Black Squirrels and Dog Nets

Some Thoughts on Dog Intelligence

I've been hoping for five years to give Crom a chance to see black squirrels and finally, last weekend, he got his treat. They are smaller and higher-voiced than the dun squirrels he's used to, but I doubt if that means anything to him. And I doubt if he cared about it as much as I did. He's black; I find the symmetry engaging. He may have been stimulated by the variances. If it is true (I don't believe it) that dogs don't "see" color, they are still subtly different in shape, thickness of fur, contrast with the surroundings. I'm sure they smell different too. Maybe they offer him the same pleasant confusion I find in the Chinese/Mexican blend of Filipino food.


But my point is not exotic stimulants, it's animal intelligence, continuing my essays on dog language in a slightly tangental direction. And not the question of color vision, which I don't find very interesting, but reasoning. His first visit to the black squirrels gave him a chance to remind me again that he thinks.

Crom is old. Nine, to be exact, with ten a few months away. In recent months, three dogs we know, his age or younger, have died. Age is not mere chronology, duration. I was thirty-five until a few months from my fiftieth birthday and now, for five years, old, like my dog. It was last summer that he began to be old. He began to wake later, and harder. His joints ache; his hearing is thicker, muddy. And the walks that wore me out — 2, 3, once 6 miles, often twice a day on weekends — are beyond his endurance now. Much beyond two miles leaves him grinning desperately, panting, his eyes squinting as we trudge back to the car; and a good morning walk makes the evening walk a perfunctory ten minutes, a half mile or so more symbolic of familiar ritual than strenuous. We used to have a favorite walk that was a linear 4 miles out and back. I quit taking him there because he insisted on going all the way out and then we struggled to walk 2 miles back. Dogs have good mapping skills, but the concept that two miles out requires two miles back is hard for them. For humans too, but never mind.

Our current favorite walk is a deformed cloverleaf which we can take in half-mile bits without getting too far from the car. We walk two leaves most days, sometimes three, sometimes only one if we've had a busy morning. Another favorite is a lazy figure-eight which we can shorten by turning back at the junction,or lengthen in a number of ways. We overextend sometimes, but on the whole he gets back to the car tired, not exhausted. And happy, which is the point, after all.

Stanley Park, the home of the black squirrels, is huge for a city park. A blunt thumb at the top of Vancouver, jutting out into the bay, it totals at least four square miles and it is incised with a net of trails. The first time I walked there, I got completely turned around, lost, and exhausted, having set out on foot from my hotel. It is covered with thick forest that breaks into small clearings, two of them with lakes. A road circumscribes its outline, and beaches spread and thin along the shores. In the trees, surrounded by damp and shade and silence, it's impossible on a cloudy day to tell north from south. ("The moss! The moss!" All right, I exaggerate. But knowing where the North Pole is doesn't necessarily tell you where your hotel is.) The trails wind so sinuously that what seems the obvious way to the shore may take you deeper into the woods.

We live a half block from a shoreline walk that gives us all the distance we need, but little variety and no loops or doublebacks. He has already taken it too far, past a second bridge that I now know to enforce as a boundary. The river is populated with a variety of waterbirds — unfamiliar ducks, gulls and herons and cormorants, the rare loon floating like a risen submarine, but no black squirrels. So we drove in to the park, our first Saturday. I've been there often — six visits to Vancouver in five years with more than one trip to the park each time — and I am fairly confident that I 'know' the park. So I took us to a good starting point, the second beach. It was a good choice; we came immediately to the junction of three trails and I let him choose. We headed north (the moss, shadows).

Let's go, Pop.

A lot of Crom's communication is done through body language. He has a favorite loop, back on South Boulder Creek, that I don't like because it takes us out of the park and across some streets. When we get to the junction for that loop, he takes a few steps out onto the loop and then begins looking over his shoulder, usually grinning a bit like a friend trying to reinforce a request. If I say "Ok," he breaks into his normal trot and we go that way. If I don't, he gets slower and slower, still committed, until I tell him what I want to do. Sometimes he argues, stopping when I say, "No, this way" and gesture toward the back trail to the car. Sometimes he stands poised for my change of mind while I insist or reconsider.

