“If you’re gonna train a dog,” my grandpa used to say, “you’ve gotta be smarter than the dog.” That’s easier said than done.
Mickey, our American Water Spaniel, was 5 months old, and we had just come home from hunting ducks. He was covered in muck from snout to tail and smelled like the Mississippi River bottoms.
“That dog needs a bath right now,” Cindi said as we stepped into the porch. “OK,” I said, “just as soon as I take off my boots.”
When I turned around, Mickey was nowhere to be seen. I looked all over the house, hoping not to find him curled up on a bed or sofa, but he wasn’t in any of the places I feared.
Finally I checked the bathroom, and there he was: standing in the tub, shaking in dread anticipation of the bath, an ordeal he hated more than anything.
How had he known what to do? We had only given him a bath in the tub one time, and we had not taught him any bath-taking commands. Had he caught just the one word, “bath,” and taken it as an order, or was he in the habit of listening to our conversations, trying to anticipate what we wanted him to do?
Invite a room full of people to share stories of dogs doing surprising things, and you’ll open up a conversation topic that could go on for hours. Such stories reveal how grossly we underestimate their intelligence.
Like the story my dad tells about a dog on their farm who liked to join in games of “hide-and-seek,” taking his turn as “hider” and “seeker” just like all the other kids. Nobody trained him to play the game; he most likely learned because the kids were too young to “know” that dogs could only follow simple commands.
One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is “Merle’s Door,” by Ted Kerasote. It is the story of a man learning how to live with an adopted dog, and in the process coming to acknowledge the richness of animal intelligence, character and emotion-attributes that philosophers and psychologists have long denied.
One hundred years of behavioral psychology has convinced many that to attribute character traits to animals is to be guilty of “anthropomorphism,” mistakenly thinking that animals can feel and reason just like people. But those who spend a great deal of time working with animals find it impossible to accurately describe dogs (or horses or dolphins or elephants) without speaking of the virtues and vices — such as courage, generosity, perseverance and spitefulness — that make each of them an individual with its own personality, sometimes endearing, sometimes frustrating.
The ethical challenge posed by animals is the same as that posed by people who are different from us in some significant way — the constant temptation to treat them merely as things (instruments, commodities, obstacles) and not as beings with intrinsic worth.
What we owe all animals is to treat them with the respect they deserve. The terms of that respect, however, differ with each species and can be discovered only by living in proximity with them and paying attention to their needs, abilities and characteristics.
In the case of dogs, that means, among other things, giving them something important to do, some role in the household economy, like taking their owners for a walk, or keeping the castle safe from intruders, or flushing grouse. (I have no idea what the terms of respect are for cats, except that it has something to do with allowing them their privacy.)
I can sometimes force my dog to do what I want him to do, but I cannot force him to be the kind of companion I want him to be. For that to happen, I have to humble myself, and become worthy of him, by granting him a meaningful place in my life-neither coddling nor abusing him.
To treat my dog with respect I have to learn to treat him neither as a person nor as a thing, but as a dog. To do that I have to unlearn the simplistic notions of animal intelligence prevalent in our society and instead concentrate on working out and then abiding by the expectations we have of one another.
Doing that successfully is a daily test of character, for both of us.