It wasn't long after we brought Willy home that we began to suspect he was a bit smarter than the average puppy, or even the average black lab. Labrador retrievers, as you may know, are considered very smart dogs and the breed ranks in the top ten for intelligence. Still, Willy had a lot to show us and our realization of just how smart he was didn't happen until he got older, even though he began demonstrating his intelligence at a very early age.
It wasn't just one thing. I could point to many things Willy did and you'd say, "Oh sure, but that doesn't really make him special, does it?"
I think showing us he knew left from right was one of the big things. So was determining, all on his own, the difference between "where is" and "go get." I never taught him that "where is" meant anything different than "go get" and really, how does anyone, or any dog, figure such a thing out.
His learning "where is" and many other things happened mainly because we talk to our dogs in sentences. Forget the simple "sit" command. Once learned, "sit" is a good thing for a dog to know. It means sit down and get a treat, sit down and behave. Sit down so the vet can give you a shot or trim your nails. "Sit" is very useful.
"Willy, what are you supposed to be doing?"
"Sitting down Mike." Willy sits down.
"Willy. Where're your manners?"
"Sorry Mike." Willy sits down and waits patiently instead of jumping on someone or begging at the table.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you want a robot that sits, lies and heels, go ahead and teach your dog that from the beginning and never change a word for the rest of their too-short, fast lives. If you want a member of the family that knows how to do things and can figure things out on their own, talk to them in sentences once they learn what something means. You'll be surprised how much they can figure out.
The human experience in learning isn't much different. If a baby is exposed to language from an early age by hearing adults talk to each other and to the baby, it will learn to talk. If it never hears a spoken word, then it won't learn to talk. Babies start by learning single words that are then put into sentences.
Why should it be any different with dogs?
Certainly not because they are incapable of learning complex sentences and the meanings behind them.
That is not to say that dogs don't learn and think differently from humans. They certainly do. But if you teach them, they will learn and they will also think on their own and figure things out.
Willy was irrefutable proof. Perhaps he was exceptional, or perhaps our quirky way of talking to him let him progress further than many other dogs. I like to think he was exceptional, but I also think the way we dealt with him was just another reason he was able to understand and act differently from other dogs.
Note: I'd never advise anyone to teach a dog to be anything other than a dog. Not for a moment and I think such a thing would be cruel. Just like people, dogs have certain instincts and like to act on them. It is part of being a dog. Men do manly things, women do womanly things, and dogs do doggy things.
You have to get that before you can start to teach them to not just be a dog, but to be a dog with humans at the head of the pack.
When JD came into the picture, Willy was 16 months old and in fact, it was Willy that discovered JD (and JD's dam, sire and siblings.) We brought him home after a long ride in the truck with JD curled up against Willy on the back seat floor that was covered with blankets and pillows. Once home, Willy wanted a treat and sat by the treat closet to get one. JD wandered over having no idea that Willy was asking for anything. Marg opened the closet and took out two doggy cookies.
What happened next was no less than amazing.
Marg said, "Have manners Willy."
Willy was already seated, tail spinning in neutral. JD was next to him wondering what was happening. Willy looked at JD, saw he was not sitting and put his paw on JD's rump and sat him down. Then he looked at Marg.
"We have manners Mama! Cookie please!"
Cookies delivered and we were both amazed.
Little puppies are so full of energy and it comes it big bursts followed by a sleep that rolling thunder, cannons, and earthquakes cannot disturb. Willy was so patient with his energetic new pal and student, even though we worried he might get a little rough with JD.
JD would nip at his ankles, run under him, around him, over him. Steal his cookies, his bones and chews and even his favorite toys. Willy shared food and water, often with JD standing between Willy's legs while both ate and drank. Through it all, Willy showed extreme patience when JD got on his nerves.
One day on the deck, Willy was trying to have a nap after a hard morning being a water dog and chasing a dummy in the river. JD was pestering him incessantly, wanting to play and get him up and moving.
With a big groan, Willy rose to his feet and went into the kennel, then through the kennel doggy door into the garage. I heard him rummaging around in there and wondered what he was doing. A few moments later he came out with something in his mouth. It was the oldest, dirtiest, ugliest piece of chewed rawhide you ever saw. He teased JD with it and got JD to wrestle for it, then let the pup win the prize. JD scampered off and laid down to chew it.
Then Willy heaved a big sign and laid down for that well-deserved nap.
Dogs can't think or reason, you say? I beg to differ.
Notice Willy did not offer his new bone or chew or toy. He went and found the oldest, dirtiest, chewed up and worn out piece of leather he could remember and gave that up instead.
When he was six months old, he got sick from chewing up a house plant/tree while we were not looking. For days he was sick and could not keep anything down, not even water. We thought he was going to die. The vet gave him a shot to stop him from vomiting and another to stop his diarrhea, then we fed him tiny bits of special food and plain rice.
Poor puppy was always hungry and began to bring us his bowl for more food. It nearly broke our hearts to see him so hungry, but there was little else to do except follow the doctors instructions. Willy never forgot being hungry and for the rest of his life would carry his bowl (and JDs -- he would not forget to look out for his pal) everywhere, if only to lick it out eight or twenty times.
So his bowl was never in the kitchen at dinner time.
"Willy! Go get that bowl." or "Willy, where's your bowl?" and off he'd go to get it and bring it to me.
One day, Willy did not bring the bowl, but returned when I called him again. After several tries, I went to look and found him sitting there, next to the bowl.
Experiments showed that Willy had progressed from simply retrieving something, to showing us where something was.
"Where is" would result in him going to the person or object and sitting down. "Go get" had the effect of going to the object and bringing it.
How did he figure that out?
I don't know. Except he did.
"Fetch the ball" meant go get a ball. "Fetch the rope" meant get the rope toy. Verb. Noun. It worked.
"Where's [person]?" or "Goto to [person]." and off he'd go to Mama or me or anyone else whose name he knew, and he knew everyone in our immediate family and a few friends too.
"Willy. Take this [object] and bring it to [person]." Willy would take it in his mouth and run off, tail spinning at full speed to deliver whatever it was and so proud of himself when the job was done. Phones and similar objects were best put into bags first (lab drool, not so appetizing.) Food, well. Good luck with that but, most things were deliverable if he could carry them, or they could be put into something he could carry like grocery store bag.
I came out of the bank once, there was Willy with my cell phone in his mouth. He put it in my hand without my asking for it. I looked and I had missed a call from Marg while I was inside.
So what else could he do?
I left JD and Willy in the truck one day while I ran errands. When I came out, Willy sat upright in the driver seat, one paw on the wheel, the other on the shift lever. JD was sitting in the passenger seat, looking out the front window. You can be sure I never left my keys in the truck after that incident, but I always wondered if they would have come back for me.
One thing is certain. Dogs are smart if you let them be smart and teach them to learn.
A true story by MJ Logan