Do Dogs Have Opinions?
Abstract thinking is the ability to comprehend concepts that aren’t directly tethered to concrete, physical objects or experiences, but instead are “invisible,” such as wisdom or strength. Included in abstract thinking would be the ability for form opinions. All this is considered to be part of higher-order reasoning, of which dogs are incapable, according to most biological scientists.
Well, all I can say to these folks is that they’ve never met the dogs I have met, as those canines have indeed been highly opinionated. Some of them have been mine, while others belonged to friends and acquaintances. But all held strong opinions on one or more aspects of their lives.
A friend of mine has a German Shepherd Dog, Max, who has opinions in several areas. For example, he has definite ideas about what’s his work and the things that have to be done by his owner. What’s more, if in Max’s view, he’s not getting adequate pay for what he’s doing, he’ll simply execute a slowdown or an outright strike.
The most contentious area centers around his owner’s bed and the role that man and dog play with regard to that site. Max is perfectly happy with his assigned area at the foot of the bed. The amount of memory foam is the same at the foot of the bed as at the head. He also willingly concedes the pillows to his owner, although if one should happen to slip down to the foot of the bed, he’s happy to rest his head on it.
Max was in harmony with his owner on most aspects of their various roles at bedtime but one. In Max’s opinion, bedtime was for sleeping and nothing else, although snacks were OK — as long as they were shared with him.
However, where Max’s opinion and his owner’s get at serious cross purposes is on the subject of sleep. In Max’s view, once he and his owner go to bed, it’s time to sleep. It isn’t time to read, exercise or even snack, although the snacks are OK — as long as his owner shares them. But what really bugs Max is if his owner is restless. He will tolerate it but for just so long, and then he makes his displeasure known, usually with three sharp barks — they sound a lot like “Knock it off,” according to Max’s owner — and changing his position on the bed. If that fails to get the message across, the dog gets up and leaves the bed for one of two very comfy dog beds in the bedroom. But not without making his pique known to his owner by muttering and grumbling all the way to the dog bed and during the time it takes to get it arranged to Max’s liking.
A lady I interviewed had a Great Dane with strong opinions about the pause table in agility. It wasn’t the table itself that he hated, because outside the agility ring he’d happily jump up on it, wagging his tail, doing whatever his owner asked and generally showing her just how clever he was. What got under his skin were things he was supposed to do on the table on an agility course. To have to suddenly stop and go down, after he’d just been running the course full out, was anathema to the dog.
“We worked on this for what seemed like forever,” his owner remembered. “I guess I was just as stubborn about it as the dog. I was determined that he was going to do the pause table correctly, but my dog was just as adamant that he wasn’t going to do something that was, in his opinion, absurd.
“We finally reached something of a compromise. He’d do what amounted to a play bow and hold it for the five seconds needed for the pause. My part of the deal was that I’d stop nagging him about it. But that didn’t mean he had to like doing it, nor did it ever mean he was reliable. Every time we failed to get a qualifying score in agility, it had something to do with the pause table, and the upshot of all this hassle was that I learned to dislike it almost as much as my dog.”
The compromise over the pause table in agility with the Great Dane was that he’d do what amounted to a play bow and hold it for the five seconds needed if his owner would quit nagging him about it.
While Max and the Great Dane had strong opinions about inanimate objects, some dogs view live or, in many cases, very recently alive critters with similar hostility. Take any one of my retrievers, from my foundation sire forward, for instance, and to a dog they absolutely loathed sandhill cranes. What’s more, they formed that opinion the very first time they were sent to retrieve one and never relinquished or even slightly altered it. They’d all happily run out to where the bird was located, but the instant they either saw or smelled what it was, there was absolutely no way, short of corporal punishment, that they could be convinced to pick it up. This obstinacy was in sharp contrast to everything else they were asked or volunteered to pick up, including papers or pens that fell off my desk.
