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Dogs, language, and intelligence

Many people insist that dogs don’t understand the words we use, and that everything sounds a lot like the “wah wah wah” sound used on Charlie Brown cartoons for the adults.  What do you think?

I started listing the words that our oldest dog understands, and this is what I came up with:

  1. Go
  2. Eat
  3. Food
  4. Hungry
  5. Water
  6. Cookie
  7. Out
  8. Thirsty
  9. Mom
  10. Dad
  11. The names of certain friends/family members (about 6 different ones)
  12. Camping
  13. No
  14. Who did that?
  15. wait
  16. stay
  17. sit
  18. bed
  19. van
  20. get in
  21. get out
  22. up
  23. get back here
  24. get it
  25. drop it
  26. give
  27. paw
  28. louder
  29. tell me
  30. shhh
  31. good
  32. bad
  33. uh uh (negative sound)
  34. come here
  35. heel

Thirty-five words/phrases isn’t a lot, and while we may have forgotten a few, that is the bulk of the words we know she recognizes.  A few she even will recognize if we spell them, like E-A-T.

To some people, her ability to understand what I’m telling her seems like a nearly miraculous event, and that she is an amazingly smart dog.  They all swear they’d love to have a dog like her, but they also don’t realize the amount of work that goes into a dog that is responsive to their “parents”.  They also don’t realize that on the canine genius scale, Red is smart, but not anywhere close to being a “genius”.

Smart dogs, especially those on the “genius” range, are a double edged sword.  If you don’t invest time and effort into not just training them but keeping them entertained, they will find a way to entertain themselves, and their human family members might not appreciate that genius at work.

This is when the really obnoxious behaviors such as destruction, excessive barking, and creative escaping comes into play.  Breeds that are known for their intelligence are often known for their abilities in those departments too.  While Red hasn’t usually been destructive or prone to excessive barking, she is known for her ability to escape from almost anything, and she does suffer from separation anxiety.  She regards it as her job to be with me, and while we try to accommodate her, she is ten years old, and in the ten years of her life, I have also lived ten years of my life.  That means she has had to be left behind, due to travel, work, and even hospital stays.

She has ripped the screen from the screen door, gone through the screens on windows, jumped out of car windows, climbed 8′ chain link fences, broken cables, chewed through cables, snapped collars, snapped off metal stakes, climbed wooden fences, and darted out doors.  I can’t leave her with just anyone, and the only person I’ve ever left her with overnight (besides a very secure boarding facility) has been my daughter.  Unfortunately, my daughter now has a toddler and a boxer and no fence, and I don’t trust Red with any of that. Not all boarding facilities are created equally either, and it’s now time to start shopping for one that can keep her, just in case, as we have relocated.

To some people, I’m excessively picky about where the dog is left.  To me, it is merely reciprocating the care and devotion she has shown me over the years, as she has accompanied me across the country, whether we were hiking a remote canyon or living in an urban situation.  Her “Colgate grin” has deterred many individuals from, shall we say “unsocial” behavior?  She’s stood watch when we were camping in remote locations, and she’s inspected many boyfriends and potential boyfriends over my single years.  (Just for the record, I did eventually learn to pay attention to her evaluation–she was ALWAYS right about which ones needed to go right now, and she also adored my husband from the moment she met him.)  For this gift she has given me, it is my duty and responsibility to make sure she is not only happy, but safe and secure, wherever she is left.

Does that mean that I prefer “stupid” dogs?  Well, in my case, I have three dogs, all with different intelligence levels.  Our “challenged child” is a feist I adopted in 2006, sight unseen.  Her real age is unknown, and it was estimated to be that she was born in 2003, although her sudden aging in the past year has me questioning that as well.  She has a much more limited vocabulary.

  1. Cookie
  2. out
  3. bed
  4. house
  5. up
  6. in
  7. sit

This short list doesn’t even begin to show what she can be like.  She barks continually if she has anything moving in her line of sight.  She is losing her vision and does not see well, so everything is a “monster” approaching.  She can be as vengeful as a cat, and has been known to both urinate or defecate on a bed if she has been slighted in any way (in her eyes.)  She obeys few commands, and craves attention like a two year old.   I don’t trust her with children or strangers–she’s apt to nip with little warning.  She turns into Cujo with other dogs, to the point of slobbering and snarling as she is dragged away.  While it may sound like she’s a disaster with four legs, she is a loving dog, and she absolutely adores my husband.

Our newest “child” is Nemo, a chihuahua rescued after having been dumped on a rural road in central Mississippi.  An un-neutered male, he’s on the list of things to do, but in the meantime, he has enjoyed living with us.  He is a leg hiker, and will even pee on our bed, so he wears a diaper to prevent soiling things.  (We actually use newborn human diapers and velcro them around his mid-section to cover his penis.  It’s a no-brainer and inexpensive solution.)  We’re still working on what he understands, but there is no doubt in our mind whether he recognizes a can of dog food.  He can hear that snapping sound of the pop top and will come running, only to be disappointed if it’s NOT his food.  He recognizes containers and boxes, but we’re still working on specific words for his vocabulary.  Our initial opinion is that he ranks in the “average” range.  As a very small dog, about 5 lbs., he has “small dog syndrome.”  We just aren’t as demanding of obedience of small dogs either–something that is “cute” from a 5 lb. dog is seriously offensive from a 50 lb. dog.

Try making a list of the words and phrases that your dog understands.  Remember, puppies are like children, and still learning.  The older the dog is, the more words and phrases they will have learned to understand.  Some things will be commands, some will be words that are associated with things they either really like or really dislike.  In addition, remember it takes time for a newly adopted dog, regardless of his or her age, to adapt to your household and begin recognizing words and phrases that are used by their new family–so don’t judge too harshly if it seems that your newly adopted dog is “challenged.”

Intelligence and vocabulary also does not necessarily mean that your dog is “obedient” and willing to obey commands or perform tricks.  Some very intelligent dogs absolutely are not good at obedience work OR tricks, as they find the routine and predictable nature of this rote behavior boring.

Here’s the scale to rank your dog:

  • >10  Challenged
  • 10-30 Average
  • 30-50 Smart dog
  • 51-75 VERY smart dog
  • 76+ Genius Dog

 

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