Fri, 09/01/2023 - 9:24pm

Dogs May Be ‘Dumb' ...

... but they're not stupid

In olden times, the word “dumb” meant that someone or something was unable to speak. While the term has fallen out of favor, at least with regard to humans, it’s still applied to critters ranked below Homo sapiens in intelligence. 

In other words, “dumb animals.”

But while they don’t have the ability to speak a language, dogs seem to be able to communicate with us quite well. In fact, in many cases, all too well, and their responses to certain situations cannot be anything but well thought out.  

That seems to be especially true when they know they have done something special and they expect bravos, or they are displeased with something you have done. With my dogs, the demand for applause after a piece of good work or a show of disdain when something I did offended them started several dog generations ago.   

Animal behaviorists insist that this is impossible, that dogs are incapable of higher emotions such as gratitude or showing disdain. Acts such as these would be part of a phenomenon known as “theory of mind,” which requires a complex ability to understand and even predict the thoughts of others, something dogs are unable to do — or so the experts say. It certainly would be helpful if these learned folks would explain that to the dogs, because on numerous occasions with my own dogs and with others related to me by equally mystified owners, our dogs have done exactly what the behaviorists say is impossible.

On one occasion, I had sent Rowdy, a champion Senior Hunter with three qualifying scores in Master plus several years of waterfowl hunting experience, for a canvasback that had fallen just inside the first layer of reeds directly across the marsh from where I was standing. I sent him secure in the knowledge that there could be no doubt where that duck was located because I knew where it had hit the water and I also knew it fell dead. 

The dog, however, apparently had other ideas, and he kept drifting to the left of the line I had given him to the bird. Each time he moved to the left, I would stop him and force him back on to the original line, but after a few yards, he would again begin drifting left. Finally, when he got to the reed line, I stopped him once again and gave him a really hard right “over.” 

But instead of the obedient turn to the right that I had ordered, he blew me off completely and turned to the left, swimming into the reeds. His disobedience, naturally, sent me into screaming frustration, but despite my furious yelling, he persisted in swimming left through the reeds until he was a good 100 yards away from where I knew the dead bird was located. 

I was about to head across the dike that bisected the marsh with plans to intercept the dog, have it out with him and then send him to the spot where the duck actually was located when out of the reeds he came, carrying the duck. 

The bird I was convinced was dead was instead very much alive, and only the dog’s superior bird sense had allowed it to be a successful retrieve.    

Despite praise to the stars for his work, Rowdy was not about to just let this episode slide by. He graciously smiled and danced about the dike as he accepted the accolades of my hunting partners. 



Properly chastened, I offered my own “bravos” for his outstanding work. But he was having none of it and was not about to forgive me that easily. He huffily moved away from me, very deliberately sat down and turned his back to me. Then, not only did I have to put up with the dog’s disdain, but I also had to endure the hoots of derision from my hunting partners, who were not one bit reticent about reminding me of my oft-stated refrain: “Trust your dog!”

On a different occasion, Chief, the son of the insulted dog, made a truly wonderful retrieve of a blue-phase snow goose. I had executed a long, difficult passing shot on the bird, but it was not a clean kill. In fact, all I’d managed to do was break a wing. So the goose was very lively and also very much into escape and evasion. Every time the dog would get close, the goose would dive under the water, reappearing some distance away. Again and again, Chief would close in, and each time, the goose would dive. This water ballet went on for nearly a half-hour, with neither side showing any signs of capitulating.  

Just about the time I was ready to reach for my whistles to call Chief off the bird, considering it to be lost, the goose made a fatal error. It let the dog get just a bit too close before it dove, and Chief, having clearly had enough of the goose’s antics, wasn’t about to let the advantage slip away. When the goose submerged, so did the dog. 

For a very long half-minute or so there was nothing to see but water. No goose, no dog. 

Then, suddenly, the dog surfaced, snorting and shaking his head. When he turned to come back to me, lo and behold, there was the goose, firmly held in his mouth.  

