Have you ever seen those “My Chihuahua is Smarter than Your Honor Student” bumper stickers? They make me smile every time! And I find the sentiment to be quite true.
I have had the unfortunate pleasure of speaking with some very ignorant people who believe that animals are just plain “dumb.” Seriously? With the thousands of videos on YouTube showing dogs rescuing babies from drowning or falling down the stairs, how could anyone possibly doubt how smart they are?
I would like to dispel some of the most common misconceptions about dogs and cats, in particular.
Misconception #1: “Dogs/Cats really don’t know what their “name” is.”
Being the proud mother of seven fur babies (6 dogs and 1 cat), I can assure you that each of my animals knows their name. When I come into the room and say “Theo!” He looks right at me. The rest of the dogs (and cat) continue playing because they know that I am not addressing them. I have read on several websites that some people think that this has nothing to do with the animal knowing their name, but, simply the inflection used in one’s voice. So, I tried the following experiment to see if there was any merit to this notion.
I entered the living room in which all of my animals were playing. I then stood in the center of the room and called each dog’s name individually making sure to use the same inflection and tone. Guess what? Each dog looked at me when I called his/her name. When his/her name was not being called, he/she went back to playing with the rest of the pack.
Having never owned a cat before, I was unsure as to how a cat would respond to a name. Every movie that I can ever remember that involved a cat always showed the person calling “Here kitty, kitty, kitty!” But, every pet needs a name. So, I decided to name our cat ‘Miracle’ since we found her in the middle of main street and she was miraculously still alive. Matt and I began calling her Miracle from the moment we brought her home. She is quite good at hiding and Matt tends to get nervous when she cannot be discovered quickly. He tried the “kitty, kitty” mantra and it didn’t work. I simply called out “Miracle!” and she soon came bounding down the hallway.
Animals are very much aware of themselves. They know exactly who they are and who they are not. You best believe that they know their own name.
Misconception #2: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Whoever came up with this saying clearly has never owned a dog. Or perhaps they owned the dog but did not love him/her enough to work with the dog. Either way, this statement is simply nonsense.
There are several things that people need to consider when attempting to teach their pet tricks:
1. The difficulty of the trick
2. The physical health of their pet
3. The time needed to teach the trick
What type of trick are you trying to teach the “old” dog? Is it a simple command such as “sit” or “stay?” Or are you trying to teach your dog how to jump off of a diving board into a pool and swim to the other side? Maybe run out and greet the postman and then bring in the mail? If the trick is made up of many different smaller tricks (i.e. learning to jump off the diving board, learning to swim the length of the pool, learning to jump out of the pool), you will need to spend a greater deal of time working with your pet so that he/she masters each step of the trick before performing it in its entirety.
Is your pet healthy enough to be performing tricks? If your dog has certain health issues like cataracts, it can make learning a trick next to impossible. And it isn’t that the dog does not want to please you. He/she may not be able to see the commands that you are giving.
If your pet has any type of ailment, such as luxating patellas (the “knees” of the back legs pop in and out of their sockets), certain tricks may be off limits, such as those that involve a great deal of jumping. This can be very hard on your pet’s joints, especially if they are older.
While Theo, our 10 year old Chihuahua, is healthy, I would still not expect him to be able to jump as high or as far as Cole, our 2 year old Min Pin. Cole’s joints and bones are a lot younger than Theo’s and they will be able to stand up to more pressure and stress. Keep in mind that Theo’s brain can still fully comprehend the concept of learning a trick. But, his body may have a hard time keeping up with the training.
There is a certain amount of time that you, as the owner, will need to commit to teaching your dog the desired trick. I have seen too many pet owners that have unreasonable expectations placed upon their pet. If you only spent 5 minutes “teaching” the trick, don’t count on him/her remembering it tomorrow. Be prepared to work with your pet daily. Your pet will learn best from repetition and reward.
Case in point, my 91 year old grandmother recently became ill and was hospitalized for a few days. While she is on the road to recovery, she is still quite weak. Matt and I are currently taking care of her 6 year old Chihuahua, Tiggy, until she is 100% well again. We are no stranger to Tiggy as we were her foster parents before my mom adopted her for my grandma.
Tiggy is a very skittish little thing. She does not like loud noises, sudden movements or thunderstorms. Oddly enough, she does like Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together” song. All joking aside, we had taught our oldest dog, Theo, to shake hands. He will even switch paws on command. Lately, Tiggy has been coming up to me and pawing at my leg. When she paws, I lightly take her paw in my hand and say, “Shake. Good, Tiggy!” After just two days, she now shakes on command. Not bad for an “old” dog.
Misconception #3: “All dogs do is eat and sleep.”
Maybe when they are puppies. But many dogs actually have “jobs.” Police officers use dogs to help sniff out drugs and even explosives. Service dogs provide assistance to their masters by opening doors, bringing in the mail and even dialing the telephone. Some dogs can even tell when their owner is about to have a seizure. They then alert their owner who is able to take the necessary precautions to avoid getting injured.
And we certainly cannot forget therapy dogs! My dog, Adriel, has performed many different functions in her capacity as a certified therapy dog. She has brought comfort to nursing home and hospice patients. She has lent an ear to the excited children at the local kids’ club. Adriel even brought smiles to the faces of autistic individuals. People love to interact with animals. And the connection that is created simply by petting said animal is amazing.
Therapy Dogs International also offers a Tail Waggin’ Tutors program. Therapy dogs can visit local schools and libraries and have children who are struggling with reading read to the dogs. The children feel more relaxed when they read to a dog because they know that the dog will not judge them or make fun of them if they stumble over their words.
T.D.I. has also created the Disaster Stress Relief program. These dogs are specially trained to comfort those that are at the heart of disasters. D.S.R. dogs were present during the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. They were also called to Ground Zero after the World Trade Center attacks and were deployed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This special team of dogs not only brings comforts to the victims, but to the caregivers as well: police officers, firefighters, medical personnel, clergy, etc.
Why some people still choose to believe that such wondrous creatures are “dumb” is beyond me. Honestly, I believe that many animals are smarter than most humans. That reminds me, I need to buy a bumper sticker…