He's been so sick since we arrived in Vancouver that I didn't expect much energy from him, but he set off immediately, enthralled by the rich loamy odor of the trailside, ears and tail perky and a bounce in his step. I laughed for joy and jogged along behind. It was cool and reasonably dry, by my high plains standards, but the soil was damp and invisible moisture coated the ferns and leaves. We crossed a boggy place where logs no thicker than a forearm had been laid on the trail to make the mud passable. We went about half a mile and then he stopped.

When he is tired, rather than going the full loop he will stop this way. He didn't seem tired, but he followed his considering pattern. He looks around a bit, as if thinking about his options, his face serious rather than open and relaxed. He looks this way and that, takes a few walking steps, and I say, "You want to go back?" to let him know that I don't mind. He will look back, take a few steps, still undecided. Or with a dramatic little surge commit to the walk, as if he had suddenly made up his mind. Or he may turn around and head back. This time, with some reflection, he did the latter. We'd only walked about twenty minutes. Since he has been sick and stiff, I was not surprised. There would be other chances.

The junction of four trails.

Soon we were at the junction again. It's marked with signs, a trash can, and a small enclosure sheltering a log bench. The trails are nearly a perfect X, and I could see the car a hundred feet away. He stopped at the crossroads and chose again, and we headed toward the lake and Georgia Street. This was a longer and more challenging trail than I would liked, but it was clear that he wanted it, so we crossed the road but not the footbridge. We stopped for two swans standing sullenly on the shore waiting for suckers with breadcrumbs. He's never seen swans, but he likes geese. I explained that swans were geese on steroids, not only armed and dangerous but with bad attitudes. He sat expectantly and watched them for a few minutes. They glanced warily at us, but an elderly couple happened along and offered them food, so they lost interest.

We moved on along the shore and, as I figured out how to negotiate an approaching barrier, some construction fence that blocked the trail, he spotted the first squirrel and was off like a shot. Chasing squirrels is one minor indulgence I allow him. I know he can't catch them, unless, like a hapless one we met on Boise River, they make the mistake of running up a tree only three feet high. And I know he won't hurt them, because the one he "caught" he merely sniffed enthusiastically while it hugged the tree and made desperate offers to whatever god squirrels invoke. So unless there are children who might get trampled or streets that might suddenly produce cars, I let him exercise the squirrels.

The park, being gorgeous.
Crom, being happy.

The black was, sure enough, fascinating. He spent a long time smelling the twenty feet it had crossed before disappearing into a tree, nosing the leaves piled against that tree, checking the ground, looking up in the tree. At one point, I spotted the squirrel in a limb crotch behind the trunk. But Crom gave up, finally, and we moved on, his carriage expectant and alert. Along the road around the detour we came upon another trail back into the trees and it looped us back again, becoming the trail we had started with. We saw two more squirrels before we reached the crossroads again.

And again he chose a new direction, the last branch we hadn't tried. It was uphill, and we didn't go far before he turned back and we headed for the car, tired and happy. We drove over to Georgia, up and around to Prospect Point, where I got coffee and he got out again. At the point we came upon a group of people feeding four or five young raccoons. An old man hurried over to warn us away and the raccoons scuttled back into the bushes. Crom sat again, watching through the fence, and after a few minutes one, then another, and a third and fourth head appeared. I had to remind him to sit and I explained what they were in a soft voice. We watched them. They kept a wary eye on us, trusting the fence and enjoying the treats.

We spent two hours in the park, and then drove home. On the way, I wondered when he figured out that he could lower the risk of the walk by taking it in loops. I can't prove he thought it through. There is another explanation, that he was tired when he turned back the first time, but decided to push himself when we returned to the crossing. And another, that when we got to the crossing something happened that made the downhill trail interesting. And another, that he chose the downhill trail thinking it would take us back to the car, wishfully believing that the easiest way was also the one we needed. And one more, that my body language told him I wanted to go down to the road and lake.

