Dogs are amazing, yet mysterious creatures that continue to astound animal researchers. New findings show that dogs have a substantial vocabulary and understand tone of voice, word order, and gestures. My first two pets, however, were not so amazing. Growing up, my family had a dachshund that was completely untrained and obnoxious. Flip, as my brother named him, was totally out of control. He would stand for hours on his hind legs at the dinner table, begging for food, grab onto any arm dangling by the side of the sofa in an attempt to either hump it or get his ears scratched, and balk while on a leash. In the car, Flip would insanely race back and forth across the back seat, lunging at the windows. If the poor dog had to go to the vet, he would simply park himself down in the parking lot and refuse to budge. In the winter, he would hang his back end out the door to do his business.
“I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.” —John Steinbeck
When my son was two years old, we adopted a beagle that was supposedly four years old, found wandering on a deserted road on Christmas Eve. Snoopy was an un-housebroken disaster of a pet that would go into my son’s toy box, pull out Star Wars characters, and chew off their heads. Once, out of spite, he backed his rear end up to a toy dump truck and took a dump in it. On another occasion, my son was crying because he couldn’t find his beloved stuffed Tigger. I finally found it in the backyard, with its head half chewed off and stuffing covering the lawn like cottonwood. Years later, while watching a program on training dogs, I laughed when the host said that it was easier to train the bench he was sitting on than it was to train a dachshund or beagle. How true, at least in my experience.
“If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two of them.” —Phil Pastoret (author, Our Boarding House)
Four years ago I adopted a Great Dane, a whole different animal in more ways than size. This large breed is cunning and smart, more so than most two-year-old children. Stella was originally found wandering in Texas, literally starving to death. The fact that she survived is proof enough of her brains, which she has used time and time again to outsmart me, especially when it comes to food. After training, she’s a perfect lady walking on a leash. Stella is sweet and affectionate but, like any two-year-old, she is known to pester me incessantly when she wants something, or retaliate when she does not get it, like the one time I left her home alone. She went into the coat closet, pulled out my new coat, and tore it to shreds.
Did you ever wonder why all dogs sniff one other when they meet for the first time? An average dog’s nose is anywhere between 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than ours. Dogs have pouches called anal sacs, with glands that secrete chemicals. By sniffing these glands, dogs communicate with one another about their diet, gender and emotional state. They are able to memorize the unique odor of each human they meet as well. It’s hard to believe, but a dog would know the minute you walked into a large building, and could pick your scent immediately out of thousands of others. Consequently, whenever I arrive home, my dog immediately goes crazy sniffing me to know where I’ve been, or to see if I brought home any food. If I use a new laundry detergent, or buy new clothes, she sniffs me incessantly. When we walk at the dog park, I generally bring a few treats in my pocket. After I’m in bed for the night, I can often hear her rummaging in my pockets trying to get the last few crumbs.
I actually had to buy a dog gate for the stairs so that Stella couldn’t raid the kitchen at night. Danes are notorious counter surfers, so I learned within a month not to leave food within reach of anyone less than six feet tall. I learned that the hard way, after my dog reached behind the coffee maker and ate almost all the brownies that had been hidden in what I thought was an inaccessible spot. I frantically called the canine poison help line, as we tried to compute exactly how much chocolate she had ingested versus her body weight, by subtracting the flour and eggs. In the end, her huge size saved her. What I didn’t count on was that this giant breed could open the door to the toaster oven. She’s smart enough not to try it when I’m around, but all bets are off at night. I’ve awoken many times to find half-eaten aluminum foil all over the kitchen floor.
And then there’s the time I thought there might be a mouse in the basement, where I crate Stella when I’m away, as she absolutely cannot be trusted alone. I purchased some poison pellets, the kind that are enclosed in green plastic containers, and set one in the corner. Stella’s large crate has a door with two latches on the outside. There is no way she could break out of that, I thought to myself, and why would she go after poison pellets anyway? To make a long story short, just like Houdini, she managed to escape. Sure enough, when I returned home, she was loose in the basement, with chewed up plastic all over the floor and no pellets. I estimated that an hour had already passed, so we made a very anxious trip to the nearest vet to induce green vomit. Once again, Stella’s size was a big plus. This is not something you want to try at home.