What a dog knows and what it tells us about ourselves

Our canine companions can be more intelligent than we might think.  They know a lot of things, from their family to the layout of their homes, to the functioning of doors and gates, to their daily routine.  They can tell the difference between themselves and other animals including us.  They can also eat themselves to death.  What makes them so smart and so oblivious and what does it have to do with us?

It might not always be obvious, but dogs know a lot, usually more than they are given credit for.  For starters, dogs have excellent memories.  They instantly recall people and places even years later, at least a decade.  A roommate of mine had an adorable Jack Russell Terrier, aptly named Jack.  After he moved out and I ultimately bought a townhouse, I hadn’t seen Jack in close to ten years, very late in a canine’s life, but he knew me without question, the second I walked into the house he jumped around in that distinctive terrier way as excited to see me as ever.  Dogs also know the difference between family, friends, and strangers.  It’s unclear precisely how, but our aging treeing walker coonhound reacts completely differently when an Amazon delivery truck pulls up or a contractor knocks at the door than when it’s a friend or a family member, even someone they haven’t met.  The delivery man is treated like an armed intruder, deserving of the utmost suspicion, and a high-pitched, almost seal-like bark you can hear around the block.  The bark is never ending until the suspicious person exits the property.  Lily can keep it up for hours on end.  If one of these poor souls should enter the house, she might well snap and she has nipped a person or two.  The friend or family member, even if unknown, is offered a far less skeptical welcome.  She might be inquisitive.  She might bark a bit, but there is an underlying excitement without the fear of snapping.  It’s gotten to the point where my wife and I ensure Lily is sequestered upstairs if anyone is working in the house, but we still properly introduce her to guests and she quickly becomes comfortable with their presence.

Dogs also maintain a detailed map of their domain.  They know their homes, their yards, and everything within and without.  They have their favorite spots, often based on the time of the day.  Lily spends the early morning upstairs, and then comes down to her doggie bed in my office until dinner.  During dinner she is, of course, under the table, and then most evenings are spent on the couch.  Our greyhound, Rose In Paradise, her official racing name from back when she was a professional athlete in Florida, has slightly different preferences.  She spends the early mornings up stairs as well, but then prefers her own doggie bed by the TV or the couch during the day.  At night, most of her time is spent on the couch, but she will usually make the rounds of the house around 9.30 PM.  Lily is attached to people, rarely in a room without my wife (her first preference), me (second preference), or another family member (third preference).  Rose is a tad more independent.  She can occasionally be found on a couch by herself, but even then she has her preferences.  The couch in the family room or the upstairs hallways are her favorite and you can often find her roaching there (if you are unfamiliar, roaching is when a dog sleeps on its back, legs splayed, named because it resembles a dead insect).  In addition, these mental maps of their home come with an understanding of doors and gates.  You don’t see a dog barking at a wall thinking they can get through, but they know that something is on the other side of a closed door and that a gate needs to be opened for them to pass.  They are also aware that they need the help of a human to open it.  They don’t bark at each other to get through.  They head to the nearest person and, in their own way, demand assistance. This demand of human assistance has been found through an experiment: If a wolf can’t solve a problem like getting at food, they keep working at it. A dog goes straight to the nearest person.

This knowledge of their own domains extends to different behavior within and without.  Lily is a lion within the area she considers her own, but outside she quickly becomes a sheep.  She’s a darling at the vet, demure, and pliable whatever procedure she is undergoing.  Before we moved to a more rural area of New Jersey, my wife used to regularly take her to the park without incident.  She knew where she was and she knew it wasn’t home.  Her protective instinct decreased and she became far more sociable.  This is true even if she’s only a few feet outside the yard.  Earlier this summer, I was in the backyard with Lily off-leash only to discover that my neighbors were also out and about.  One of them was working by their shed, which is a mere few feet from the edge of our property.  Lily immediately took off for the unsuspecting man, and though she is old, she can still run far faster than me, especially with the other dog on a leash.  For a panicked moment, I envisioned an abject disaster.  There’s not much that can spoil relationships with your neighbors faster than a canine attack.  My second thought was how to possibly explain this to my wife, who is something of the leash police to prevent precisely these kinds of incidents.  I imagined the look in her eye, the one that women reserve for husbands that simply can’t follow basic instructions, slightly disappointed accompanied by a unique combination of surprised and not surprised.  Fortunately, I was saved from my own negligence by the invisible line in Lily’s mind.  There is no fence and no marker, but she knew where the property ends, and proceeded to race right up to the point of no return.  Then, she planted herself and spent a few moments barking at him furiously, don’t you dare cross the line, or else.  When I arrived and crossed the property line myself to say hello, she waited a moment, then finally approached demure as ever.

