Yesterday's thick, low clouds brought an early dusk and perfect weather for observing wildlife. I hoped to track down an albino raccoon I'd glimpsed a few days ago, so when I noticed a smear of white moving along the margins of the field, I edged closer for a better look. My dog, Otter, followed. She’s almost eleven years old and her eyesight isn't what it once was, but we both identified the animal as a skunk at roughly the same moment. Otter barked, then I barked out her name in almost an identical tone. She frozen instantly, alert and poised but still glued to my side. I did an about-face, spoke sharply -- "Otter come!" -- and together we retraced our trail through the head-high goldenrods.
I can't claim any credit for Otter's display of canine restraint: years ago she was "skunked" in the face at point blank range and ever since that day Otter has gone out of her way to avoid an encounter with a skunk.
The majority of dogs realize that certain animals may bring physical pain to them, and most dogs will try to steer clear of these animals. A few dogs, however, seem to lack an instinct for self-preservation: despite numerous negative experiences, they still refuse to exhibit avoidance behavior. I once lived with such a dog: in her ten years of life, she was "quilled" by porcupines on at least twenty occasions. Five of these were so severe that she had to be sedated in order to remove the quills, which in each instance numbered into triple digits.
I've been told that a dog will continue to attack porcupines despite the quills because pain makes the dog angry and this anger overrides the sense of self-preservation. Having observed my dog during these attacks, I don't believe that the emotion she was experiencing was anger: a more accurate word might be hope, or determination. She knew that porcupines had bested her in the past but she seemed to think that maybe, if she just played her cards right, she might actually be able to come out of this particular encounter as a victor. She never did, of course, but she never did stop trying, either.
It would be easy at this point to label that poor dog -- Ivy was her name -- as "not the sharpest knife in the kitchen drawer," but despite her blind spot for porcupines Ivy was -- hands down -- the most perceptive dog I've ever lived with. Several of my friends insisted that she could read their minds. I think that her uncanny ability to understand and interpret human behavior arose from a heightened awareness of body language and probably extended into sensory areas such as smell that are inaccessible to us. I always trusted Ivy's assessment of people: if Ivy didn't like someone, I'd avoid that person like the plague.
Dogs have different intelligences and different ways of manifesting these intelligences. My current dog, Trooper, is the first male dog that I've lived with, and his mind seems to function in an entirely different way than any other dog I have known. A psychologist might diagnose Trooper as obsessive: his entire purpose seems to focus on the act of retrieving. For him retrieving takes precedence over everything else in his life: when he's let out after a day's confinement in the house, he insists that I toss a stick for him before he'll visit the bushes to relieve himself. If given the opportunity, Trooper will retrieve well into the night: when it's too dark for him to use sight, he'll rely on scent to find the object.
Because Trooper concentrates so much of his energy toward fetching, it's not surprising that his intelligence manifests itself primarily in the act of retrieving. This intelligence took on an amazing form when, at the age of less than one year, Trooper learned to count to ten.
I know, this sounds like some kind of crazy story that only a doting dog lover would believe. But Stanley Coren in his book THE INTELLIGENCE OF DOGS wrote about another dog, also a male Labrador retriever, who demonstrated a similar ability to count. The dog in Coren's book, like Trooper, counted during the act of retrieving.
When Trooper was a pup, we realized that if we didn't set limits on how many retrieves he could receive at one time, he would quickly drive us -- and anyone else in the vicinity -- crazy with his demands. One of the first phrases that Trooper learned was "one more" -- as in "You are going to get one more toss and after that we're going in." Trooper always responds to “one more” with an immediate, sharp bark -- his acknowledgement that this is going to be the last retrieve of the throwing session.
I tend to be a creature of habit, and soon Trooper's retrieving sessions fell into a consistent pattern: nine tosses, the "one more" command, the bark of acknowledgement, and the final retrieve. But after a month with this sequence of events, a change began to take place: Trooper's bark of acknowledgement would now come BEFORE I had the chance to utter the words "one more."
I wondered about this "premature barking" -- the dog was obviously anticipating the last toss but I couldn't figure out how he could know that the end of the session was coming. I tried varying my body position, my tone of voice, my throwing style and direction. The results were consistent: he continued to bark as soon as he’d drop the ninth retrieve at my feet. I couldn't think of any other explanation: the dog had to be counting the number of retrieves.
I broached the subject to my husband. A logistician, he immediately scoffed at the notion that a dog -- actually still a pup -- could possibly be counting. I told him to try ten tosses and see what happened. As he had with me, Trooper barked as soon as he'd returned the ninth throw. We brought in an independent third party -- our neighbor -- and the results were the same. I lowered the base number of tosses to seven: after two weeks, Trooper was barking when he'd finished retrieve number six. When I lowered the number again, to five, it only took Trooper four days to figure out the new system. The deciding factor that proved to me that Troop was actually counting these retrieves was that sometimes he would miscount. About ten percent of the time, he'd either bark at the end of the eighth retrieve or he wouldn't bark at all, which to me indicated that he'd miscounted the other way. But his ability to keep track of the number of retrieves was remarkably accurate -- for a dog.
Notice that I use the past tense when referring to Trooper’s counting. He's eight years old now and hasn't anticipated a "one more" signal for several years. I don't know if this means that he's lost some of his mental sharpness as he's aged, or if maybe what he's lost is the desire to number events. Perhaps with age he's discovered the joy of living each moment fully instead of anticipating the inevitable end. Maybe -- like Ivy the porcupine fighting dog -- in his heart now he harbors the hope that one day he will "win" -- and the current throwing session will continue for as long as he has the strength in his legs and breath in lungs to retrieve.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources