There are numerous stories of service dogs and even pet dogs doing heroic or extraordinary things. Among those most often retold are of dogs who have been lost many miles from home, yet manage to find their way to the family’s doorstep. These anecdotes are taken as proof of the dog’s brilliance, faithfulness, uncanny directional sense, devotion, love . . . (pick one or more).
The scientist in me questions this. Yes, I have no doubt that dogs are exceptional, that many of the stories of a dog’s triumph over extraordinary conditions (such as finding its way through a dense forest, over highways, through unknown towns, and showing up on their person’s doorstep 160 miles and many weeks later), are true. But what about the dogs that can’t figure it out?
Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949), an experimental psychologist, complained that such stories were “all about animal intelligence, never about animal stupidity.” I had to laugh when I first read that, but if you think about it – especially in our time, when we seem too often to romanticize dogs (possibly to their detriment) – it’s true. We never hear about the dumb dogs!
My beautiful German shepherd service dog, instantly raises his right leg when I approach him from that side, allowing me to easily slip on his harness. But if I approach him with his harness from the left and ask him to lift his left leg, he looks at me completely befuddled. This is sort of akin to the dog who leaps joyfully into a turbulent river but panics when asked to step into a tub of water for his bath. Yes, one can make all kinds of conjectures (excuses?) regarding the importance of routine, scheduling, sameness, or some such, claiming its critical value for the dog. But, the truth is, they just doesn’t “get it.” Same harness, different leg. Water in both, just different containers. Dogs generally don’t understand the association of events in the environment. And, to my way of thinking, that’s okay. Dogs are dogs. They have different skill sets and I deeply appreciate them exactly as they are.
Because I respect canids, and because I am, at heart, a scientist, I try not to attribute my human feelings to dogs. So, when someone tells me their dog “loves” them, or shares an improbable story about some unbelievable thing their dog did, a little voice inside my head snickers.
Then, along comes a story that can’t be doubted or explained away. On a rural island in the state of Washington, an 11-year-old setter-spaniel mix named Tillie, and 4-year-old basset hound named Phoebe, were found nearly a week after they went missing. A group of volunteers, called Pet Protectors, searched everywhere for the dogs. Eventually, they learned there was a reddish-colored dog repeatedly running out onto someone’s property, barking, then quickly heading back into a ravine.
When the dogs were found, the searchers were stunned to see Tillie sitting at the rim of a cistern where Phoebe, the basset hound, was lying on a pile of stones above the water. Thankfully, that bit of rubble was there because it saved her from drowning.
Yet the question of how Phoebe got into the cistern in the first place (did she just fall in?) or how she knew to stay on the stones in the cistern, rather than flail around trying to get out (which could have exhausted and ultimately killed her) pale in comparison to the questions regarding Tilly. Why did Tilly stay? She had been without food for days. She could have easily left Phoebe to her fate. Tilly evidently had the smarts to try to get help (shades of Lassie!). Yet she stayed, against all odds, in the only place where her companion could be found. Who among us who hears this story does not immediately conjure up those words: Love, devotion, faithfulness?
Today I put my “scientist hat” away as I join all those who claim their dogs have all this, and more.
But, I still wonder. Does my dog really “love” me or is he just a beautiful, opportunist beast who sees “treats” whenever I amble over his way? Oh well, I’ll never know. And the truth is, I don’t care. I don’t care if he “loves” me because, one thing is for darn sure: I love him.
For a more detailed account of Tillie and Phoebe’s adventure, with additional pictures, click below: