now you have two right and two wrong. If you get three wrong, you fail the test.”

“Okay, okay, let me think.”

Hmmm, I mused, Maddie is a smart kid. She must be familiar with all sorts of dog breeds. I just have to choose wisely.

When she was younger, her other grandparents had a couple of Dachshunds. “Okay,” I said, “Number three: the Dachshund.”

“Good,” she said, writing on her pad. “Now you have three points. Next.”

My brother Lee is partial to Chihuahuas. “The Chihuahua,” I said — and immediately feared that Maddie might not know what the little things are called.

But she did. “Correct again,” she announced. “And number five?”

By then, the names of all sorts of dog breeds were swimming in my head, but all were terrible choices — Shar-Pei, Malamute, Airedale, Lhasa Apso, Yorkie, Pomeranian. Why couldn’t I think of a simple, familiar breed?

Then, to my great relief, my brain unfroze.

We live just 20 miles from the University of Georgia, home of one of the most memorable, and to me, most mortifying slogans in the world of higher education: How ’bout them dogs?

“Number five: the Bulldog,” I said.

“That gives you five points. Very good,” said the teacher.

Before long, Maddie ran out of teaching material, so she turned the class over to Sarah. They traded chairs.

Sarah donned the mantle of authority as easily as Maddie had, although her lesson plan was less comprehensive. By then, however, the novelty was fading, and the class broke up by mutual agreement.

Five minutes later, we were lined up on the couch watching Blu and Jewel face off against the evil Nigel in Rio.

Sarah and Maddie with Lola the Treeing Walker Coonhound.

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Defining intelligence is frustrating because although a testable definition may elude us, we feel we know intelligence when we see it.

— Biologist and author Sonja Yoerg


I know intelligence when I see it. I get to observe my dog Paco every day, and I’m here to tell you, he is one smart pooch.

I bring this up in the context of the age-old question: which animal is smarter, the dog or the cat?

In my biased opinion, dogs are smarter on average than cats. Not better; just smarter.

I reach this conclusion because when I look into a dog’s eyes, I see cognition and awareness. In the eyes of a cat, I see a dimmer bulb. It may as well be a reptile or a bird.

Cats can interact with people warmly and affectionately, no question, but it seems to be on a more primitive, emotional level, not intellectual.

When you point at something, most dogs understand that you want them to look in that direction. Some dogs even use their own gazes to get YOU to look at something. Other animals, even monkeys, never do that.

I did an experiment with Paco recently to test, in my own amateurish way, just how clever and observant he is.

When Paco is indoors and ready to go out for a potty break, he usually approaches and fixes me with a “border collie stare” to get my attention. This is his way of beaming the thought into my head.

When I become aware of this, I get up and head for the door, with Paco scrambling to get there first.

Normally, to get outside, I use either the back door or the garage door. Paco waits for me to commit to one door or the other.

For the experiment, I stood up, went to a point between the two doors, and without committing, simply stared back at him.

Finally, without turning my head, I cut my eyes toward the back door. Instantly, Paco took off in that direction.

The next time I set up the experiment, I cut my eyes toward the garage door. Paco knew immediately what that meant and bolted in that direction.

His habit now is to take his cue from my glance. If he’s too far away, or the light is dim, I point.

That story, I readily admit, is pure, cherry-picked, anecdotal evidence.

The scientific evidence about cat and dog intelligence breaks both ways. In fact, science hasn’t officially made a call one way or the other.

Recently, I read about a study at the University of Michigan that tested the memories of a group of cats and dogs. According to the researchers, the cats in the test group performed significantly better than the dogs.

Being a dog person, I bristled when I read that. How could cats, haughty and disdainful creatures that they are, score better than the noble dog?

But they did. In the UM study, the dogs were able to remember the location of a hidden treat for up to five minutes. The cats remembered the location for up to 16 hours — longer than monkeys and orangutans.

Some cat lovers jumped on the memory study as evidence that cats are more intelligent than dogs.


Remembering the location of the treat is impressive, but it doesn’t prove superior intelligence.

Cats excel in many things — agility, self-defense, self-sufficiency, stalking, stealth. They are models of adaptability and efficiency.

But that doesn’t equate  to intelligence. Sharks and crocodiles are well-adapted and efficient. So are snakes and spiders.

The thing is, cats and dogs are so fundamentally different that we can’t find a reliable basis for an apples-to-apples comparison.

Like us, dogs are hard-wired to be social creatures. It benefits them to interact and cooperate. The nature of the pack is to work together.

Cats, as solitary hunters of small prey, don’t have that social imperative. Thus, dogs relate to people, and cooperate with researchers, and make good test subjects; cats do not.

Then there is the huge difficulty of defining intelligence itself. The brain is still a largely unknown organ. Scientific testing is difficult and iffy.

When I read about the UM memory study, I figured it was time to read up on the latest thinking — pun intended — in brain research and intelligence.

Why would I suddenly want to do science research? Well, as a journalism major, I received a rather shallow formal education in the sciences.

But wouldn’t you know, I discovered after college that the sciences — natural and social, from astronomy and physics to history and psychology — interest me greatly. Today, that interest is like a hobby.

But back to the research.

Decades ago, the experts concluded that intelligence is not a single thing, but an array of things. This concept is called the theory of multiple intelligences.

The theory says that humans manifest intelligence in eight specific categories.

(1) Linguistic intelligence — “word smart”
(2) Logical-mathematical intelligence — “number/reasoning smart”
(3) Spatial intelligence — “picture smart” (ability to visualize with the mind’s eye)
(4) Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence — “body smart” (ability to handle objects skillfully)
(5) Musical intelligence — “music smart”
(6) Interpersonal intelligence –“people smart” (understanding others)
(7) Intrapersonal intelligence — “self smart” (understanding yourself)
(8) Naturalist intelligence — “nature smart” (awareness of nature and its patterns)

This theory only addresses human intelligence. But if you apply it to dogs and cats, it underscores how they, like us, differ in strengths and weaknesses.

For example, dogs, as social animals, likely would score higher in (6). Cats, as nocturnal predators, probably would excel in (4). You get the idea.

The logical question from that exercise is: which animal, dog or cat, would have the higher average in the eight categories?

I have an opinion on that.

But what do I know? I’m a journalism major.

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