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Not-So-Stupid Pet Tricks

5 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

I once knew a golden retriever named Newton who had a perverse sense of humor. Whenever I tossed out a Frisbee for him to chase, he’d take off in hot pursuit but then seem to lose track of it. Trotting back and forth only a yard or two from the toy, Newton would look all around, even up into the trees. He seemed genuinely baffled. Finally, I’d give up and head into the field to help him out. But no sooner would I get within 10 ft. of him than he would invariably dash straight over to the Frisbee, grab it and start running like mad, looking over his shoulder with what looked suspiciously like a grin.

Just about every pet owner has a story like this and is eager to share it with anyone who will listen. On very short notice, TIME staffers came up with 25 anecdotes about what each is convinced is the smartest pet in the world. Among them: the cat who closes the door behind him when he goes into the bathroom; the cat who uses a toilet instead of a litter box — and flushes it afterward; the dog who goes wild when he sees his owner putting on blue jeans instead of a dress because jeans mean it is time to play; and the cat who used to wait patiently at the bus stop every day for a little girl, then walk her the six blocks home. And so on.

These behaviors are certainly clever, but what do they mean? Was Newton really devious? Can a cat really crave privacy on the potty? In short, do household pets really have a mental and emotional life? Their owners think so, but until recently, animal-behavior experts would have gone ballistic on hearing such a question. The worst sin in their moral vocabulary was anthropomorphism, projecting human traits onto animals. A dog or a cat might behave as if it were angry, lonely, sad, happy or confused, but that was only in the eye of the beholder. What was going on, they insisted, was that the dog or cat had been conditioned, through a perhaps inadvertent series of punishments and rewards, to behave a certain way. The behavior was a mechanical result of the training.

But that has become a minority viewpoint. Explains Alan Beck, an animal ecologist at Purdue: “There are undoubtedly still scientists out there who question the intelligence of dogs and cats because they don’t have the hard data. They feel it’s unscientific to acknowledge phenomena we can’t prove.” But the majority of Beck’s colleagues, he says, now accept the notion that animals have, for lack of a better phrase, an emotional and intellectual life. “I am absolutely convinced, for example, that my dog feels guilty when he defecates on the rug,” says Beck. “A blind observer could see it. He behaves the same way I would have if my mother had caught me doing it. If it looks the same as human behavior in the same situation and is being used to solve the same problem, why shouldn’t you be able to use words we use for human emotions to describe it?”

Ethologist Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado agrees: “I have no doubt that my dog Jethro experiences beliefs about the outcome of his actions, expectations about the future. He has goals. If he tries to solicit play and I don’t play with him, he is surprised — and he looks it. It’s just wrong to say dogs don’t have thoughts and beliefs about their world just because these might be different from our beliefs.”

None of this comes as a surprise to Warren Eckstein, an animal behaviorist and radio broadcaster who produces the animal segments on television’s Live with Regis & Kathie Lee. “Years ago,” he says, “I wrote an article on the effects of divorce on pets. People said I was crazy. Now it’s actively under research.” Eckstein even attacks the conventional wisdom that dogs are gregarious and cats are aloof. “It all depends on how you treat them. Raise a kitten the way you would a puppy, and it will grow up to act like a dog.” (Scientists like Bekoff insist that the behavioral differences are in fact innate and that they are relics of the animals’ past: wolves, the ancestors of dogs, are pack animals, while most feral cats are solitary.)

The bottom line: anthropomorphism has been proclaimed O.K. Your cat may well be grinning at you. Your dog may really be in a depression. And pets may be smarter than some of us think. After all, it took no time at all for Newton to train me to chase him through a farmer’s field, trying desperately to retrieve a Frisbee.

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