Are dogs dumb?

I think there is a pervasive tendency to consider dogs as being more complex than they really are.  Just as grandmas cannot help but brag about the fact their children’s children are by far the brightest, sweetest and most lovable people ever to exist, dog owners can’t help but overestimate the depth of their canine companions.  I don’t mean to sound disillusioned, but I think we should admit for a moment that dogs are actually pretty dumb.  It’s okay to say this to yourself; you can even say it right to your dogs face.  They won’t hold it against you.  Go ahead and try.  Just say “hey, Rover, you know you’re actually kind of dense.”  See? Rover doesn’t mind a bit. Or maybe he does, depending on how you said it.  Because, though dogs don’t actually speak English very well, they are incredibly observant of our behavior and moods.  If you had any animosity or scorn in your voice just now, ol’ Rover could tell. He could have even smelled the slight variation in your perspiration, hormone activity and any other bio-chemical corollaries to your agitation.  And if you really did insult him, then he is one very sad little being.  How could you?

Now tell him to go get a job.  Tell him to study his multiplication tables.  I bet he hasn’t. He’s just laying there wagging. Tell him to build a rocket ship and go to the moon. See, he can’t.  Dumb.  Yes it’s true that a Russian street dog named Laika was the first non-microbe to leave earth orbit, but she was only chosen because she was a stray from the streets and therefore tough, and also because, as a dog, she was deemed especially suited to long periods of inactivity. Very, very long periods, as it turned out, since poor Laika didn’t survive the trip.

Okay so maybe dumb is not the right word. Let’s say simple instead.  Dogs are simple.  Far from an insult, this is in fact recognition of one of greatest, most endearing qualities of man’s best friend: their straightforwardness.  Now every dog’s personality is unique, and some dogs (and even some breeds) are actually pretty nutty.  Trust me.  I get a mixed bag of breeds and a mixed box of nuts every day.  But in general, if there is any complication in a human/dog relationship, it’s a complication introduced by the more demanding species of the pair.  For unlike people, dogs don’t lie, they don’t flatter, exaggerate, resent, hold grudges, harbor regrets, entertain hypotheticals, hide agendas, pull punches, mix metaphors, niggle niceties or mask motives. They may not compose or perform symphonies (operas maybe) but neither do they typically start wars, steal elections, repress speech or cause, debate, deny and ignore climate change.  It’s just not their way.

Once I accidentally stepped on Homer’s foot.  Homer is very paw protective, so for him this was a big deal.  He yelped very loudly, and I felt awful.  But I think he recognized that it was an accident, and in my apologetic cooing and petting, all was quickly forgiven.  Or since dog’s don’t forgive (for if they could forgive, it would mean they could withhold forgiveness, and this implies a sophisticated capacity for sustained bitterness to which dogs are thankfully exempt), it’s better to say that Homer simply forgot the injury.  In fact he seemed extra happy at the sudden attention, and even relieved.

A while back I walked out a door with one of those pneumatic self-closing hinges, and it closed a little quicker than I expected and hit Poncho on the rump.  He jumped and then looked at me, and for a moment I swear his look said “hey, watch it.”  But of course it didn’t say that.  He doesn’t really understand pneumatics, nor the subtleties of ‘oops that was an accident.’  He looked to me not for an explanation or apology, but simply to ascertain how he should react.  He read my body language and facial expression, heard my soothing voice and was immediately put at ease.  If he looked and saw me snarling, he’d think I hit him on purpose.  I apologized, but it was already unnecessary.  As with Homer, Poncho’s forgiveness is implicit in our relationship, and given like a blank check to all minor offenses.  If I’d done it on purpose, he would have known for sure, just as Homer would have known if I’d intentionally stepped on his paw.  Both dogs would have then thought, hey, this guys a jerk and I’d better watch out. The only feeling I would have hurt would have been the general desire for self-preservation, including a natural tendency toward paw and rump protection and jerk avoidance. And who can’t sympathize with that.

When I leave a house after walking a dog, I always say little things like “bye buddy, be good” or “see you later Mr. Goof” or “good work doggyface.”  Honestly though, if I said nothing and just walked out the door, I think the pooch would feel exactly the same about me, the walk, and everything else. Dogs don’t really do goodbyes.  They just aren’t sentimental in that way.  They recognize patterns very well, and so if I ever dared walk out without giving Callie a treat, or having a nice cuddle fest on the couch with Sally, they might feel the absence of something they have come to expect.  I like to think that Bailey feels my absence, since I walked her almost every day for 8 months and then suddenly and with little warning her family moved and I stopped coming around. Does that mean she misses me? No, and I’d be guilty of anthropomorphizing her if I said that she did.  She would be very happy to see me again and she might dream about me in some simple doggy way, but she doesn’t long for things or people in the abstract they way people do. But she’s not a person, she’s a dog, and I should let her be a dog without burdening her pristine doggy mind with any human-type clutter and contradictions.  Dogs are wacky enough without taking on our own personal kinds of crazy.  They’re generous of spirit and thus pre-disposed to share our troubles, which I think is in large part why most nutty people (as in, most people) have pretty nutty dogs.  But a toothy grin is not a smile.  A wagging tail is no guarantee of contentment.  If your doggy is happy you’ll see it in their eyes.  You’ll know it like you know when it’s a sunny day.


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