Old Dogs Teach Themselves New Tricks, So There

Life in the Big Empty continues (thank god). Probably the biggest news is that Bear is learning language. No, she can’t talk. I haven’t gone off the deep end (still splashing around in the shallow end), but if you remember the TV show, Lassie, you know what I mean. The head thing Lassie did, like, “What is it Lassie? Oh no! Little Timmy’s fallen down the well?” Lassie could say all that just with her head. Bear’s getting there, and it’s a new thing.

Livestock Guardian dogs don’t normally live “with” people like Bear does. They do their thing, people do their thing and life is good. Bear, obviously, lives WITH her human. So does Teddy, a vastly different kind of dog, a naturally communicative kind of dog. Australian shepherds respond to whistles, words, gestures, even lights. They are (unless they are on a mission to chase sheep or smells) determined to communicate with their humans and to hear what their humans have to say. After three years of living with Teddy, Bear’s starting to get it. First, it was cookies. Bear began to gesture with her head toward the counter where the cookies are. I was stunned, and, at first, didn’t believe it, but that’s what she was doing.

Then, walks. I call Teddy to take a walk by saying, “C’mon, Teddy. Let’s put your coat on.” The coat is whatever tool I’m using to make it easier for me to walk him. Right now it’s a martingale collar. He then goes running out to the garage, comes back a couple of times to see if I mean it and to make sure I have MY coat on.

Until the last couple of days Bear really didn’t get what was going on, and she didn’t get to go because I couldn’t catch her. I figured she didn’t want to come along which was fine. She’s a free dog. It seems that, suddenly, it all had meaning to her, and she runs out to the garage, too. Yesterday she reached a new communication level. I was standing by the front door. I had just brought in the mail. Bear was in the kitchen. She looked at me and moved her head toward the back door.

“Huh?” I thought. Did she really DO that?

“Bear,” I said, “did you just do this?” and I mimicked her. She watched me and did it again. “Whoa,” I thought, “that’s Australian Shepherd behavior.” I thought about it some more and realized that in a lot of ways Bear has become more visually acute. If I wave at her, she wags her tail. If I cock my head and smile, she comes to me. This is all new stuff.

I honestly didn’t want to go for a walk, but now I had to. I called Teddy to come and get his coat on. Bear ran outside. I was curious to see what she’d do, so I grabbed her leash. Would she? Sure enough, she followed Teddy out to the garage, then came to me to get her leash. A complete sentence and new behavior for my 7 year old dog.

Akbash dogs are described in most breed descriptions as not being particularly intelligent dogs. I have taken issue with that since I got Bear. The first night she lived here, she was ready to guard. She let me know in no uncertain terms that her place was with my other dogs, not in a crate. What’s a smart dog, anyway?

This good article on the subject of dog intelligence explains that dog intelligence measurement is related to how obedient to humans the dogs are. Aussies are not in the top ten, but the fourth level. Walking Teddy on a leash after doing substantial obedience work with him proves THAT. Dogs like Bear? The bottom, along with my favorite breed, Siberian Huskies.

I think as far as these breed descriptions go, a smart dog is a dog that behaves in a way humans “get,” that can be easily trained to do things humans want them to do whether it’s tricks or working animals. Livestock guardian dogs don’t “work” animals, per se. They live with, care for, and protect animals of different species. They are independent thinkers and very reliable, qualities which are not, apparently, “smart.” Recently a local rescue took in a dog that “failed” at herding. He is an Australian shepherd/Pyrenees mix. Pyrenees are, like Bear, livestock guardian dogs. I really wanted that guy, but I know myself. I’m not a three dog woman any more. He was given up because he had no herding instinct, but he was happy to take care of the chickens. I don’t know who his owner was, but it made me think about the dog intelligence thing. I get that a guy with sheep needs a herding dog, not a dog who takes care of chickens, and the dog now has good owners.

Teddy has been watching me for the past 20 minutes as I drank my coffee, waiting for a particular head movement that will tell him that I’m finished with my coffee and about to set the cup on the floor for him. If I have rawhides in my back pocket, and he wants one, he’ll push the pocket with his nose or, if he REALLY wants one he’ll try to take one out. Bear simply waits. Which dog is smarter? I think a seven year old dog who figures things out on her own and improves her ability to communicate with a human is pretty smart. And what’s that intelligence thing, anyway? It’s like humans. We all have varying styles of intelligence, combinations and missing parts. I have almost NO aural learning ability, but I can paint.

