I was watching a recent edition of Nova the other day, all about animal intelligence. Turns out dogs can be absolutely brilliant. But you knew that.
In a number of ways, they’re actually smarter than our evolutionary cousins, the chimps. But since their smarts have a lot to do with how well they take orders from us, of course we’d say that. When it comes to humankind’s dominion over the beasts, the greater animal kingdom probably considers the dog to be a turncoat collaborator. I suspect that in such quarters, the phrase “man’s best friend” is a slur.
But I digress. One reason many dogs can take instruction so well is their capacity to understand countless words. The dog featured on the program was a Border Collie named Chaser that knew the names of over 1,000 stuffed toys. I’m sure this uncanny ability had nothing to do with the fact that she was an eight-year-old female.
Imagine what she might be capable of if she could actually speak those thousand words. Many people have held elective office in Texas for multiple terms with working vocabularies of less than that. But it’s true. With the right training, keyboard design, and software, your dog could be having conversations with you. (I figure a keypad that makes him use all four feet eliminates the need for the daily walk.)
Of course, his typed words would have to be audibleized ala Stephen Hawking, but I’d pick a different sound for my dog than Hawking’s monotonous robo-tones. Maybe I’d pick the voice of that guy who used to play Norm on “Cheers” and who now does voice-overs for Pixar. Then even if my dog prefers H20 with a water back, it’d be more like hanging with a drinkin’ buddy.
Doberman owners might prefer the low, tense strains of the Clint Eastwood voice. The best voice match for Pomeranians might well be the anxious, indignant pipings of David Hyde Pierce, who played Niles, the lovable but neurotic brother of Dr. Frasier Crane.
It would be like owning a furry version of your favorite action hero or sitcom character. This is the kind of product development America has always taken pride in, while China seeks to dominate solar (yawn) technology.
It would be a brave new world. With his awesome olfactory powers combined with a speaking voice, your dog could take a swift sniff of your favorite wine and tell you loads about its terroir (terrier-oir?). Still, though it’s fine for dogs to discuss our interests, dare we chit chat with them about theirs? Where might such small talk lead? Think about it.
One day you could casually ask him to play ball, and he might respond, “See, that’s your problem, you don’t just play ball. Ball is a practice, an exhalted a ritual, and you must perform it over and over and over again until you finally achieve satori and pass out from sheer joy and exhaustion, until you lie twitching and snuffling in your slumbers, forever chasing the sacred ball through your dreams.”
Could we persuade them to chime in only on rare occasions, like when we want them to tell the vet where it hurts or when we’re lost with them somewhere in Nevada and need directions back to the Bay Area?
Best restrict him to texting his other doggie friends, leaving countless messages on Snoutbook.com. But would letting him act like a teenager all day be the road to ultimate ruin? Remember that the only real difference between dogs and teens, as it is, is that dogs chase cars while teenagers wreck them. Soon they too would be asking us for money to get endless snausage pizzas delivered. Next they too would be teaming up with their peers to conspire against us, divulging in blog posts all they know about our private lives but couldn’t dish about before. Scary. One day we two-leggeds might just wind up incarcerated in rescue shelters here on the Planet of the Appenzellers.
Better to teach our dogs stupid pet tricks like “speak” and leave it at that.
Herb Canine is one of writer/musician Tad Toomay’s many alter egos. Get acquainted with the others at www.tadtoomay.com.