They’ve refused to even acknowledge that these things were birds. Indeed, one time, I needed a photo of a crane for a story I was doing for a gun-dog magazine. When I asked Bobby to pose with the crane, he not only refused to look at it, but also closed his eyes. The resulting photograph graphically illustrated how much he detested the birds, and he wanted to make sure that anyone who saw that photo understood that he hadn’t been responsible for anything connected with its harvest.
Bobby’s opinion of sandhill cranes was the same as all his predecessors: He loathed them.
The finest demonstration of pure sandhill contempt I ever saw was provided by Code, a son of my foundation sire and my late hunting partner Dan Ross’ dog. Ross had a regrettable tendency to shoot the occasional crane, and Code abhorred them. He was thoroughly insulted whenever Ross shot one and then made the offense just that much worse by ordering the dog to retrieve it.
The very first time Code was sent to fetch a crane set the standard for all other subsequent crane-retrieve requests. When he reached the crane, he circled it several times, barking at it, all the while looking back at Ross with the most incredulous expression. Everything about the dog said, “Not gonna happen, pal.” When Ross absolutely insisted, the dog reluctantly grasped the bird by its neck, dragged it out of the water onto a mud flat, then stalked indignantly out of the mud onto a wheat field, sat down and turned his back on his owner.
Although Ross shot several cranes in subsequent years, as one of the farmers on whose land we hunted happened to like crane filets, each time he ordered Code to go fetch the bird, the dog politely but firmly declined, although he willingly fetched every pheasant, quail, duck, goose or even pigeon Ross shot. Whenever he was ordered to fetch a crane, Code’s expression and body language were unmistakable: “You shot the thing. If you want it, fetch it yourself!”
A couple of years ago, a woman told me that her Bulldog, Rowan, had a very strong opinion about cats. He didn’t hate them, nor was he aggressive toward them; he just treated them with complete contempt. She said it was as if cats simply were beneath his notice, and any sort of interaction with a cat was unthinkable. This had posed some problems in her household because when the Bulldog arrived, the house was already occupied by a full-grown tabby named Lola.
Rowan didn’t hate cats, nor was he aggressive toward them. He just treated them with complete contempt.
Lola had gone out of her way to be nasty to the pup, but as he grew and matured, that dynamic underwent a drastic change. The dog’s solution to the issue from the beginning was mainly to ignore the cat, which annoyed Lola just that much more. When she got too mean, Rowan would defend himself, but mainly he acted like the cat didn’t exist. Now, with his size and sheer presence, when there is any sort of dog/cat confrontation, it’s Lola that beats a hasty retreat while the dog treats her as complete non-entity.
Perhaps the most opinionated dog I’ve ever known or probably ever will know was Sparky, my old master hunter Brittany. She had an opinion about virtually everything in the field, and woe betide anyone, dog or human, who expressed any contrary view, because she was always the one who was correct, at least in her view. In many ways, she was a lot like many politicians these days in that even when she was wrong, she’d never admit it and the blame always lay with someone else. Everyone in the field, hunter or hunting dog, was expected to meet her lofty standards, and if they didn’t, she not only decided what the punishment should be but also administered it. In other words, she was a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner.
The problem for everyone, human or canine, was that she often changed just exactly what her opinion was of the seriousness of a specific offense. While something might be a mortal sin on one hunt, at other times, it was merely a misdemeanor. Her opinions also extended to what she would and would not do. If what she was being asked to do — everything with her in the field had to be a request, as orders were treated with contempt — was, in her opinion, pointless, silly or beneath her, she simply would not do it. As a result, everyone who hunted with her was always off balance, which, come to think of it and knowing Sparky, was probably the point.
What all this means is that the next time some scientific pundit spouts off about what dogs are capable and not capable of thinking or doing, the best possible action, aside from following the lead of the Bulldog with regard to Lola the cat, is likely a resounding “bushwa” or, in the right environment and circumstances, something considerably more earthy. Because, until and unless dogs learn to communicate with us in a manner that we not only understand but leaves little room for interpretation, the actual mental capabilities of our canine pals will remain a mystery.