Some dogs even have a concept of their “possessions.”  Lily has never been interested in toys, but Rose can be more playful and she has acquired an arsenal of objects all her own.  I like to joke that the dog has more possessions than some people:  Two beds and a basket full of toys.  She doesn’t, however, pick up anything she can find.  She never tears up a pillow or something random, or perhaps I should say “rarely” to be precise.  Somehow, she knows which items belong to her and plays with them almost exclusively.  Interestingly, these toys include more than one type of item.  She has regular stuffed ones and those that make a noise when she bites.  I have no idea what prompts her to choose between the two, but when a noise-making one breaks, she is “aware” it’s no longer making the expected sound and stops playing with it.  If only she knew where the garbage was, other than when there was a bone on top, waiting for her to pilfer it should she figure out how to open the lid – which of course she does, more often than my wife and I would care to admit.

There is also a keen sense of their routines, the things they do on a daily basis and the time at which they do them.  Rose wakes up at the same time almost every morning.  She proceeds immediately to my side of the bed, sticks her long greyhound snout over, and waits for me to pet her until we get up to take them out for their morning walk.  Lily is older and crankier.  She’s up at the same time, but remains in bed until it’s clear there’s actually a walk in the offing.  Then, she arouses herself and follows along.  After her walk, my wife usually has a muffin for breakfast.  Both dogs are both back up in the bedroom, in position, for a piece after she’s finished.  Incredibly, neither of them eat in the morning anymore.  They used to, but when we got Rose their schedules were slightly off.  Lily used to eat around 8.30.  She’d get a little anxious beforehand, but would usually wait until the appropriate time.  Rose, however, was up and about an hour earlier.  Somehow, this prompted Lilly to “realize” breakfast could be moved up.  At first, it was 7.30.  Then 6.30.  5.30.  4.30.  3.30, and so on.  Finally, she would get in bed, and then get right back up, barking until she was fed.  Now, we feed them both before we go to bed.  Lily followed the same pattern with her after dinner treat.  She used to enjoy the rawhide roll around 9.30, but then she started barking at 8.30.  Now, she barks immediately after dinner until the treat is in her mouth.  Rose is a bit more laidback.  As a greyhound, she’s supposed to sit still for 15 minutes after she eats, and we feed her in her crate.  She waits there while Lily eats, but once Lily starts barking for her treat, Rose is up in the crate ready to be let out.  She then circles over to the laundry room where the precious nuggets are stored, doing a little happy dance in expectation.  Nor is feeding the only routines a dog knows:  I mentioned the different spots at different times of the day, but they are also aware of when they are taken out and have some limited awareness of human routines, especially when they’re broken.  Both dogs act quite a bit differently when my wife and I are not around.

The words a dog knows are a bit trickier to determine, even more so for dogs that aren’t as well trained as we might like.  Rose and Lily both know their names, of course.  They know it’s time to go out.  They know “treat.”  I think they know it’s time for bed. Rose even appears to know the word “popcorn,” which she loves and effectively vacuums up from the kitchen floor.  Otherwise, it’s difficult to tell.  Sometimes their ears seem to perk up, others not so much.  Either way, I don’t think anyone expects dogs to start talking anytime soon.

At the same time, there’s no doubt that canines are incredibly smart creatures, in some ways more advanced than even their human owners, especially for an animal that can eat itself to death, doesn’t know the shape of its own body or that it has a tail, and can’t solve a problem that requires more than one step.  This is where the differences between us and them really begin to become clear.  Dogs have many of the same mental faculties we do, excluding of course the capacity for language.  They have excellent memories with a high level of detail, memories they keep with them for years.  They maintain complex maps of their domains.  They differentiate between inside and outside, theirs and someone else’s, people, canines, and other animals.  Rose for example is not surprisingly obsessed with rabbits.  She hunts them in the pool area, much to their dismay and has assembled a confirmed kill count that would make an experienced sniper blush.  On a side note, she was scared of the pool area after she accidentally fell in last year.  Now, she knows rabbits might be there and it’s her favorite outdoor spot.  Otherwise, they know which things open and close, and which don’t.  They can follow a schedule, better than some people I know and without the aid of a watch.

These are all things that we would consider a part of our own intelligence, but what they cannot do is apply them outside of their immediate needs or consider what they mean for potential, future circumstances.  In a word, they cannot think.  Their memories and what they see as the rules of the world are there when they need them, when they are triggered by an internal or external stimulus, but they aren’t structured in a way independent from that experience.  We can summon a memory at will, play with it, apply it to the future, reflect on it, ponder whether things could be different, worry over it, feel guilty over it, feel happy about it, and more.  They have simply the memory as it is.  For them, memory is a tool to be applied when needed.  For us, it’s an exploration, to be undertaken in new contexts and to generate new ideas.  We are, of course, aided in this by language.  The ability to separate word from object, and further manipulate the word itself.  It seems likely that this advance in our mental capacity is the starting point for everything else.  Once an object can be manipulated in the mind, awareness of the nature of the object and the world around it including yourself and other people naturally follows.  These are the tools required to think.  If you combine language, awareness, and thought, curiosity cannot be far behind.  Curiosity begets experiment.  Experiment begets learning.  Learning leads to civilization.  Civilization leads to technology.  Technology today defines us.  Of course, dogs do not know or care about any of this.  They can’t tell rich from poor, beautiful from ugly, thin from fat, or anything else save for kind versus cruel, and that more than anything else might be why we love them so much anyway. They do, after all, rule the world.


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