Doggy Dog World

How smart is your dog? Plus: Animal emotions, the pet craze, and what's the link between dogs and wolves?

Dog Smarts

I was hoping my dog would act as my ears, but what's the reward in that?

Who can resist writing about their dog? My favorite interview, of many I gave when "Shouting Won't Help," my book about hearing loss, came out, had nothing to do with hearing loss and everything to do with dogs. And coffee.

Coffee With a Canine. It’s a fun web site and you can read about many writers’ private lives with their dogs, which tells you a lot about many writers’ private lives period.

I know nothing about dogs except what I experience living with them, usually sequentially. I’m monogamous when it comes to dogs. Maxwell, my three-year-old Tibetan terrier is inarguably the best bred dog I’ve ever had. After 15 years on an asthma inhaler with my previous dog – a shelter mix of ambiguous origins – I realized I had to go the hypoallergenic route, and that meant a breeder, with credentials.

But what I really learned is the value of nurture over nature. Max is well bred, but his breed is notoriously difficult to train. He would, if he could, have my husband and me at his constant beck and call. I came to Max after 25 years of childrearing, and I knew the value of discipline, consistency, love and rewards. My kids are good, and so is my dog.

Our previous dog, Pepper, came to us after four or five years of neglect, from the local animal shelter. He was affectionate and loving but deeply needy. His neuroses about being left alone were too strong to allow him to exercise his native intelligence about what would lead to the most rewarding behavior from his owners.

Maxwell, our Tibetan, came to us at 10 weeks. He’s good at tricks. If my husband had his way, Max would be in the circus, but that’s because he knows that that’s what pleases my husband and gets Max rewards. I couldn’t care less about tricks but I do insist on his sitting in the elevator, on polite walking on the leash, and on coming when I say so. So Max does those things, not because he’s by nature obedient (which I suspect he’s not) but because he’s smart enough to know that that’s the behavior that will get him treats and hugs and kisses.

My blog is about hearing loss, and I have to admit that dog behavior is a long way from the subject at hand. But one reason I got Maxwell (and he is my dog, not our dog – my husband wants that very clear) is that I wanted a companion I wouldn’t have to listen to. Because I have severe hearing loss, even with hearing aids and a cochlear implant, every conversation with a human is an effort.

But dog talk – yes, I can do that. I’m responsive to body language – in humans and in dogs. A bark falls within the frequency range I can hear best, and because I hear so little in general I’m able to pay closer attention to it. I know the bark for “get me water,” for “food!” for “someone’s coming up the driveway!” for “those two big threatening Akitas are down the block and I have to get ready to defend you from them.” (Lucky about that last one, since it always warns me in advance to take a detour.)

As for being my ears, he helps. He barks at anyone coming up the driveway, on foot or in a car. He barks madly and ferociously at real or imagined animals around the house at nighy (a weekend house, pretty isolated); this is less welcome. I used to assume he'd wake me up in the event of a fire but I realize now how stupid that assumption was. Instead I bought a smoke alarm meant for those with hearing loss. It picks up the signal from your smoke detector and starts bellowing "Fire! Fire?" at a very low frequency, which many people with residual hearing can detect. It also shakes the bed, a lot more vigorously than a Magic Fingers. 

There are assistance dogs for people with hearing loss, but they are specially trained, like dogs for the blind. Max is not that, and I don't want him to be. Those are working dogs. I want a pet. 

How do we measure dog smarts? Dogs did not discover relativity or chaos theory. What makes them smart is their ability to get the most out of the hand that was dealt them. Or the hand that feeds them. Isn’t that true of all of us?