Queen Emmy the Clever


At lunch Friday, I was talking to a few colleagues about how smart our pets can be. I haven’t done gratuitous dog-blogging in a while, and it’s been a long week, so here are some of the more impressive of our Emmy’s intellectual achievements:

She’s managed to learn two or three English phrases entirely on her own. There are a few phrases like “Are you hungry?” and “Do you want to go for a walk?” that we deliberately used with her from the beginning, but a few months after we got her, I said to Kate, “What do you think, is it time for bed?” and the dog jumped up from her pillow and ran into her crate. She gets a handful of treats when we put her in the crate, you see, so she’s almost always happy to go in there. And even when she’s not enthusiastic about hearing it, “Time for bed” works to get her to go in the crate.

The other one she definitely got on her own was “Last Call,” which Kate and I used to refer to the nightly trip into he back yard shortly before bedtime. Around 9:00, she starts to get sort of antsy, because she knows it’s about time for last call, and on at least one occasion, she’s run to the back door when I yelled “That’s a lame-ass call!” at a sports official on tv.

It’s not entirely clear whether she picked up “Squirrels” on her own, or through deliberate action. Like “Time for bed” and “last call,” though, she’s learned it well enough that we have to find other ways to refer to bushy-tailed treerats, because their proper name sends her directly to the back door.

She’s also got an excellent sense of our daily routine. In the morning, she’ll hang around my office while I play with the computer, and she’ll flop on the upstairs landing while I shower and shave and get dressed. The minute I start brushing my teeth, though, she goes downstairs, and heads for her crate. The other things are all things that I do even when I’m staying home to play with her and give her treats (in her opinion, anyway), but brushing my teeth is a sure sign I’m headed out of the house.

She can also detect deviations from routine. We usually feed her just before we sit down to dinner, and if we give her food without sitting down at the table ourselves, she knows that we’re going out, and heads for the crate. She’ll also self-crate if we start putting on shoes and jackets and stuff without first giving her food– either of those is a sure sign that Kate and I are headed out to dinner.

Of course, there are other times when she’s dumb as a rock, and I don’t mean a smart rock. And she has some really strange stubborn quirks– she’ll only go up or down stairs on the left side, for example, and gets visibly distressed if there’s anything in her path that forces her to go around it to the right. In a lot of ways, though, she’s remarkably clever at figuring out what her humans are up to.


  1. #1 Anne-Marie
    May 5, 2007

    I have a German shepherd, and he amazes me with all the small cues he picks up on, sometimes things I’m not even aware of. He knows it’s time for a walk if I put my iPod on, but ONLY if I’m wearing the “dog walking shoes”, if I put the iPod on wearing different shoes he’ll go in his crate because he knows I’m headed out somewhere and he’s not invited.
    He is slightly neurotic, though, as much as I love him, separation anxiety is a big issue…like you mentioned, he knows if I feed him without eating myself then I’m going out, and this makes him stick to me like glue for a few minutes and refuse to eat anything, the give a big dramatic sigh and flop down in his crate.

  2. #2 Baratos
    May 5, 2007

    Well, my pet cockateil (a very small parrot from New Zealand) amuses himself by untying knots and refusing to go in his cage. Whenever one of us carries Ghandi (his name) near his cage, he will crawl to the small of our back and scream his head off. The only way to get Ghandi to enter his cage is by bribing him with food or waiting until he gets tired and wants to sleep. Despite being as long as a pencil, Ghandi has managed to set up a reign of terror in our house.

  3. #3 Julia
    May 5, 2007

    Oh, good, an excuse for pet stories.

    Once when my friend Janice came over to visit, my Pekingese ran to the staircase instead of to the front door.

    Now, to appreciate that, you have to know three things:

    1. Kwan Yin would run to the staircase and sit down on the second stair to tell me when she wanted to go outside. This enabled me to avoid straining a bad back by not having to lean over so far to attach her leash.

    2. Several families live on our alleyway, but Kwan Yin liked Janice and could recognize her footsteps coming down the alley. When she heard Janice coming, she always ran to the front door.

    3. That morning, Kwan Yin went to the steps. As she sat there, I said, “Not right now. Janice is coming over soon. When she gets here, we’ll all go out for a walk.” I was surprised to see her immediately leave the stairs and lie down on the rug. More than an hour later, she suddenly leaped up and ran to the stairs. As she sat on the second step, the doorbell rang. Janice had arrived. Seeing the dog on the step, she said, “Is she mad at me? She always comes to greet me.” Indeed, it was the one and only time in fifteen years that the dog went to the stairs instead of the door when Janice came.

    I’m thinking Kwan Yin understood, and remembered, what I said.

