Saturday, October 9, 2010


I just read an article on animal intelligence, learning a lot. An amazing bonobo (a primate similar to a chimpanzee) has an extensive vocabulary and can communicate complex ideas by pointing to symbols of ideas he has learned. For example, he named kale by pointing to two visuals he knew: Slow and Lettuce. This conveyed the idea that kale takes longer to chew than does lettuce. Impressive.

The article got me thinking about my golden retriever's intelligence, whether Sadie's "cognitive rheostat" is working well, all the time. My roomie asked me once "Do you ever look at her and see that the lights are on, but wonder if anyone's home?" And indeed that is the case with Sadie. A few weeks ago, she spent quite a few minutes studying a shoe. Why? Who knows.

Yesterday, in a lovely mountain town, she clearly conveyed her annoyance with my mom and me, as we watched her from a restaurant window, while she sat in the car parked in front of the restaurant. At one point, she looked at us and we waved to her. She raised her snout even higher in the air, then turned away from us, in an act that appeared to be regal indignation.

She has at other times conveyed her disgust with human behavior. After I took her to a dog groomer who shaved her so awfully that she morphed from a long-haired golden to a creature that looked like an multi-toned pit bull, she appeared to be mad at me for a very long time. She avoided me, wouldn't play, would reluctantly respond to my instructions. I learned my lesson and never went back to that groomer.

Though Sadie is smart about some things, like expressing her feelings and like looking for me when we play hide-n-seek in the house, with her earning a sugar snap pea treat when she finds me in a closet, she is not so smart about others. For example, all her toys have the same name: Baby. She really doesn't know the difference, name-wise, between her stuffed lobster, pony, elephant, and bunny.

She is not like my wonderful yellow lab Aja (named after the Steely Dan tune). Aja had a lot of toys and took very good care of them. She also knew their names. If I told her to go get her "burger," she would go get it. Sometimes it would take her awhile to find it and sometimes it might be on the second attempt ("No, Aja. That's your birdie. Go find your burger."). But Aja knew the names of her toys and could match the name and the toy. Can't see Sadie doing that at all.

Aja's smarts were astounding to us in their own right but also because her father, Idaho Tycho, was among the least intelligent dogs I'd ever seen. Tycho was a huge and handsome papered yellow lab, but not a very bright one. He tried to mate with a horse, carried the full carcass of a sheep into camp once just to show us, and consistently ran full bore through the six-strand barbed wire fence behind our mountain home. My favorite example of his dimness occurred once while he was sitting next to my late husband, Mike, who was lying on the couch. Tycho's head was about ten inches from Mike's head. Mike said something to Tycho and the dog turned to respond to him. Tycho could have simply turned his head 90 degrees to the right and had full eye contact with Mike. Instead, he lifted his chin in the air as high as he could and tried to see Mike directly behind him. It was an amazing demonstration of AKC breeding gone all wrong.

At the other end of this realm was the fun black cockapoo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, that my daughter and I had years ago. This little guy was so smart and thoughtful that, if we left him in our apartment so long that he had an accident, he would pull throw pillows off the couch and cover each dropping with one. Now that's an act of intelligence that I found less than cute, but I did admire the thought that went into the task. He was very small, the couch was very tall, and the pillows were as big as he was. Smart little guy, that Obi.

I like reading about studies of animal intelligence. I like watching Sadie to see if anyone's home. I like being reminded that, though we think we're the smartest critters on the block, that may not be the case after all.

1 comment:

  1. Our old Sammie, a Yorkie/Llasa mix, was a dog of mixed and many personalities. She hated black helicopters and most men. She loved to chase thunder and lightning but hated water except by the beach. She knew as soon as we got to the car whether she was going to the vet or groomer. She also knew when a ride was just for fun. She was with us almost 18 years and filled those years with her own special love and intelligence.