In reverse order, my arguments:

Body language blah blah
I didn't want to go to the lake. I didn't want to go back to the car. I didn't care where we went, how long we went, or what we did. In the fifteen minutes since he decided to go back, I'm reasonably sure that my "body language" had recovered from my surprise at his decision, so I doubt if his "body language reading" ran along the unintelligent lines of "Pop disapproves of my wanting to go back. He must want to walk some more, and since his every wish is my command, I'll try to recover his spirits by forcing myself down this trail over here."

This body language stuff is self-serving human apologist baloney, a handy rationalization prompted by the story, famous in animal intelligence discussions, of Clever Hans, the horse who was so stupid that instead of doing math he figured out answers by reading the body language of the humans watching him. Of course animals read our communications differently. But little Timmie's body language communicated to Lassie that he needed the 200-pound-test nylon rope, not the white cotton clothesline? Whatever. My stress odor and stress tension are just as worrisome to Crom as my tone of voice, and they are part of my communication just like the subtle clues that I was lying spoke to my mother while we considered the mysteriously empty cookie jar.

But "subtle, unconscious cues" has become the "God's ways are beyond our ken" of authoritarian humans afraid of losing their last claim to the top rung of the evolutionary ladder, our priesthood of scientists and their deacons, saints, and sacristans. That rung, folks, is claimed with different arguments, equally telling, by cockroaches.
He screwed up and went the wrong way
This is a hard one to dignify with response, on the order of the guy who says, after you figure the square root of 117 in your head in thirty seconds, that it's just a lucky guess. Crom may not be able to reduce Dickens to deconstructionist babble, tell you the genus and species of the Common Loon (Noamus Chompscii), or construct a semi-automatic pistol from twigs and rocks, but he is not stupid, particularly about dog specialities like helping odor-blind humans get their butts out of a hole in the ground. Saying he is too dumb to know where the car is, is semantic sophistry. He knows where he's been, his own odor and mine laid like the slime trail of two banana slugs behind us. He has occasionally "screwed up and gone the wrong way," in places where the clues were muddled by our walking patterns and the goal not clear. But this was our first time on these trails. If I'd have asked him to find the car, he'd have found it. If he'd wanted to go the car, he'd have gone to the car.
Something caught his attention
I have to accept the possibility of this explanation, but I've been reading his body language for a decade, and at that crossroads he was thinking and choosing, not suddenly surprised into changing his mind. I don't always know what interests him, but I often do, and nothing happened there to give him second thoughts. And this explanation ignores the third loop, which took us uphill, almost as hard on him as me. Something else caught his attention? He is not a butterfly; when he wants to go somewhere, we go if I am willing. I think he decided each time based on how tired he was and how interesting the environment was. Occam would buy that.
He changed his mind
Crom considers his next move.

Posing in Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C.
Crom considers his next move.

This is also a reasonable alternative, but the third loop makes what he did a bit more subtle than the rather frivolous, "I dunno... whadayou wanna do?" Certainly he may have changed his mind in the sense that he reserved the right to bail out when he got tired, but he also engineered the walk so that he could bail without having a big return trip. I wouldn't go so far as to claim that he decided what to do the first time we stood at the crossroads. I think the amazing decision was made when he connected "we can go back" with "there are more trails." He was not tired when we turned back. I was startled, in fact, because I can usually tell when he's getting tired. His head droops. He varies his pace, like a car stalling on fumes. There was none of that.

Intelligence is a combination of information, knowledge, and reasoning. That day in the park, he had no information. It was all new. He had his knowledge, including the routine of cloverleaf looping we had devised to control the physical strain of the walk. And I think he reasoned it out and came to a brilliant conclusion. Dogs think. That's what he was doing.

— Mick McAllister


Top Essays Book Reviews [mainly]