Do we really know anything about intelligence in dogs or humans?

Benjy looking dim but kind

Yesterday I visited a friend whose backyard garden always enchants me: there are doves flying free who come back to their dovecote in the giant Pohutakawa tree; she has two ultra-tame chickens running free (there are no native mammals in New Zealand, so chickens have few enemies), a rabbit, a cat, and two dogs.  One of them loves to play soccer with the boys:  he noses the ball, and is so good at avoiding players on the opposite side that it is impossible to win against him.

Benjy, my dog, a golden lab who is the hero of my book The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving (comes out next month) was with me.  True to his nature and the name of the book, he too loved the rabbit, and the chicken, and the cats, and the two dogs.  But he looked at what the dog did with a blank expression.  Huh?  Nothing in the world would get Benjy to move that quickly, to feint, and to move the ball in any direction.  He just wouldn’t get it.

In fact, Benjy gets very little.  He was a colossal failure as a guide dog.  The people who trained him loved him to bits, but were perplexed at how dim he seemed.  His good nature is in inverse proportion to his “intelligence,” they claim.  What an insult!  But, alas, it seems to be true.  When I feed Benjy his breakfast in a Cong and he leaves the Cong in the grass outside our house I ask him to find his Cong and bring it back to me.  He looks blank.  I go out and search, and he watches me in confusion.  He just doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t, in fact, get much.

Is it true, then, that dogs come with very different intelligences?  Can Benjy really be as slow as he seems?  AND YET have such immense empathy for all creatures.  He, like Bill Clinton, feels their pain. He really does.  He would not harm an ant.  Literally.  I have watched him notice them underfoot, and step carefully to the side, so as not to harm them.  It is what I love about him. It is what has made me write a whole book about him. It is what has made me think more deeply than ever before about this strange coincidence of our relation:  we are the only two species, I think, who reliably, constantly, and consistently, make friends across the species barrier.  Benjy likes ducks, and rats, and squirrels, and people and other dogs.  So do I.  We like this about each other.

Did we learn to do this in tandem over the last 40,000 years?  That is what I have asked in this new book.  And each day Benjy causes me to marvel at his kindness, his dignified concern for every creature he encounters.  How did this happen?  How come other animals are not more like this?  What is it about dogs?  I live with four cats.  I don’t need to tell you, they are not like Benjy.  Not one bit.  I am going to blog about this in the next few days, because truth to tell, I find it one of the most fascinating topics on earth:  how dogs are more like us, in ways that count (at least to me) than any other animal on the planet.  How did this happen??

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
This entry was posted in Animal Rights, Books, Dogs and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Do we really know anything about intelligence in dogs or humans?

  1. nice post. Benji sounds like a great dog.

  2. Neil Young says:

    There are some truly lovely examples of inter-species friendships often involving dogs whether it is out of necessity, desperation, love or just a desire to do good – see: (Boxer dog adopts kid goat) (Bassett hound and owl) (baby kangaroo saved by dog)

    And the truly touching, joyous, devoted friendship between Tarra the elephant and a dog called Bella on an elephant sanctuary in the US:

    • Bella and the elephant is possibly my favorite Video! I just love to watch it over and over. The love between those two is just astonishing. Will check out your other recommendations too. Many thanks for sending. Jeff

  3. Monique Boutot says:

    I am so so so happy to find that you are doing a blog!!! And I should say: ABOUT TIME!!! Andra, my rescued greyhound is very much like Benji: I have to send a longer email about how she stopped chasing squirrels and crows and about how she adjusted living with 6 lovebirds who are flying freely in the house everynight while she sleeps on her back, belly up. (that is “roaching”, in greyhounds terms!) I suspect that she is kind to all animals because she wants to please me, and she knows that I ask her to be this way…
    I can’t wait to read your new book and see if you suggest the same thing!
    Thank you!

  4. Thanks! My first blog and already I get a wonderful comment like yours! I suspect our dogs were twins in their last life! Do send me more about Andra! Jeff

  5. Nancy LaRose says:

    Jeff, it’s so endearing to realize that Benjy stepped out of the way of ants. I do this too, of course, and yet, have probably not been as vigilant as he is. Much love, Nancy

  6. Thanks Nancy, I remember that nice quality of yours! I never understood why people feel compelled to squash an ant the minute they see one. I am teaching our kids to watch them with fascination. If they are a concern in the kitchen, leave some sweet substance at the door and they will flock!

