Our smart, hairy children

A RECENT STUDY in the journal Science concludes that dogs may be able to master vocabularies of up to 200 words.

The border collie in the study exhibited advanced reasoning skills, using the process of elimination to figure out the meaning of new words.


These findings have the experts pretty excited. I think the reaction of the average dog owner would be either, "See, I told you Fluffy understands every word I say," or, "That study doesn't begin to capture the brilliance of my little Fluffy."

See, 83 percent of American dog owners refer to themselves as "Mommy" or "Daddy," according to a report in American Demographics. With 40 percent of American homes having a dog, there are literally millions of doggie daddies and mommies out there. And once you claim parenthood, you immediately set about proving how smart your offspring is. (That's why the Baby Einstein Co. isn't called Joe Baby.)


My wife claims her human son, Jonah, could recite poetry at 8 months old. She's also sure her little Joey, a Yorkie-poodle mix, understands full sentences containing words even the dictionary has trouble defining, such as "actually" and "nevertheless." When I remind her that what Joey really hears when she talks is "Blah, blah, blah, blah, Joey, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, Joey," she looks at me with the tenderness she reserves for creatures that don't have a clue -- such as amoebas and snails.

Now don't get me wrong. I love dogs. Besides Joey, we live with Ribsy and Honey. Oh yeah, and five kids. And I, too, think dogs are brilliant. Way more brilliant than the study in Science suggests.

It's one thing to understand the words bouncy ball and yet another to get someone to buy you a massage, which is something 16 percent of pet owners did for their pets last year. I understand words such as verisimilitude and not only can't I get anyone to buy me a massage, I also can't get my wife to scratch me behind the ears. (OK, so I'm a little jealous of Joey. I think Freud documented this kind of thing between fathers and sons.)

As a man, I greatly admire dogs. My brother and I share the same stretch goal: to take a nap in the middle of the afternoon on our birthdays. Last year, my brother's birthday fell on the same day as the Ohio State vs. Michigan football game. Instead of napping before the game, he got greedy and decided to have a beer with lunch. He ended up falling asleep in the first quarter and missing the game. My point is that dogs set their sights so much higher than men. Joey, for example, naps every hour. If you believe that humans acquire wealth in order to attain leisure, then Joey is one rich little guy.

Oh sure, there are lots of smart, talented dogs out there -- seeing-eye dogs and bomb-sniffing dogs. You know, the working-class dogs. And while they're obviously intellectually gifted, they're not as smart as our dogs -- the cute little aristocracy that runs so many households in America.

These dogs are truly brilliant because they have gotten us to love them beyond reason. They have achieved the unconditional love that all humans crave but so few attain. As a result, our dogs have something that many of our human elders don't even have -- the attention and love of their families during their twilight years.

While there are doggie therapists and doggie hotels and doggie clothing companies, there are no doggie nursing homes. And that is a powerful testament to the real genius of dogs.

Jim Sollisch lives in Cleveland.


Columnist Thomas L. Friedman is away writing a book.