Homemaking: How smart is my dog? Smarter than I

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You know how something isn't really news, but suddenly, everywhere you look, there's a story about it? I felt like this last week when I saw headline after headline asking me whether I know how smart my dog is.

This is all sparked by a new book called "The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think." This groundbreaking work provides evidence that dogs are really, really good at reading their owners' gestures and learning words. (When you write a book about it, it's called a "groundbreaking work." When you just look at your dog, wondering if he needs to go out, and he runs and gets his leash, it's just called "taking the dog for a walk.")

According to the book, dogs have the ability to learn thousands of words, making them smarter than, for instance, a chimp. (Chimps only seem smarter because we have a tendency to dress them up like hairy little businessmen, put hats on them and give them cigars. If you look harder, most of those chimps are also wearing diapers. When's the last time you saw a dog with a diaper?)

Editor's note: After 12 years, Peter McKay has decided to end his Homemaking column. His farewell column will appear next Saturday.

But thanks to all this publicity, all across the country, folks are looking at their pets and wondering whether that hairy lump in the corner chewing his rear end is a canine Einstein. There's a new system you can sign up for called "Dognition," which provides a series of tests to determine your pooch's thinking abilities, from empathy to cunning to memorization. If you sign up for the Canine Aptitude Test (CAT -- ironically and confusingly named, I know), you can use a series of CAT tests on your dog at home, then become a "citizen scientist" and report the data into a central database, which will then be analyzed by "actual" scientists.

The problem is, this CAT program, put together by the same guy who wrote the book, costs $59.95 just to sign up and $129.95 for a year's membership. (If you pay $59.95 to find out, on your own, whether your dog is smart, it might not say much about Rover, but it acts as a pretty good test of your own intelligence.)

I'm not signing up as a citizen scientist for Dognition, but not because I already have our dog pegged. Based on my own home-based testing, Sophie, our 7-year-old Westie, is either very smart, or extremely dumb.

Sophie has to sleep in a crate because if we let her sleep in our bed she sometimes decides in the middle of the night that she has to poop. She's smart enough to know that we're asleep and will be aggravated if we have to get up in the middle of the night to let her out, so she'll hop off the bed, poop on the floor and then get back in bed again as if nothing happened. She's dumb enough, though, that she does it right there next to the bed, so that when I stumble out of bed, barefoot at 6:30, and step in it, I will be extremely angry. If she were truly smart, she would go poop under a bed or in a closet where I won't find it for weeks. I know I would if I were her.

So most evenings, we let Sophie doze on our bed while we watch TV. When it comes time to go to sleep, though, I say "BEDTIME, SOPHIE!" and she gets this sad look on her face. I take her downstairs, let her go outside to pee, then put her in her crate.

The other night at bedtime, after I shuffled her downstairs and out for the nightly pee, I said "CRATE!" She looked at me, sighed, and took a few steps toward the living room. Suddenly, she turned and bolted for the steps to go rejoin my wife in bed. This, in itself, was both smart and dumb. She knew that she could head fake me, but she also should have known that I'd chase her up the steps.

"STOP!" I yelled. She paused halfway up the steps, staring at me, and I could she her mentally calculating the top speed and agility of a middle-aged man in slippers vs. a small wiry dog in her prime. We locked eyes. I slowly advanced up the steps, saying, "STAY, STAY ..."

Just as I reached her, she bolted, and one of my slippers (footwear that is pretty accurately named) slipped on the stair and I fell on my rear end, bouncing down the steps. She stopped and turned, then kept running.

I know exactly was going on in her little canine brain, though: "Humans really aren't as smart as they think, are they?"


Homemaking is a column about the people, projects and pride that make a house a home. Peter McKay, a Ben Avon resident, is a nationally syndicated columnist with Creators Syndicate. To see past columns, go to www.post-gazette.com. Contact him at www.peter-mckay.com.


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