  7. Tim Rempel says:

    Nice Blog Jeff … brings back memories of my hound days … Cesar, a loving German Shepard whom we left at the country home because we thought he’d miss the land, wild rabbits, and vineyard terrain more than us … or Alex, our neurotic urban Dachshund used to the confines of a small house, followed by Alushka, our Siberian Husky – a country dog who was aloof but loving and fierce. He battled rattlesnakes, deer, and other wild animals, did somersaults the first time he experienced the snow. He was not without quirks as he hated and grew violent towards anyone in a uniform … ultimately losing the fight with a UPS truck.
    Anecdotes aside, the story of humankind and the dog evolving in empathetic symbiosis over 40000 years is a compelling story …. Tim

  8. Ricahrd Meen says:

    Greetings: I have been meaning to contact you for years to thank you so very much for your continued articulation of so many important issues in our lives. Your new book once again triggers many thoughts regarding the human-animal bond and particularly in a realm of primary interest to me : caring for and understanding children. Dogs always get it right. The need for canines in our families and communities has never been greater in my opinion. The “tunnel vision” of the kennel clubs of the world concerns me greatly as the past president and chairperson on the board of one of them ( the Canadain Kennel Club) and I am on a mission to attempt to have them refocus and re-align their functions, duties, and responsibilities. Your current book supports the arguments that I have been putting forth so eloquently. Thank you.

    By the way we have met ( I do not expect you to remember) in the mid sixties I was a resident in psychiatry in Toronto and we both attended those Friday morning “rounds” at the Mount Sinai. Your books on that profession also are in my bookcase , well read, and well apprecaited also. Have a great day.

  9. Rebecca M. Narva says:

    OMG Dear Jeffrey
    – I just picked up and read “The Assault on Truth” that was left on a pile of give a-way books in the Pastoral Care Dept. at New York Presbyterian Cornell Hospital in NYC.
    THANK YOU THANK YOU. for your courage and dedication to the truth. The scope, the impact and implications of Freud’s turn from believing patients is so overwhelming – and heartbreaking. But so it is in place for now although by this time more truthful therapies are developing – that recognize truthful relationship and the huge presence of secret child abuse – physical, emotiona, sexual. I guess that is our work to keep opening to love – the one potent because non-damaging tool of investigation and health. What you have done is enormous. And it seems you have paid some harsh dues over it.

    Why your book is so important to me:
    My own mother was sexually abused as a child by her father – this her deepest secret but finally ferreted out by 4 daughters bent on discovering the sources of our families confusions, emotional repressions, adult struggles.
    My heart break to observe myself repeating a lack of tender care towards my own oldest daughter and the unsuccessful search for years for the therapist who could help me stop damaging her. Now I find the work of Byron Katie most helpful and the buddhist teachings of many including Thich Nhat Hanh – marvelous!!
    The deeply felt missing piece – mother love – in so many iterations. Stephen Mitchell’s book on the emotional life of Jesus reveals that his own relationship with his mother was not healed and remains vacant in any Christianity I know.
    Look at Michealangelo’s Pieta – Mary’s face is without expression. Her inner experience of the death of her child is not shown because its unknown. Were I that mother, I’d be moved to the passion, fury, unstoppable madness of Kali – not mute, silent, acceptance.

    So Thanks so much for all your wonderful and loving work. I’m training to be a buddhist chaplain and really the one gift we can give each other is open presence and mutual tenderness. Animals are our guides. They show this all the time – it is their being and thank you for your work in this area too. I have not read your other books but applaud your continuing pursuit of the greatest goodness of the heart.

  10. Chris Matthews says:

    I’ve read several of your wonderful books and just started The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving. You asked horse owners if their horses loved them back and I had to send a comment. I know my Arabians love me. From the time they are born, they are conditioned to NOT show much physical affection because they are very large animals. Therefore, their love and affection is subtle, as compared to Benjy. One example I will tell you is about my mare Zhara. We were in the barn and she turned around and accidentally knocked me down with her rear end. She knew exactly what she had done and backed up in the corner, shaking. It took me about twenty minutes of talking and petting her to calm her down. I know she had not been beaten or disciplined for anything like that in the past because I bred her and she was with me all of her 24 years of life. She was a true “tent” mare.

  11. Katy says:

    “we are the only two species, I think, who reliably, constantly, and consistently, make friends across the species barrier.”

    I don’t know about reliably and consistently, but I was recently at the Toba, Japan, acquarium (with my daughter, a manatee biologist) and we visited their dugong, who is well known (they have a book about it in Japanese at their store and we observed that they live together) for her deep friendship with a sea turtle. When separated the dugong becomes quite depressed. Not sure about the turtle.

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