Sunday, September 12, 2010


I am in the midst of a project. I am trying to figure out if the family dog (“Zen,” if you insist on personifying her with a name) is smarter than the rest of us, or dumber than a box of rocks.

This domesticated beast that lives among us is equal parts canny observer and oblivious hound. She has run into sliding glass doors thinking they are open, but at least one of my children has done the same so that may not be an appropriate indication of mental acuity. Zen has also smashed at least two screen doors off their tracks, thinking that her slender figure can fit through the opening once the screen has slid two or three inches to the side.

Either she lacked a certain spatial awareness, or she had a deep-seated drive to chase down a squirrel scampering across the backyard fence regardless what stood in her way. Neither is exactly a brilliant display of intelligence.

In her defense, however, Zen has learned a variety of ways to control the behavior of the humans in the house. She’s not much of a food beggar, but if one of us two-legged creatures is cooking breakfast or dinner she will sit nearby in the kitchen, quietly. For a while.

If it becomes apparent that her mealtime is in danger of passing, she will do her snapping thing that gets our attention. She snaps her jaw shut loudly to bring the focus back to her. We have thus far been lucky to avoid having any fingers in harm’s way.

Once we meet her eyes she opens her mouth. Kristin says she is smiling; I say the dog is simply breathing. Regardless, the psychic message is clear: “Food. Bowl. Now.”

With nary a please or thank-you we carefully measure the kibble and present it on her own eating mat. A little while later we will be asked to open the back door so that she can make business in the yard, and possibly chase wild neighborhood rodents. If done quickly, damage to the screen can be minimized.

While outside, Zen certainly behaves as if she were Empress of the World. She sniffs the grass and the agapanthas, passes by the lemon tree, and eventually squats for a bit. She makes a token attempt to cover her deposit, no doubt to appear civilized, but she doesn’t really look where she is scratching. Half the time the dirt and grass fly over her pile.

Then she looks up at whoever might be nearby as if to say, “There you go. Take care of it at your leisure.”

Same thing when we take her for a walk. She walks ahead and we hold the leash as if it were a gown that has to be held above the ground. At whatever moment she decides, and on whichever lawn she chooses, she makes business again. Some of the time we have to bow down and bag it. I know others had to do the same for me in the long distant past, but I eventually learned to take care of myself.

Not so the dog. She will be forever needing our assistance. Or our obsequiousness. Either she is too dumb to take care of herself, or too clever. Perhaps we are being manipulated by the cunning canine.

Lately Zen has taken to burrowing into the bathroom wastebaskets. She knocks them over as if she were looking for something in particular. If the smell is intriguing enough we might find a trail of her discoveries across the bathroom and even out into the hall. Usually, though, the various paper products and clumps of hair—from self-administered haircuts—litter the area around the sink.

I don’t know if Zen knows what day of the week it is and is saying, “Hey, empty the trash already, the garbageman comes tomorrow morning” or she is only responding to the basic reactions of her underdeveloped mammalian brain: “Mmm, me like dirty smells.” She never appears concerned that we might not clean up after her. After all, she has us well-trained.

There is currently not enough data to make a final determination on the whole brains vs. rocks discussion. Given the fact, however, that Zen has a platoon of humans ready to put food in her bowl twice a day, and at the right time, and these same humans follow behind her in the yard and on the leash with a plastic bag at the ready to pick up her unmentionables, I’m thinking Zen has the upper hand at this point.

The morning I wake up on her beanbag and find her under my covers, I will officially declare my surrender. Then she can start cleaning up after me.

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