Dave Barry

Earning a collie degree

(This Dave Barry column was originally published Sept. 8, 1985)

We have a new dog, which means we're going through this phase where we spend a lot of time crouching and stroking and going "Yessss! That's a GOOD girl!" and otherwise practically awarding the Nobel Prize to her for achievements such as not pooping on the rug.

Her name is Earnest, which I realize is not a traditional girl's name, but it describes her very well. Most dogs are earnest, which is why most people like them. You can say any fool thing to a dog, and the dog will give you this look that says, "My God, you're RIGHT! I NEVER would have thought of that!" So we come to think of dogs as being understanding and loving and compassionate, and after a while we hardly even notice that they spend the bulk of their free time circling around with other dogs to see which one can sniff the other the most times in the crotch. We are not sure yet whether Earnest has a working brain. You can't tell, early on, with dogs. When we got our previous dog, Shawna, we thought she was smart as a whip, because she was a purebred German shepherd who had this extremely alert look. At first we took this to mean that she was absorbing every tiny detail of her environment with her keen senses and analyzing it with computerlike speed, but it turned out to be her way of expressing the concept: "What?"

Shawna would be sitting in our yard, looking very sharp, and a squirrel would scurry right past her, a squirrel whose presence was instantly detected by normal, neighborhood dogs hundreds of yards away, causing them to bark rigorously, and also by us humans, causing us to yell, helpfully: "Look! Shawna! A squirrel!!" And after a few seconds of delay, during which her nervous system would send the message via parcel post from her ears to her brain that something was going on, Shawna would turn in the exact opposite direction from whichever way the squirrel was, adopt a pose of great canine readiness, and go: "What?"

The only dog I ever met that was dumber than Shawna belongs to my editor. This dog, a collie named Augie, also looks smart, because you tend to think collies are smart if you grew up watching Lassie. Lassie looked brilliant, in part because the farm family she lived with was made up of idiots. Remember? One of them was always getting pinned under the tractor, and Lassie was always rushing back to the farmhouse to alert the other ones. She'd whimper and tug at their sleeves, and they'd always waste precious minutes saying things: "Do you think something's wrong? Do you think she wants us to follow her? What is it, girl?" etc., as if this had never happened before, instead of every week. What with all the time these people spent pinned under the tractor, I don't see how they managed to grow any crops whatsoever. They probably got by on federal crop supports, which Lassie filed the applications for.

So anyway I thought Augie, being a collie, would have at least some intelligence, despite the fact that when my editor and I would walk into his house, Augie would not notice us, sometimes for upwards of a half hour. When she finally did notice us, talking and drinking beer, she would bark as though the Manson gang had just burst in, so my editor would have to go over and sort of say, "Look! It's me! The person you have lived with for 10 years!" This would cause Augie's lone functioning brain cell to gradually quiet down and go back to sleep.

But I still thought she was roughly on a par with Shawna, IQ-wise, until the night -- you may remember that night; it was the longest one we ever had -- that I slept on my editor's couch in his living room, which is also where Augie sleeps. Only she doesn't sleep. What she does is, first, she lies down. Then she scratches herself. Then she engages in loud personal hygiene. Then she thinks, "Maybe I can go out!" and she walks across the floor, which is made of a special kind of very hard wood so that when a dog walks on it, it goes TICK TICK TICK TICK at exactly the volume you would use to get maximum benefit from the Chinese Ticking Torture. When Augie gets to the front door, which is of course closed -- it is always closed at night; even the domestic insects have learned this by now -- she bumps into it with her head. Then she backs up and bumps into it with her head a couple more times, in case there has been some mistake. Then she senses, somehow, that there is a person sleeping on the couch, and she has the most innovative idea she has ever thought of, which is: "Maybe he will let me out!" So she walks over to me and noses me in the face, using the same nose she uses for hygiene, and I say, "Dammit, Augie! Go to sleep!" So she lies down for one minute, which is how long it takes for her brain cell to forget everything that has ever happened to her since she was born. And then she starts again: SCRATCH SCRATCH SCRATCH SLURP SLURP SLURP (think) TICK TICK TICK TICK BUMP (think) BUMP (think) BUMP (think) TICK TICK TICK TICK NOSE "DAMMIT, AUGIE! GO TO SLEEP!" TICK TICK TICK TICK (pause) SCRATCH. . . .

I don't know yet about Earnest. One day soon I will give her the dog intelligence test, where you show her the ball, then you put the ball under a blanket, and then you see if she can find the ball. Shawna could never find the ball. I doubt Augie could find the blanket. I'm hoping Earnest does better, but I'm not counting my chickens. I am also not looking forward to receiving a lot of violent letters from you dog lovers out there, the ones with the "I (heart) my (breed of dog)" bumper stickers, asking how dare I say dogs are stupid when your dog can add, subtract, land the space shuttle, etc. So please note, dog lovers: I never said your dog is stupid. I said my dog might be stupid. I know for a fact that she can't be too intelligent, because here I've written a fairly insulting column about her species, and despite the fact that she's lying right at my feet, it hasn't occurred to her to pull the plug on my word proces

(c) Dave Barry

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