It was such an outstanding finale to his retrieve that his return with the goose should have been accompanied by a trumpet fanfare. I did everything but scatter rose petals in his path as he emerged from the water and climbed back up on the dike with his prize. But then, instead of bringing the goose directly to me, as was his usual practice, he took two parade laps encompassing the entire length of the dike, making certain to circle every member of the hunting party on each lap, showing off his prize and proclaiming with his body language what a clever dog he was. 

When he was satisfied that everyone properly appreciated what he had done, he finally came to me, circled me twice, then sat in perfect heel position and presented the goose to me.  

Rowdy’s grandson and Chief’s son, Duke, also responded to applause following a sensational effort to retrieve a goose. This bird was on land but when the dog closed in for the catch, the goose began to get airborne again. Duke leaped as high as he could after the goose as it attempted to fly away and caught no more than a toe or a tail feather at the apex of his leap. Whatever he managed to grab, it was enough to bring the goose crashing back to earth.



The dog also hit the deck nearly as hard as the goose, causing him to lose what had been a tenuous hold to begin with. Unluckily for the goose, Duke recovered his wits almost instantly, scrambled to his feet and snatched up the goose. 

As he trotted back with his trophy, he did so to a chorus of “attaboys” and hand clapping from every member of the hunting party, since he had clearly captured the goose a mere split second before it escaped. 

His reaction? He first nodded left and then right, then left and then right again, bowing in acknowledgment of the cheers and applause from his human hunting partners. While he was happy to accept the acclamation, he didn’t want to get effusive in his thanks. In fact, he was just nonchalant enough to communicate that he didn’t really view his performance as anything special but rather just what would be expected of any competent retriever. 

My hunting partners found his “Joe Cool” attitude quite funny. All I could do was just shake my head in wonderment, not just at his ability to make the retrieve but also at his post-retrieve performance.

While hunting dogs may have the most opportunities to demand and expect acknowledgment of their accomplishments, they’re not the only ones who are the proverbial “cool cats” when the bravos are directed at them. A lady I interviewed provided this story about her Rhodesian Ridgeback, who was a champion tracker — in fact, the first in the breed. The president of the parent club had lost her car keys at a local university while exercising her dogs on a couple of football fields one morning at a national specialty, and even though she walked all over the fields, she couldn't find them. While not by any stretch of the imagination a traditional track and one with tons of scent all over, the thought was, “What have we got to lose?”



The club president explained where she thought she had lost the keys. But, like Rowdy with the crippled canvasback, the Ridgeback, whose call name was Hudzon, kept indicating a different area. Meanwhile, large tractor-style mowers were cutting the fields. Even with all the distractions and scent everywhere, Hudzon worked the tracks and found the keys. 

Having made the find when no human could, the dog insisted on carrying the keys with him as he pranced off the field. There wasn’t any room for doubt that he absolutely knew he was the hero who had saved the day. 

Of course, all the witnesses to this remarkable display of “finding” made a big fuss over him, and while he soaked up the attention, he also was very cool about it, making sure all the folks praising him understood that this was merely routine for him. After all, his posture and demeanor said, “I’m a champion tracker who finds stuff like car keys all the time.” 

His owner, on the other hand, made absolutely no pretense of being nonchalant. She admitted to hopping up and down “like a crazy woman” (her own description), saying “Wow!” along with other superlatives.  

A Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Toney also expected acknowledgment when he’d done something out of the ordinary, according to his owner, but only from his herding instructor. The dog loved his herding teacher. So when he’d do something special, like forcing a renegade sheep back into the flock or re-penning stock or making a great outrun, once he was called off the stock, he would immediately look at the herding instructor, expecting her to tell him what a fantastic a herding dog he was. When she failed to properly respond, the Corgi would get very upset.



The behaviorists would say those of us who witnessed these actions were just anthropomorphizing. But in every case cited, there were several sane, sober witnesses to what the dogs did, and in all five instances, it was perfectly clear what the dogs were doing, as none left any room for doubt. 

So, you’ll pardon me if I’m skeptical when the “experts” say it’s impossible for dogs to express these higher emotions. Fortunately, the dogs don’t know that what they’re doing is impossible. So they keep right on taking parade laps, bowing to applause, acting like they are Joe Cool, becoming upset when they don’t get the proper acknowledgment of their work or giving the cold shoulder to an owner who has insulted their bird-finding ability.



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