So you think you're smarter than a dog?

By Sarah E. Reynolds | May 26, 2017

If you ever need a check on your pride or want some evidence that the human intellect is not the last word in intelligence, get a dog. Canines have an intelligence -- and a cunning -- that can outstrip us hyper-evolved apes any day, as long as the playing field is level.

The other morning, Maureen was going to take me to work and then take Riley to his vet appointment in Portland. As usual, I got up first, let Riley out in the fenced area on the side of the house, let him back in and gave him breakfast.

As I was making my own breakfast, Riley said he wanted to out in the unfenced part of the yard, which is a normal part of his morning routine. I looked at the clock: 7:10, plenty of time for Riley to go out and come back before we had to leave at 8. I opened the kitchen slider and out he went into the sunshine and birdsong.

As I was finishing my breakfast, I heard Maureen walking around upstairs, so I went up to let Cushla out of the bedroom so she could go outside. A few minutes later I let her in and shut her in the den so I could call Riley in. We don't let the two dogs be together – it's a long story.

So I stepped out on the deck and started clapping for Riley. He's getting pretty hard of hearing, so you have to make a lot of noise at a register he can hear. If you come up and touch him without his seeing you, he gets startled. He was lying in the grass in front of the deck, and after a while of me clapping, he stood up, looked over his shoulder at me, and walked away down the driveway. Not to worry, I thought, it's still early, and he usually comes in on his own after a while.

I heard Maureen start the shower upstairs, so I figured there was some time before we'd be ready to go, anyway. It was maybe 7:35. I got out everything I needed to take with me to work and went to sit on the deck. I figured if he saw me just sitting there, Riley might even come up to me for some petting.

It was sunny and warm, but not too hot; the birds were singing. A beautiful spring morning. After a bit, I went inside. Maureen was downstairs and had to let Cushla out of the den for a minute to give her a pill. That accomplished, the Shepherd went back in the den, where she would stay while Maureen was gone, and I went out to call Riley again. He'd come back to the yard, but when he saw me, he moved away again. This happened a few more times. I'd go out, clap and call for him, offering treats, and he would give me a jaundiced look and move farther away, sometimes walking off into the woods where I couldn't see him at all.

Now it was almost 8, and time to get serious. I backed the car out of the garage, thinking he'd get the idea that we were going somewhere, because he usually likes to get in the car for a ride. He was interested, but wary, and wouldn't come close enough for me to get him into the car.

Maureen came out and we both got in the car. We started down the driveway, Riley in front of the car, but we couldn't get close enough that I could jump out and grab him. We didn't want to get too close to the end of our dirt road, because Riley could get into the busy road that goes by it. So after a while, Maureen backed the car up the road, up our driveway, with Riley slowly following. At one point, I got out of the car and started walking up the driveway as if to go inside, hoping he'd follow me.

He did, but at a safe distance. I tried throwing a treat in his direction, and he ran away from it. Meantime, it seemed to have gotten hotter, and the black flies were feasting on us and making a nuisance of themselves. I clapped and coaxed and yelled and pleaded, and Riley would not come.

We tried commanding him to get down. He sat, but would not lie down. We went inside and did something else for a couple of minutes. Riley sought the shade under the deck. Then we came back outside. It was well after 8 now, and we were both late to our respective destinations.

Maureen had an idea, and handed me the cardboard box the dogs' treats were shipped in. “I'll try to herd him toward you,” she said, “and you see if you can drop that box over him.” I was dubious, but since nothing else had worked, figured I might as well go along.

We were slowly moving toward Riley from different directions when the dog, inspired, lunged for one of the fist-sized rocks he likes to play with. “Get the rock!” we encouraged him, advancing slowly. “Get it! Good boy!” Riley was growling at the rock, rolling on his “prey.” I swooped in and scooped him up, depositing him in the backseat of the car. It was now 8:30. So much for leaving work early on a Friday.

As we headed out of the driveway, I said to Maureen, “You know why we caught him, don't you?”

“Because he was tired?”

“He was ready to end the game.”

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