Canine Ingenuity

This morning, I was struck yet again with how absurdly foolish our small Bichon Frisé can be. On our morning walk, she cowered submissively for the half block as a Doberman approached, then barked and leaped at the Doberman as it walked past us. I apologized — the Doberman could have swallowed Bea whole without even noticing. Then, as if to adjust her standards, she tried to pounce on the next dog we saw, a miniature poodle that walked by us (again after crouching in submission). The poodle was actually Bea’s size, but the poodle was behaving herself.

With all this manifestation of her diminished capacity, I reflected that she had no problem at all with what seemed to me an impressively abstract problem. When she’s on the leash, whenever we pass a tree, street sign, lamp post, or whatever, she always walks on the same side as I do.

The leash hangs behind her head, so she doesn’t have visual stimulation telling her she’s tied to me. I’ve never scolded her or deliberately given training relative to tree navigation. The concept of “connectedness” is pretty fluid and elusive. Yet even though she would walk out in front of a moving car, though she would challenge a Doberman, though she treats her red doggie toy as a great threat to family security, yet she understands not to try to walk around the opposite side of a tree when she’s on a leash. Strange dog.

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  1. I’ve been thinking way too much about dog psychology lately, having moved our gentle giant Finnegan from upstate New York into a Manhattan neighborhood crowded with dogs. He has always been a little likely to bark and leap on dogs, but once asserting dominance, plays nicely. Here, every walk means quick turns around corners to avoid coming nose-to-nose with another dog and lunging at him–frightening everyone involved. He’s getting better, and no doubt will acclimate nicely once he’s more used to the routine.

    But in watching these dogs, it strikes me that size doesn’t matter. Finn is huge and tends to be dominant, sure, but I don’t think it has to do with his size. (Well, perhaps the size of parts of him that will shortly be removed.) Although many animal behaviorists say that dogs don’t have any notion of “status” in the way we think about it, there is certainly some complex self-and-other negotiation going on here. And we’ve had plenty of occasions recently to meet Chihuahuas with Napoleon complexes.

    I know that Finn likes to know who is in charge. He feels uncomfortable with the idea that there is no one who is taking the lead. And so, when entering into a social situation where that is unclear, he does something about it. With humans, it’s always been clear that they were in charge, but with other dogs — perhaps because he is better able to communicate with them — there is some room for misunderstanding. Now, all I need to do is convince him that any dog he meets really is in charge, but that’s going to take a while.

    The moral of the story: physics is easy, the social world is a bit more tricky.

  2. My dachshund Molley (Twerpette) does the same thing. She also lunges at a cat, barking (on the leash), only to yipe, whimper and lunge backwards if she gets close.

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