So what was our walk like? Shorter than usual, but I have to say that the Refuge has a strange power over me, a good power. I can go out there in any messed up state of mind and soon? Its quiet beauty, solitude and silence work their magic and I am OK again. We took their favorite walk and I let them both smell everything, Bear on one side of the trail, Teddy on the other. Most of the snow is gone, but there was enough for Bear to roll in a couple of times.

A while back I wrote a post that said everything I had to say about Caramels. I can’t do better or even otherhere it is.

19 thoughts on “Old Dogs Teach Themselves New Tricks, So There

  1. Woke up to snow this morning. Toulouse would’ve loved it. We’d be out there cruising. Dog smarts are WAY different than human smarts. But it’s more profound than most people think. We are NOT the crown of creation and it frustrates me that most people think we are.

    • It frustrates me, too. Behind Bear’s new behavior is this message, “I love you so much and I want to ‘talk’ to you. It’s not enough that you see I understand you when you say ‘I love you’. I want to go out with you to the Big Empty because I love it, too.” I am so very grateful for all the years I’ve gotten to live with dogs and all the dogs who’ve graced my life. I wish you had Toulouse to ramble with in the snow today.

  2. Hi Martha, I’m finally emerging from the piles of boxes, dust and chaos of our move, and what a great post to come back to. Reading about your canine cohabitants is always a treat, but I’ve learned quite a bit here about dog intelligence and communication. I’m always amazed at quite how switched on our animal friends are, and I think we humans can often way underestimate their abilities. It must be so satisfying to know that you and Bear have the ability to understand one another in a kind of sign language. What a special connection! 🙂 ❤

  3. We have a border collie mixed with some kind of spaniel who trained us to fetch. Picked up a toy and put it in our lap. We’d put it back in the toy bin, and she does it again. Finally, we caught on and threw it. She caught it mid-air and brought it back.

    Capable of amazing acrobatics when she was young. One time she pointed out a covey of quail in a juniper, flushed it, caught a quail in mid-flight, broke its neck, and brought it back to me. I wasn’t hunting, so I had to leave the bird behind.

    Even when we didn’t want to lay fetch, she has ways of coaxing us into it. She has been obsessed with fetch and tug of war her entire life.

    A long time ago we had a Queensland blue heeler (Aussie cattle dog) who was probably just as intelligent. The problem with her was that she was stubborn. Perfect angel and obedient to anyone but my wife and me. Around us, it was a perpetual battle of wills. We still loved her, and she was a vital part of my daughter’s early childhood.

    • According to the article, Border Collies are the smartest dogs and Queensland heelers aren’t far behind. I just think is really interesting what dogs choose to do. My Aussie/Malamute mix wouldn’t herd goats or sheep, but she put all the kids (my niece and her friends) in one corner of my yard and kept them there. Teddy’s the opposite of your heeler. He never jumps on me unless I invite him. He sits the moment he sees me. He’ll walk at heel if I let him know that’s important. Otherwise? He’s totally out of control. Strong willed little guy — or he only respects the one who feeds him. I don’t know which; he does. The huskies were the most interesting dogs — NO personal loyalty whatsoever and I’m sure it’s partly because they knew they were capable of feeding themselves, thank you very much. But Lily, my last husky, in the last hour of her life, remained close, close, close to me as if she were saying, “I loved you all along.” I knew that, but she was a husky. But my husky/wolf? The most loyal dog I’ve ever had. Dangerously so. I have loved all the differences and experiences they’ve brought to my life.

  4. I agree that the measure of intelligence of dogs has mostly been based on trainability – how well do they do what we ask. The domestication of dogs began before recorded history and humans selectively bred them for specific tasks and a willingness to respond to what the human wanted. So most folks think squirrels are pretty brainless but they hide nuts based on the orientation of the sun and landmarks! I couldn’t do that and still be able to find them later! Anyway. I for one am not surprised that Bear has learned from Teddy a new style of communication. Dogs are adaptable! When Bear saw that Teddy got a positive response when he communicated a certain way, she tried it and it worked. I’m betting you’ll have more communication with Bear than what you’ve seen now!

    • She is amazing. Today at the vet Teddy got his shot, she got hers and then she got between me and the vet so I didn’t get stuck with a needle. Meanwhile, as Bear is guarding me, the vet’s asking “So what does she guard?” 🤣

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