Know Your Pooch
The writer is former director, GSI, and an avid animal lover. His understanding of man's best friend comes from over six decades of dedicated association with it
Let me first talk about human beings. There are about 700 languages in the world. In today’s era, the world has shrunk and one can learn almost any language via the net. Yes, I am talking about spoken and or written languages. But imagine a person who can’t speak. He will try to communicate via signs. Imagine another scenario- one fine morning you get stranded in France, where everything is French. Then how do you communicate? There is no option but to try sign language. For example, you are hungry and you reach a point where you can see a burger on the counter. You just point towards it and raise a finger to indicate that you want one. The girl at the counter smilingly gives you a burger on a plate.
Now imagine a dog. He can’t point even a finger at anything, because he doesn’t have one to do so. There are two types of people in this world. The first believes that the dog understands everything and is almost a human and the other, treats the dog like a circus animal and makes it shake hands with every visitor in the house.
Long back, I went to a friend’s house. He had a Labrador, and after I had settled, he called his dog, ‘Bozo come.’ And there came Bozo. He promptly stayed on command and then suddenly my friend barked, ‘punishment’, and immediately poor Bozo went to the corner, stood on his hind legs, and put the forelegs on the wall for support. The poor thing remained like that nearly for 20 minutes, until I insisted that the dog be recalled from the real punishment. The moment the dog was released, he came rushing to me and licked my cheeks vigorously. Well, I do love dogs, but never liked the idea of someone else’s dog licking my face!
No doubt my friend had worked hard to train the dog, but he was not a good teacher. Dogs understand a lot more, if you speak the same sentences to them again and again. Thus, instead of turning them into army soldiers, you can let them be ordinary, disciplined citizens. Dogs learn a lot, if you follow a routine. For example, a three-month-old Labrador pup will easily understand the word toilet or you can even substitute it with any other word. For example, I had taught a pup the word Number One. The moment I asked her in a sweet tone, “Do you want to go out for number one?” she would instantly wag her tail and rush towards the door. But believe me, if I asked, “Do you want to be taken out for number three?” in the same tone as before, she would give me a confused look.
Yet another Dachshund bitch I had was a sworn enemy of lizards and rats. The moment I said, “I can see a lizard” or “There is a lizard up the wall,” she would look up the wall. If I said, “Lizard is near the kitchen”, she would rush towards the kitchen. Similarly, she would start looking for a rat, the moment I said, “I can smell a rat in the toilet”. She would start scratching the door of the toilet.
At that stage of my experience, and even till about two years ago, I had a firm belief that all the vocabulary of dogs was nothing but their uncanny analytical power to identify and retain a particular tone! But I pondered a lot on that and reached the conclusion that apart from their power to identify and store a particular tone in their memory, they also store a few sentences as well. In addition, some breeds like Labrador, Alsatian, and Doberman (and maybe Rottweiler too-I have no experience with them) can retain more than many other breeds like a Lhasa Apso or a Bull Terrier. I feel that the breeds with better retaining power have larger ‘discs’ in today’s computer lingua, or their RAM is more powerful!
Dogs cannot retain long sentences in their brains. But there are examples of dogs retaining them. Then how come they retain the sentences? In a blog published by Julie Hecht in Scientific American, she says that dogs can retain the names of over 1000 objects. She taught dogs to ‘take the ball to Frisbee’ and ‘Frisbee to ball’ and dogs learnt without much problem. But this doesn’t happen overnight, she says. It takes lots of effort on the part of the trainer. There are moments when out of despair you intend to give up, but suddenly, the dog begins to respond and learns faster.
A dog learns by repetition. As I mentioned in the beginning, my Dachshund bitch could differentiate between a lizard and a rat and between a crow and a monkey. It was not that she was a biology student or had extra intelligence. It was simply a repetition of the same word or a group of words in the same tone. And after a few days, she would suddenly run after a lizard or a rat or run up the terrace to look for a monkey. Yet those days I used to believe that she retained those animal or bird names or even the names of my children because I used a particular tone. But no, she was able to decipher the names even when used in some other context.
For example, once I told a visitor, “Our Minty (Dachshund) has cleared the house of lizards”. Minty was sitting in her cage, which was quite some distance away. She came running to the sitting room and began sniffing and searching for a lizard.
After reading Julie’s blog in Scientific American, I am feeling elated, because it explains what remained a mystery to me for years. I strongly advise my readers to try and train their already-trained dogs to respond to names dropped in sentences. Mind you, for that, a dog has to be completely devoted to you. In case you have taught your dog commands using cruel methods, please never try what I have explained here.