Monday, February 06, 2006

Smart Dogs, Dumb Choices

When we first moved to Chicago, we participated in urban apartment life for 5 years before packing it in for the Western Suburbs’ siren song of cheaper housing, safer streets, and actual backyards. During those first five years, I wanted a dog but we lived in apartments with no-dog policies. I’d never had a dog growing up and dreamed about what my dog would be like.

My first choice, for a long time, was a golden retriever puppy whom I’d name Douglas but I’d call him Doggles. In my daydreams, it always came out of my mouth like DOGGLES!, causing a frenzy of tail-wagging and cute-puppy antics. A girl and her dog – the most perfect Hallmark made-for-TV movie you’ve ever seen.

My daydreams soon got boring and frustrating, so great was my desire for a dog of my own. I did the next best thing – I volunteered at an animal shelter. I started out as a dog bather/walker and worked my way up into the vet clinic. As part of their initial entry into the shelter, every animal got a full vet check to assess its health and temperament. As a vet assistant, I…well…assisted with these exams and sometimes with other duties in the clinic, like cleaning cages.

Although the work was sometimes heartbreaking, I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about animals and about the veterinary profession. I got to see hook worms under the microscope and watch the neutering surgery of an enormous German Shepherd. I learned a lot about dog breeds and temperaments, which I put to good use when we were ready to get our own dog.

The puppy fantasy went right out the window. There would be no DOGGLES! for me. Puppies are as much work as babies and they don’t wear nappies, which makes them even more inconvenient than babies. Sure, they’re cute and all, but I knew we didn’t have time for housetraining and separation anxiety and full-scale obedience work.

My favourite vet at the shelter always used to joke, “When I get a dog, the first requirement is that he’s not smarter than me.” Smart dogs are much more work than dumb dogs. I know that some people prefer smart dogs, but I think a lot of people are uninformed about what smartness really means in dog terms.

For dogs, smartness has little to do with an ability to learn. It has everything to do with the dog learning and complying with what YOU want him to learn. Intelligence is found in breeds like herding dogs, who were bred so that a farmer could trust the dog to make decisions about when and where and how to move a herd of sheep or cows.

Herding dogs are among the smartest breeds and, as a result, often end up having rough lives in urban areas. A herding dog needs a job, needs to make decisions, needs to size up situations. A herding dog who spends all day in an apartment can go seriously nuts.

When I set out to find my first dog, I knew exactly what I wanted – a big, dumb dog. I found him – a Great Dane-lab mix named Kodiak. When we moved over here, my parents very graciously adopted Kodiak and he’s living out the rest of his days happily trying to sneak onto their furniture. My dad thinks that Kodiak’s ability to try to get on the furniture makes him smart. I think it just makes Kods a lazy dog of leisure.

A regular dog doesn’t really think about much beside his next bowl of kibble or next ear-scratches. A smart dog thinks thoughts that are dangerous for a dog. Thoughts like:
  • Let’s see what will happen if I chase the cat.

  • A hole in the fence…let’s see where this goes.

  • I think I know how to open the refrigerator, it’s just going to take a little bit of effort with my pointy nose.

  • Still not sure what a smart dog is all about? Then check out Jon Katz (yes really) and his excellent book about his adventures with a headstrong border collie – A Dog Year.


    At 8 February 2006 at 02:04, Blogger Career Guy said...

    So your father was a cat person. Be sure to bring that up in group. It could explain a lot.

    Kodiak learns what he wants to learn, like every time I come up from the basement, there's a chance, albeit remote, that I will have a greenie hidden in my hand. Thus, he keeps an eye on my trips to the nether regions.

    I'd liked your 'smart dog' definition.

    At 8 February 2006 at 16:50, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

    I miss having a dog.

    At 10 February 2006 at 23:26, Blogger Fence said...

    Isn't it strange how some people think all dogs are pretty much the same. Our first dog was a collie, and she was smart. Too smart for her own good probably.

    The dog we have now is a mutt, a mix between a labrador and a dalmation. He isn't as smart as the collie, but if there is food in the equation he'll figure out what he needs to do to get it :)

    At 12 February 2006 at 21:03, Blogger -Ann said...

    Dad - You can be a cat person, so long as you're a Kodiak person.

    Jack - Me too. Peter's promised me that when we have a place of our own, we can have a pack of dogs.

    Fence - Lab-dalmation sounds like a good mix. I don't know about here, but in the States, there was a huge problem with Dalmations after the Disney movie. Everyone wanted one and the puppy mills went mad with the in-breeding. I like a good mutt though - you can't beat cross-bred vigor.


    Post a Comment

    << Home