Does the Dog Think?

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange wonders, as all of us sometimes have, what, if anything, goes on in a dog’s head.

(Lange) Our old dog is such a creature of routine, and so confused by changes, that I sometimes think there’s nothing else in her head. Her eager desire to be part of our family pack may be the only reason she performs so cleverly. When Mother makes the sign for spectacles, the dog runs around till she locates a pair. She retrieves slippers shoes, picks up empty Budweiser cans for me along the road, and actually takes Mother’s deposits into the bank in a little leopardskin purse. And her ears are as expressive as old-fashioned semaphore code.

After finishing her daily ration of dog chow, she’s allowed to eat green beans, which provide bulk and vitamins without many calories. So in the evening when we get the longing eyes indicating profound need. “Okay, go get your beans,” says Mother. The cans are stored in the front hall. The dog disappears and a moment later reenters with a can in her jaws. It’s hard to believe there isn’t some abstract intelligence operating there.

On the other hand, every morning she appears at my bedside between five and half-past. She won’t go outside without me. I used to think she woke me when she heard the newspaper arriving, but she does it whether the paper comes or not.

Then I thought maybe it was a call of nature, so I hurried to get dressed for her sake. But my wife tells me that when I’m away, she slumbers till seven o’clock.

Old as she is, she still plays. If she’s in the yard when I come home, she barks at me, tail in the air. She knows I’ll do my my Quasimodo routine, shuffling toward her while she dances just out of reach. In the house, if she wants attention, she approaches with a toy that squeaks or grunts. She knows I’ll stalk her among the furniture. Who’s in charge here? Is there a mind at work?

The gliding doors in Mother’s office are her television set. There’s not much going on outside — a red squirrel looking for acorns; a dry beech leaf quivering in the wind — but she finds it endlessly amusing. One winter evening she growled. Her ears were up, saying hey, come look at this! A doe was browsing the hemlocks, forty feet away. As she chewed, she watched the dog. The dog senses we want the deer left alone, unless they get into the flowers. The deer know it, too. So they watched each other, till darkness left them both invisible. Was there any conscious thought on either side?

We watch her dozing in the sun, and notice her difficulty getting up when one of us moves. We don’t know if she understands pain — or anything, for that matter. We just hope she feels secure, and wouldn’t swap her life for any other.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, wirier, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke to us from our studio in Norwich.

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