Some dogs show more intelligence than most people. Or so their owners tell me.
Perhaps thinking of one’s four-legged best friend as brighter than one’s children — perhaps not one’s children, but possibly one’s in-laws — goes with the territory of being a dog owner. Much like people universally describing their driving skills or their children’s giftedness as better than average.
I don’t know if the “my dog is smarter than most people” phenomenon is universal to two-legged members of clan Canis. I do, however, know I am required by dog-owning friends to adjust my vocabulary in certain canine company. Forbidden words include W-A-L-K, T-R-E-A-T, B-A-L-L and C-A-T.
According to University of B.C. psychologist and canine-intelligence expert Stanley Coren, dogs can learn about 160 words. Exceptionally bright pooches can attain a vocabulary of about 300 words.
That canine vocabulary would put pooch at about the intellectual level of a two- or three-year-old child, says Coren. Or above that of a 20-year-old on the morning after a college-dorm party, say I. Or of a 45-year-old after a beer-swilling, chili-dog-snarfing sports-watching marathon.
Certainly, dogs have advantages over us so-called H. sapiens. Their sense of smell, for instance, permits them to discern things high-tech equipment passes by. Pooches can track scent over miles. They can smell emotion and stress. Some have even demonstrated they are able to sense if a person has cancer or an infection. Their noses know, and so we get to watch adorable beagles sniff luggage in Vancouver International Airport’s baggage-claim area.
Dogs also get away with sticking their noses where they don’t belong. Briefly.
You know where I mean.
Unbeknownst to us galumphing, oblivious humans, dogs secretly mark their owners, inducting them into clan Canis.
For instance, your dog determines in large part what microorganisms dwell on you. He shares with you, liberally and with utmost devotion, his own microscopic doggy-skin communities.
Call it another way of marking territory. Call it yet another way in which dogs, unique among pets, ignore species boundaries. You and Fido share skin flora to the same extent you and your spouse of 20 years do, and you have more in common with Fido, in terms of skin microfauna, than with all of non-dog-owning humanity.
Pooch blurs the pet-people boundary further by being tuned into your gestures and emotions. Imagine if your human partner hung on every word, facial expression, motion or grunt you made, waiting, waiting, waiting — now! — for your cue to speak or react, day in, day out, day after day, just as your dog does. Somebody would need to get a life. Both of you would need to get lives — separate lives.
Yet such unquestioning devotion from Fido is okay. For example, he will ignore all his usual doggy instincts, and pass over a larger, yummier plate of food in favour of a less-generous, less-appetizing one if you have enthused over it. That’s how closely he watches you and mirrors you.
Even wolves with little human contact read humans like open books. Like their domesticated brethren, wild-at-heart canines can spot a two-legged sucker in any crowd — the person most likely to yield to wide-eyed, perky-eared “I’m sooooo hungry for that cheese you’re eating” canine cues.
You know the ones I mean.
If dogs were humans, we’d be spending years and fortunes in therapy to break unhealthy patterns of co-dependency and manipulation.
Fortunately, dog are dogs. They exist somewhere in the space in our minds between people and pets, the space that permits us to engage in and benefit from our relationships with dogs.
We have bred dogs to be our pals. To be there for us. To adore us unconditionally. Day in and day out.
That has, in turn, enabled our canine companions to better monitor us, care for us and perhaps even manipulate us.
But then, maybe that’s what the smarty-pants had in mind all along.