RIP Sammy the Dog

Lord, let me be the person my dog thinks I am.
The pet-owners prayer.

SammyandReneeKissingSammy was nearly 15 years old when he departed this world in our arms Saturday morning. My ex- was there with me, as she was when we brought him back from the pound in 2000.

You can even see in the pictures, Sammy was special. His lineage – a mix of Samoyed and Chow – triggers that ‘aw…’ response in the human psyche; part teddy bear, part koala bear, with a touch of wolfieness for attitude.

He made literally hundreds of friends in the several locales in which he lived, welcoming them from driveway, porch and yard space with his comehither smile and tail wag. Aggressive dogs did not intimidate him. Small dogs never felt intimidated by him. He addressed all with an air of optimistic curiosity.fEBRUARY 2004 004 for blackberry

He had an unusual way of looking people straight in the eye. In his later months, his arthritic walk was interpreted by others as being regal – or as a FedEx driver said, pimping it.

The day was clearly coming, but the hole in my heart is much bigger than I had expected. And it turns out my reactions are typical. I’ve heard from a hundred people the same thing – Sammy was so nice, and I miss my own dog so much too.

Someone said it’s because, unlike with most people, we can’t discuss with them their imminent demise – they are wholly dependent on us for deploying the power of life and death.

Others note that, just as our dogs are constantly monitoring our state of being, so are we constantly aware of them, even if unconsciously. And I do notice, many many many times a day, his absence.

SAmmyearsandtongue2Sammy was special?  Sure, but so was your dog. And yours. Deeply unique, all of them, yet all with that capacity to love unconditionally.

And don’t tell me (us) “he’s just a dog, that’s not love.” Not buying it. There is a continuum of consciousness, and it overlaps species considerably. ‘Sam in a dog’s body’ is what we called him, and so he was.

I’ve held off writing this for several days, because I wasn’t sure what to say. I want to share my pain, but I don’t want to be all gratuitously self-involved. I also don’t want to claim my experience is unique – clearly, it’s not. And while I’d like to draw some conclusions about what it all means, I also decided not to waste the time on intellectualizing it.


I had a dear friend. He’s gone. It’s sad, very sad. And I know now, better than before, how many of you have gone there before, and know exactly what I’m feeling – and I, you.


RIP Sam, no longer in a dog’s body.

You Think Your Dog is Smart? You Don’t Know the Half of it

Smart Dog

According to a New York Times article, your average dog “is about as intellectually advanced as a 2- to 2-and-a-half-year-old-child.”  The article goes on to say:

Dr. Coren has come up with an intelligence ranking of 100 breeds, with border collies at No. 1. He says the most intelligent breeds (poodles, retrievers, Labradors and shepherds) can learn as many as 250 words, signs and signals, while the others can learn 165.

But Clive D. L. Wynne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida who specializes in canine cognition…takes issue with efforts to compare human and canine brains.

He argues that it is dogs’ deep sensitivity to the humans around them, their obedience under rigorous training, and their desire to please that can explain most of these capabilities. They may be deft at reading human cues — and teachable — but that doesn’t mean they are thinking like people, he says. A dog’s entire world revolves around its primary owner, and it will respond to that person to get what it wants, usually food, treats or affection.

“I take the view that dogs have their own unique way of thinking,” Dr. Wynne said. “It’s a happy accident that doggie thinking and human thinking overlap enough that we can have these relationships with dogs, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that dogs are viewing the world the way we do.”

What is Intelligence, Anyway?

Apparently the conclusion we are meant to draw is that dogs look pretty smart, but it’s really just behavioral training—good old stimulus and response stuff, hooking them in by bribes to get their food, treats and affection. (If I read it wrong, please correct me).

Most of us dog-owners, I suspect, find this treatment unpersuasive. But don’t believe us. Consider the far more striking information from earlier in the same article. Consider Jet:

Jet is both a seizure alert dog and a psychiatric service dog whose owner has epilepsy, severe anxiety, depression, various phobias and hypoglycemia. Jet has been trained to anticipate seizures, panic attacks and plunging blood sugar and will alert his owner to these things by staring intently at her until she does something about the problem. He will drop a toy in her lap to snap her out of a dissociative state. If she has a seizure, he will position himself so that his body is under her head to cushion a fall.

Jet is not unique. Other dogs are trained to deal with suicidal tendencies, turning on lights for trauma victims, reminding owners to take medication, and so forth.

The Fallacy of Reducing Motives to Behavioral Indicators

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it useful to describe Jet’s behavior solely in terms of fulfilling a desire for affection, much less food. It’s precisely the same discomfort I get when I hear economists describe unselfish behavior among humans.

In an attempt to preserve an elegant theoretical model about how self-serving behaviors lie at the heart of all human action, I have heard economists ascribe unselfish behavior to longer term self-aggrandizement, or to advancing the species’ interests by occasionally sacrificing the good of an individual.

But sometimes devotion to others, unselfishness, an inclination to collaborate, is best described as simply what it appears to be.

As ee cummings put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I trust my dog with my life—but not with my ham sandwich. Which suggests it’s highly doubtful that my dog would save my life in order to get a deferred-gratification ham sandwich. Something else is going on.

So is Jet smart? If you measure by human vocabulary, as smart as a 2 year old. Personally I’m not blown away by two-year olds’ intelligence, except in comparison to 1-year olds. That’s not what I mean when I say wow, my dog is really smart.

What I mean when I call a dog smart is that empathy thing, the ability to not hold a grudge, to reach out and touch someone.

To elevate the word “smart” (as in vocabulary breadth) to a higher level than “smart” (as in save a life and mend a heart) is to waste a good word.