the ethical life

Richard Kyte: Dogs are much smarter than we might think

2012-11-04T00:30:00Z 2013-06-27T10:03:46Z Richard Kyte: Dogs are much smarter than we might thinkBy Richard Kyte | La Crosse La Crosse Tribune
November 04, 2012 12:30 am  • 

“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.

The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(7) Comments

  1. Lefty
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    Lefty - November 04, 2012 1:19 pm
    Why must you always put a negative spin on everything, Napoleon?? You must be a real pain to live with. Or perhaps no one will live with you because of your obnoxious and poorly written narratives. Grow up!!
  2. pheasant
    Report Abuse
    pheasant - November 04, 2012 11:04 am
    I might add that Butterfield pretends he does not understand the point I have put forward. Now we are back to honest, and 'Ethical'.
  3. pheasant
    Report Abuse
    pheasant - November 04, 2012 11:03 am
    Richard, when do we vote on your intellect. Butterfield, you still cannot give opinion on the County Executive Board and the School Board for example negotiating pay benefits with a majority of WRS Employees of their spouses. Even though asked numerous times. Negotiating in ALL our behalf across the table from Brother WRS Recipients. Talk about 'Bite'? LOL!!!!

    Let me give you an example- There is man who lives just south on 162 off of Hwy 33. His yard is full of broken internal combustion machines. But I will put his intellect/intelligence/and teaching ability above most of you and those at your respective insititutions. Oh Yeah, and he is as honest as the day is long. 'Ethical'

    I agree your articles need some "bite"?
  4. got2hunt
    Report Abuse
    got2hunt - November 04, 2012 10:59 am
    Butterfried I believe you have missed the point. This is not being a vagen but more to the point it's about us and the way we treat the people in our lives. Dogs just have a way of bringing the better parts of ourselves to the fore. Rick you need to change up the picture of youeself , something like a fishing or hunting vest over and olive shirt.
  5. greatgeneration
    Report Abuse
    greatgeneration - November 04, 2012 8:16 am
    Wonderful piece, Rick. How true that dogs are smarter than we think. Our relationships with them is a true test of our character. Sociologists have shown that a strong predictor of whether someone will be an abuser of people is how they treat animals as children. My wife and I are the grateful companions to two rescue dogs who delight us all the time. We often wonder what we talked about before we started adopting dog companions. And yes, their other essential task is to get us out for walks, which is central to my health, especially as I grow older.
  6. B Butterfield
    Report Abuse
    B Butterfield - November 04, 2012 5:51 am
    Professor Kyte, you've got a PhD in ethics, and a full column to fill every month, so why not put a little bite into your dog (and other) stories? Why not risk provoking a little debate, or god forbid strong feelings, by going all the way with this argument and standing up for animal rights? We know dogs have feelings, hopes and fears because we live with them, but pigs and cows are every bit as smart as dogs, and the way we treat them is highly unethical. We need our ethicists to hold our feet to the fire, not to serve us Sunday morning pap along with our bacon.
  7. Napoleon
    Report Abuse
    Napoleon - November 04, 2012 2:15 am
    Richard Kyte: "Dogs are much smarter than we might think"

    My dog is the smartest dog in the whole wide world: he bites anyone who votes Republican. If that isn't canine genius, I don't know what is.

    Does your dog bite?
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