Sunday, August 26, 2007

Counting Dogs

I discovered that Sunny could count a number of years ago. He was very insecure about his position in our home long after I thought he was settled in and comfortable. I'd dealt with all sorts of rescue dogs in the past, but Sunny was the first one who's affect was aggressive when he was frightened. Everyone, to the dog, before him would cower. So I assumed that Sunny just had a nasty streak and it took me years and years to figure it out. Once I understood him, he became the most delightful and accommodating and gentle boy. Except when we are on walks when, of course, he's always on the lookout for small dog appetizers. But I digress.

We have a nightly ritual of both boys receiving dog biscuits. Cosmos is incorrigible when it comes to food, so he always goes first. I generally give him more than one at a time because he is such a pain once he starts eating. If I give him two - or three - biscuits at a time, he waits longer before bugging me again.
The night I realized Sunny knew numbers was over dog biscuits. We were all at the pantry. I got three medium biscuits out for Cozie. I put them in a small pile and handed them over. His mouth, as usual, opened almost as wide as a hippo's, and clap!, down over the food it hailed, awkward, in danger of piercing my fingers. Then he was off at a dead run to his spot to eat. In the studio in front of the spinning wheel. And as he ran by Sunny, Sunny gave him an intense and calculating look, to which I paid no heed.

Now it was Sunny's turn. Back into the pantry, but instead of giving him the three biscuits that I fed to Cozie, I pulled two. After all, the kind that the Sun-Sun likes are much bigger, and he was getting more food over all. Sunny accepted them, but instead of going into the bedroom to devour his goodies, he stood there looking at me, a very hurt expression on his face.

I told him to go on and eat, figuring that it was insecurity holding him there, but he didn't budge. I swear that if dog's eyes could tear up, a single drop would have run down his face. And then it hit me, came to me whole... I bet he knew that he received fewer biscuits than Cosmos!

I went back into the pantry, pulled one more small biscuit for him, removed the pile-of-two from his mouth, and gave him back three. He looked so happy! He ran with his treats to his place to eat them, and I thought "Oh my God! He knew. He knew that Cosmos got three and he only had two. He knew."

I was startled at the realization; I had no idea that dogs had a concept of numbers. But Sunny is an exceptionally bright boy, so I figured that it was just him. Laughingly guessed that he could count up to at least four because that's how many legs he had (maybe five if you counted his tail), and left it at that. That is, until the past few days.

Cosmos is really showing his age. He is extremely arthritic in all of his joints now, and has a hard time jumping into our bed. When he wants to get up, he will stand in front of it and cry pitifully until I hear him and react in the appropriate manner. That is, I come to help him in.

He is quite the chunky boy, and hurting as much as he does, I can't just lift him in. Instead, we have a system. I take my position by the mattress facing the head of the bed. Cosmos comes and stands in front of me. I help him to put his front paws up; he's now standing on his hind legs. I count one-two-three, and scoop up his rear end onto the bed. And he walks in his doggie circles and digs his doggie nest, and quickly quiets down; settling into his canine slumber.

It occurred to me that it should be harder for me to help him into bed than it has been, as of late. That although it was difficult to get him into position, the scooping and lifting of the behind seemed to be effortless. And I wondered if he was somehow flexing his back and helping me help him in. So I watched closely and didn't see anything obvious.

It still seemed too easy, though, and I thought about it a little more. Could it be that Sunny wasn't the only dog who could count?

I used to think that Cosmos was the 2nd dumbest dog I ever had. (He was only outdone by Achilles; the sweetest thing but so dumb that he couldn't figure out that his big body wouldn't fit in where my Tibetan Terrier would sleep... he'd try and then stand there and cry, and then try again and stand there and cry again...) But as I've seen him develop wonderful eccentricity over the years, I also realized that I had been wrong. He was and is very bright and was just uneducated when he came to live with me. So did I have two counting canines on my hands?

I put that theory to the test this evening. Cosmos was crying for me to help him into bed. I stood by the side, facing the head. Front legs on the mattress... one-two-three! But instead of scooping him up as he expected, I waited. And saw him take tiny hops up and down on his hind quarters. Yes, he knew the significance of three!
I've known, like forever, that dogs were much smarter than the general population of humans give them credit for. Emotional, feeling beings, they can also boast of being bilingual. Most of us cannot say the same.
Their attitude is different than ours. All they really desperately want is to please. Because of that, we dismiss them as lesser beings. But who are we to discount the feelings and intellect and understanding of other species? Maybe we're the dumb ones because we don't give them enough credit.

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