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Dear Matthew Alice:

Can my dog understand me when I talk to him? I can tell him to sit down and to lie down and he does it, so he understands me when I say that. When I say to him “good boy” or “I’ll be right back,” does he understand my words?

— Josh, third grade

Dogs can know a lot of language, that’s for sure. One trainer crammed more than 200 words into his border collie’s brain box. I’m not sure the vocabulary list included “Please make dinner.” So, anyway, dogs’ language abilities have been tested all over the place. And believe it or not, dogs are ranked right up there with three-year-olds. At least in some abilities. As the border collie showed, you can smoosh in a lot of words that dogs will respond to. And that’s one way of judging how much dogs “understand.” You say “sit,” your pooch puts his butt on the ground, and you scratch his ears. One word connected with one action. That’s doggie comprehension. If you look deep into his big eyes and say, “I want to sit in the front row at the Jonas Brothers concert,” it’s likely he’ll hear “Noise, noise, SIT, noise, noise, noise,” and his butt will be on the floor too. There’s a limit to Spot’s ability to comprehend, and that’s where the three-year-old parts company with him. Dogs connect a single word or a word combination with an action or object of some sort.

But what limited things they can do, they do very well. Take the same border collie. Put a bunch of objects familiar to him (he already associates an object with its name) in another room. Say to him, “Ball,” f’rinstance. Collie heads into the other room, picks up the ball, and comes back out. Not bad. But wait. Put a bunch of familiar objects in that same room, then add a ringer. Something he doesn’t know the name for. A roll of toilet paper, maybe. Then say, “Toilet paper.” You may get an odd look, but our border collie will trot into the other room, survey the objects, and 70 percent of the time will come back with the correct object. So, ticking in his canine cranium is, Toilet paper? Well, know I’m supposed to get something and bring it back, so here we go into the other room. I see a ball and a bone and a shoe and the newspaper. I know all those things. But there’s something new here. Could that be toilet paper? It must be, since I know all the others. So, I’ll bring back the big white thing. Dogs, or at least our border collie (a super-smart breed), can use the process of elimination.

As for your “good boy” and “I’ll be back,” “good boy” might ring a bell in your pet’s brain, assuming you give him a treat or scratch his ears or otherwise pet him most times that you say “good boy.” He knows something good is going on and he probably wags his tail furiously. “I’ll be back,” well, that probably just bewilders him. No words in that he can recognize, unless you’ve taught him some behavior that’s linked to the phrase. But anyway, keep talking to your pal. At least you know he’ll stay and listen and he won’t snitch you out to your parents.


Re: 2 (two) old ideas! You may have answered this (these) before and I may have (did) missed the answers so could you for all of us out here answer this: “How far back [in time] does ‘leap year’ go [start], and why and do we really need it anymore?”

— EPS, Escondido

Yikes! (Gee!) I (we) hope you didn’t (don’t) expect you could (might) go to NASA or someplace like that (Florida-ish) and beat up the guy who dreamed up leap year. It’s not a government (bureaucratic) plot. Dates back to 45 BC, Julius Caesar (Julian Calendar!), to keep festivals happening at the right time of year, since Earth’s orbit actually throws the time off a bit each year. He created a 365-day calendar with one variable month that would pop up every four years and set things right. February. Remember, 30 days has September, April, June, and November. All the rest have 31, except February, which has 28, but only in years divisible by 4 and century years divisible by 400. And that’s the truth. And no, we don’t need it. We can keep our festivals straightened out.

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GeorgeM March 5, 2009 @ 10:07 a.m.

Matt's got it right. Perhaps under the pretense of "animals are people too", many dog-owners see themselves as friends of the dog; not quite the way the dog sees it.

Although it is ironic to see people carrying baggies of poop behind their pooches, animals are really here to serve humans.

Intelligence is often a function of both the dog's breed and the training abilities of the master/owner. My brothers and I had a very bright, lab-collie mix, which we had trained to alert on my pinhead sister's cat, open round-handled doorknobs, and to answer the telephone; although it didn't like the taste of the handset!

We currently own a couple of mutant, I-talian greyhounds, which make for good alert dogs and rat killers, but not much else. Known as the Village Idiots, Meathead and Space are at the bottom of the food chain for intelligence, and make great girl pets. BTW, the female dog-urine will ruin your lawn.

As for me, if we had a bigger lot, I would opt for an airedale, which in addition to not shedding much was the messenger, rescue dog in WWI.


GeorgeM March 6, 2009 @ 6:38 p.m.

Fred, That was great! I'm checking in with our mutants right now.

NR. Another day when I could be replaced by a toggle switch!


Fred Williams March 6, 2009 @ 8:11 a.m.

Animals say that they get very angry when we anthropomorphize them...


Matthew_Alice March 28, 2009 @ 12:35 p.m.

Thanks, George. Great examples of the human-dog situation and the difference in intelligence between breeds. Dogs are so cool it's hard not to think of them as hairy, four-legged people -- better than your best human friend and totally loveable and continual entertainment when the TV's on the fritz. The Alices are totally dog people. == Matthew Alice


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