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Dog IQ: the Sound and the Furry

Canine Einstein? Let's not be too hasty here.

June 15, 2004|Jon Katz

According to the journal Science, Rico, a 9-year-old border collie from Germany, can fetch objects by name -- even, through a process of elimination, names he has never heard before.

Good for him. I've been trying to get one of my border collies to lie down near sheep for four years using much the same process. He hasn't done it yet.

The journal article gave credence to the notion that Rico was displaying a kind of language learning called fast-mapping, previously thought to be unique to humans.

I love my border collies, but I am not sure that I would compare their intellect to ours. Don't get me wrong. My dogs have done lots of smart things, but for a breed that strangers on the street tell me is the most intelligent in the world, border collies do some pretty dumb things.

Even as I was reading about Rico's amazing exploits, Rose, my 1-year-old, was stalking the garden hose with which she has become obsessed. She seems to think it's one of my sheep, which she routinely abandons at the first sound of the sprinkler.

My older border collie, Orson, is beloved but deranged. In his youth, he became fixated on school buses, clomping on to a tire -- hanging on even as it turned -- trying to stop it, herd it, turn it around as if it were a cow headed for a cliff. I've heard plenty of similar stories from border collie owners around the country.

Orson has jumped on top of passing minivans and crashed through closed windows rather than seek conventional means of exit -- like doors. At a bookstore he herded a seeing-eye dog out onto the sidewalk and then underneath a parked truck. He doesn't like where I keep my magazines, taking them one by one to a spot by the bed upstairs. Does he have strong feelings about the media, or is he simply confused?

Rose tries to herd my donkeys every morning of her life, even though the donkeys have made it clear they do not wish to be herded. One even kicked her and bounced her off the barn wall. In less than a minute Rose was back at it, giving the donkeys the eye.

Sure, border collies are smart. One might argue that breeds that don't try to herd 20-ton garbage trucks or obsess about pulling planes out of the sky by jumping into the air are smarter still. But nobody ever praised the intelligence of my two late yellow Labs. All they did was walk peacefully by my side, stay patiently in the yard, leave garbage trucks to their own devices and swim in water rather than chase its spray.

I'm no scientist, but I've been researching and writing about dogs for several years, and I've never quite figured out where the line is between instinct and intelligence. The more I live with these energetic and busy creatures, the more I wonder whether this boundary and our perspective haven't become blurred in our rush to see dogs not as animals but as remarkable little people with fur. It's a desire that doesn't seem healthy for dogs or their humans, and Rico's academic achievements aren't going to help.

However, I was thinking he might like a sabbatical on my farm in upstate New York. Talk about a role model. Maybe he could tutor Rose and Orson. I wonder if he knows "Leave that truck alone"; "Go get the sheep"; "Stop digging holes in the garden"?

I wish Rico well in his studies. In a line flashed quickly around the globe, one scientist compared him to Albert Einstein. He could be great for my garden, and my donkeys would be especially grateful.

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Jon Katz is the author of "The New Work of Dogs: Tending to Life, Love and Family," published in paperback this month by Random House. He can be reached at jdkat3 @aol.com.

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