OK, I’ll admit it, I talk to my dogs as if they were humans. And the funny thing is, I think they know what I am saying, if not most, at least some of the time.
Now, like a proud parent who thinks their kid is the smartest little darling in the world, I am of the belief that one of my dogs, my little black Lab Bailey, is pretty smart. And my other pup, a yellow Lab named Tessa, picks up on some of the words I am saying, or is smart enough to know that when Bailey goes, so should she.
I know it didn’t take Tessa long to understand that when we are out hunting, and Bailey hits a hot bird scent, or better yet, goes on point, she needs to get over there and get her nose into the business too.
Recently I have been playing with words to see just what kind of reaction I can get from the dogs. It is pretty amusing, and sometimes amazing to watch.
The Phillips dogs quickly learned the basic commands. Words such as sit, stay, come are pretty automatic, unless, in Bailey’s case, she is just too busy to come when she is asked. She is like a spoiled four-year-old who always is making excuses for not doing what the parent asks them to do.
Bailey, with her actions is saying, yes, she hears me, but she just needs two more seconds to check something out here, and oh, there is a something interesting right over there she needs to smell.
Usually a stern “COME” is all it takes to let her know I am serious about her coming. Usually.
In doing a little research it looks like even dogs with average intelligence can understand more than we think.
According to Dr. Stanley Coren, an expert in canine intelligence, the average dog can understand about 165 words, possibly more with training. He says consistency is the key, making sure you use the same word for an item, or a command every time. If you want the dog to come, use the word “come” or “here,” but stick with one or the other.
In thinking about it, I am not too sure how many words Bailey and Tessie know. I am guessing just by watching the two, Bailey knows more though.
For instance, I can say the word “lizard” and Bailey gets almost apoplectic and runs to our retaining walls to look for the different lizards that inhabit the rocks and blocks. Tessa just sits there.
Now, in Tessie’s defense, being 11-years-old with a serious case of arthritis in her back legs, she just may be smart enough to know that chasing the quick little lizards is like chasing the wind. It’s a lot of wasted energy. Let the stupid kid chase them.
And Bailey does. She has chased them for three years, and has yet to catch one.
One word that does get Tessa’s attention is “treat.” Say that word, even wrapped into a 50 word sentence and she perks right up. She might be dead out in one of her lengthy naps and say the magic word and boom, just like that, she is wide awake and looking for a treat.
Bailey definitely knows what “treat” means because she will wander out, slowly, like a hundred-year-old tortoise, to the treat bucket when she hears the word. And she will eat the treat, but when it comes to food, she can take it or leave it. Literally.
Our Vet says that Bailey is “not food motivated.” Which has to be a bit of an anomaly, especially in Labradors. But the term fits her to a T.
Now, if you want to see her motivated, just say the word “play.” Or the word “fetch”. Put the two together and you will find a VERY motivated dog, although one word usually is all it takes.
At one or both of those she is off to the laundry room, where we keep the ball and thrower and she will sit there until I come into the room. When I arrive she will stand on her hind legs, front feet on the counter, looking at the ball. Then she will look at me, then back to the ball, and back to me, like she is trying to say “right there, there’s my ball, right there, see it, right there?”
Both dogs know the three word command, “go lay down.” Which is good. And “time to eat” is definitely one that gets Tessie going.
“Bed time” is another one that they know. Say those two words and off they go to their beds.
I can think of a dozen more, but I am not sure I can come up with 165.
Oh well, maybe my dogs aren’t all that smart. That’s okay. They do pretty much what I want them too, they enjoy life immensely and they make me smile, every single day. What more could you want?
• Rob Phillips is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer who has written the Northwest Sportsman column for over 25 years. He can be reached at email@example.com