My usual response to someone saying “My dog is so smart!” is: “I’m so sorry, my sympathies.” Smart can be great, but it also means that your dog has learned to steal dirty laundry to get your attention, or that you don’t really mean it when you say “Leave it,” or that the kitchen cabinet door leading to the poisonous chocolate can be opened if you leap onto one counter, stretch your body over to another one, insert your toe nail between the door and the cabinet, and . . . end up in the Emergency Vet Clinic. Oh wait–they’re not smart enough to think about that last part.
But you know what I mean, right? Smart dogs are not always the easiest of dogs to train. But then, of course, sometimes they are, and how many millions of us have not at some point been blown away by our dog’s mental capabilities?” I got to thinking about this after reading a column by friend and colleague Dr. Karen London in Wildest, 7 Better Ways to Describe a Dog (Besides “Smart”). Her point, an excellent one, is that “smart” doesn’t convey much information. We are all better off being more specific, using terms like “biddable, trainable, or soft.” I suspect that many owners use “smart” for a dog that is easy to train, but those things don’t always go together, do they?
My all-time favorite on Karen’s list is “galoopy,” or a dog who is “. . . exuberant, goofy, carefree . . . ” We all know this dog, we all love this dog, as long as its not galooping onto our bed when its covered in mud. I especially love this word because although Karen is far too graceful and athletic to be called galoopy herself, she has a playful quality that I adore, and sometimes brings eight month-old Labradors to mind. (Karen is also the author of one of the best books of 2021, Treat Everyone Like a Dog, don’t miss it if you haven’t read it.)
You can read the entire list in the article, but I thought it would be fun to talk together about some other good descriptors.
Here are a few from me, please join in!
Strategic: Strategic dogs are training you faster than you are training them. I first thought of this word when working with a Standard Poodle who had figured out that the dirtier and more embarrassing the laundry stolen from the basket, the quicker she got attention. Especially if it was dirty underwear and the boss was there for dinner. Yeah, that happened. Ever since then I’ve asked myself if a dog is using her smarts to beat the system, or not.
Skeptical: Australian Shepherds, are you reading this? Or not, because you don’t trust it’s safe? (Aussie owners, please forgive me. I write this because so many Aussies that I’ve met have greeted me with a look like “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Most of them go on to greet me enthusiastically, but there’s so often an initial moment that makes me think I should get out an ID card.) If you think about it, if you were called an Australian Shepherd, but were of a “European breed perfected in the Western United States,” wouldn’t you be skeptical too? Of course, many dogs of many breeds can be “skeptical,” I focused on Aussies because, like the story above, the first time I thought “skeptical” was when meeting an Aussie. So, Aussie owners, please forgive me. Or tell me you’re skeptical about all this. (Argh, I just can’t stop getting myself into more trouble, can I?)
Empath: Also called “mood ring dogs,” these dogs know what you’re thinking or feeling before you do. I have two of them, which is mostly wonderful, until Skip comes over to me as if to soothe me, because I just reacted to a blocked punt (funny I’d use that example today, right Packers?), and then I have to say “It’s okay Skip,” and stroke his head because I know perfectly well that rather than soothing me, he’s probably crawling up into my lap because he knew I was upset and emotions are catching and my upset upset him so he came over to me to be soothed. See, it can get tiring.
But I do love empathetic dogs, even though one really does have to be careful because trying to pretending you’re not sad/angry/upset is a fool’s game. My own experience is that a lot of these dogs are also “soft,” an good reminder that many of these categories overlap in most of our dogs.
Okay, your turn. I have to stop before I get in trouble with owners of another breed of dogs . . .
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Well, it’s been a tad nippy. Single digits and windy makes for a brisk couple of days. But Saturday night we got a lovely snow, maybe 3 inches? I’m happy to see it, because we’ve been low on moisture all winter, and that would mean a dry spring–not a good thing for native plants or animals. Or for me, who lugged hoses around for hours every week last spring asking where the hell are the May showers?
We finally took down the Christmas tree in the living room; Sunday morning I put it in with the sheep for them top nibble on. Last year they ate it down to its core. You can see in the photo below that they were a bit skeptical at first. “NEW THING! NEW THING! DANGER DANGER!” You can’t blame them, it’s good to be neophobic if you are a prey animal.
Just a minute later, one of our new ewe lambs was the first to investigate. I’m not surprised it was her–young mammals are often more curious than older ones, and this particular ewe lamb is a force of nature. She’ll stomp at Skip when her mother is hiding in the background, attempting to telepathically convey an ovine version of a submarine warning system blasting AH OOOGA AH OOGA with all the lights flashing.
Having discovered that this is not the carnivorous plant from Little Shop of Horrors, the bolder members of the flock come down to join in.
That’s all for today; time to get back to working on my novel. It’s going v e r y s l o w l y, I seem to be re-editing the first fifteen chapters eternally, but someday I’ll get on to writing some new ones. Yes? Surely I will.
But do tell us about other words for “smart” for your clever dog, in ways that convey more information than “able to know exactly which visitors it is okay to jump up on.” And stay warm, at least if you’re up here in the frozen north. If not, send some warm air up here, please?