My friend Deb is dog sitting her son’s 15 year old Boxer, Marilyn. Deb also has a 16 year old Fox Terrier named Ellie. Marilyn is a regular guest at Deb’s house and knows the house and the inhabitants very well. Deb talks to both dogs in a way I find terribly funny. They respond to her in ways that makes me think that dogs are even smarter than we already give them credit for.
One night this week, Deb was awakened by Ellie pawing at her arm and whining. This can mean that Ellie wants food or that something is wrong. Deb told Ellie “Lie down and go to sleep! You can’t have any treats.” yet Ellie persisted, so she told Ellie “Show me what’s wrong.” Ellie led her to the kitchen, where she found a horrible mess. All the lower cupboards had been opened and all their contents swept onto the floor. Peanut butter containers had been chewed open and the contents devoured. Marilyn has been known to do this before, but she can only open one side of the two-door cupboards. Both sides had been opened. This means that someone else (a certain Fox Terrier) helped open all the doors. Deb yelled “Marilyn, come here! You know you aren’t supposed to open the cupboards”! Marilyn came over and glared at Deb and blew out her dewlaps, and grumbled “row row row row row” the way Boxers talk, and blew out her dewlaps again. Deb told Ellie “You go in your bed!” and Ellie slunk to her dog bed with her tail down.
The next morning, Deb gave Ellie her favorite treat-two ice cubes, and Marilyn stole one. She chewed only half of it and spat out the other half onto the hardwood floor because her mouth got too cold. Deb didn’t see it and stepped on it. Deb was quite annoyed and told Marilyn “You pick that up and put it on the carpet if you are going to eat it!” Marilyn turned her head away from Deb in an insolent way and blew out her dewlaps. Deb repeated her command. Marilyn glanced at her, and again looked away insolently and blew out her dewlaps. After a third try, Marilyn picked up what was left of the ice cube and took it over to the carpet to finish it.
How did that dog know to take the ice cube to the carpet? That is a complex command involving at least two concepts. It isn’t something Deb says to Marilyn on a regular basis, so she didn’t learn it through repetition. Marilyn is usually a pretty sweet and compliant dog with Deb, but they have differences of opinion at times. I love hearing about their arguments. Deb says that she never wins because Marilyn always gets the last word by blowing out her dewlaps as she walks away.
How do you talk to animals? What would they tell you if they could talk to you?