  4. #4 Carl Brannen
    May 5, 2007

    Gosh, my buddy’s west highland terrier is quite stupid, well, except for one thing. She can catch balls in the air, and can find them even when they are maliciously hidden from her in devious places. She obviously enjoys the search intensely.

    I never found out how well she could be trained to find balls. I was teaching her to open dresser drawers when my buddy said “no more”. Hmmm.

    You can throw balls out of windows and she will run all the way around the house to bring it back. But when you throw a ball completely over the house she doesn’t know where to go find it.

  5. #5 Scott Spiegelberg
    May 5, 2007

    I’m watching one of the cats groom our shepherd/lab/husky as I’m reading this post. The cat is a stray who adopted us last summer, not quite 12 months old yet. He has totally tried bonding with the 13 year-old dog, who has always tolerated cats but felt it best to live separate lives from them. Our other cats have subjected the dog to drive-by paw battings, but that is all. The new cat is much more persistent, and the dog is slowly coming around.

  6. #6 natural cynic
    May 5, 2007

    More stories of Obsessive-Compulsive Retriever Disorder. Two outwardly identical hard rubber balls. One is chosen – apparently at random – to play with. Then throw the two balls simultaneously and she always can tell the one that is currently been used, she takes one sniff at the “unused” ball and always goes to the “used” one. Dogs live in a richly scented environment unknown to us, so hidden playthings are easy to find.

  7. #7 MaryKaye
    May 6, 2007

    Two intensely competitive Aussies who love to play frisbee. I finally learned to throw two at once. Stacked in my hand, they fly at slightly different altitudes, but in parallel arcs. The two decided which one got the high, and which one got the low. Always caught them in the air, in their self determined order.

    My husband *swears* that he can go into a pen of cattle with his best dog, visualize the one animal he wants to sort off, and Misty will – without fail – sort off that one heifer. Every time.

  8. #8 marciepooh
    May 11, 2007

    My Lab knows I’m going to work (or somewherer else without her) when I shower and get dressed right after I wake up. She thinks she gets to go everywhere with me any other time, unless I am wearing hig heels. The clippy-clop shoes are a sign I’m going out and she can’t come to the bar with me. (She’d be better company than most people I meet but she doesn’t like it when I dance.) This can backfire. Last Thanksgiving my little sister wanted me to dress up. So I did and Honey would not come with me. She was convinced that if she made a move for the door I’d slam it shut.

    She’s pretty smart, but I don’t think she’s up to quantum physics – yet.

  9. #9 Ashley
    May 11, 2007

    Reading this reminded me of a field ecology class I took as an undergrad with a slightly “out-there” professor of human ecology. For some reason, he showed us a video documenting research being conducted by Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake was doing a scientific investigation about “Dogs that know when their owners are coming home”. Basically, he was trying to use science to prove telepathy and other powers in animals. Anyways, I was skeptical but slightly intrigued. Growing up my family had a very beloved French Bulldog (Louie). I was in sixth grade we found out he had cancer of the lymph nodes. One day during my sixth grade spanish class, which started at 10:30am, I was suddenly overcome by such anxiety that I thought I was going to puke. Nothing provoked it, we were learning how to ask for the time. That episode stuck in my head the whole day. When I got home from school that afternoon my mom informed me that Louie was having such trouble breathing from the cancerous growths in his neck that she had him put to sleep that morning at 10:45 – about the same time I was having my panic attack. Anyways, that event has always stuck in my head so when I heard about Sheldrake’s study (which also includes a chapter about pets who communicate to their owners that they have died) I decided to buy his book, “Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals”, and see what he had to say. The book is pretty thought provoking, and although I do not know if I believe his theory, it is an incredibly interesting read.

  10. #10 Laura
    May 11, 2007

    We used to use “kitchen!” as a command for our dog (it meant “go into the part of the kitchen where we pen you up when we’re going out”), and “put Bella in a box” when we were talking to each other.

    Eventually, she learned to connect the two — she’d go walk into her pen if someone said “hey, can you put Bella in her box?” and so now we say “Bella, go in your box”.

    The best part, though, is that if she’s overexcited, we can look at her and say “If you don’t calm down, I’m going to put you in a box” and she’ll flop over with the most apologetic dog face on…

  11. #11 cas
    May 16, 2007

    My dog (labrador cross) understands a vocabulary of about 30 words and phrases, and yes, squirrel is one of them. She also recognises when I get my cigarettes because I always smoke outside, and when she sees me pick up the pack she knows I will be going into the back yard, and she knows to follow me. She also tries to blag extra meals. Usually I feed her about 9pm, but sometimes if my partner is out, and then comes back later, she will pretend to him that she’s not been fed, in the hopes that he will feed her again.

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