Special Delivery

A story Deni told me about Jana has been going through my mind for several weeks now. I haven’t figured out the answer; maybe the students in my spring-semester class on the dog’s perspective will help me figure it out.

We have had a lot of work done on the house lately, and somehow, the gate to the backyard got left open. I was away.

Deni reports that the dogs woke up and took themselves out the electronic dog door as usual. Then, suddenly Wylie was back at the bed, barking at her, quite insistent that she get up. Not fully awake, Deni complied (Wylie rarely takes “no” for an answer). She noticed that Jana had not come back inside. Wylie was frantically urging Deni to the back of the house, where she noticed the open gate. And no Jana.

Now fully awake and worried, Deni quickly pulled on some clothes. Again, Wylie alerted her. This time, she followed him to the front of the house … where Jana was standing at the front door. Not only that, Jana was holding the morning newspaper (hmmm, too bad she didn’t nip out for fresh bagels while she was at it).

Relieved, Deni let Jana in and lavishly praised and rewarded her. But for what?

While Deni was delighted that Jana had stayed home, she and I both wonder how Jana understood the event.

Did Jana think she was being praised for simply doing her usual morning job of getting the paper? Or had she made a conscious decision to not seize the unexpected freedom and go for a swim or chase the cats next door? Did she understand that Deni was grateful for her restraint?

Maybe Jana finds too much freedom frightening and chose to return to safety.

Maybe she was afraid she’d get in trouble for being out and hoped that the paper would mollify Deni and mitigate punishment.

These are plausible explanations.

But Jana has had other opportunities to run through open gates, and she’s never passed one up. Just this week, when the roofers were packing up, I inadvertently let her out the back door before the back gate was closed behind the roofer’s truck. Within seconds, she was in the back alley. She did return immediately when I called her, though. And she’s often wandered off on her own during walks or hikes, farther than the front porch (but never so far that she could not see me or Deni).

She’s never gotten more than a scolding (and a leash) when she’s wandered too far afield in the past, so fear of punishment is unlikely.

She may have simply made the choice to stay close to home because she knew that that was the “right” thing to do. Could she have understood that Deni could not easily pursue her?

Which begs another question: Why did Wylie go to alert Deni rather than seize the moment, as it were, and go for a run? He has done so in the past. Was he worried about Jana or about keeping his pack intact? Was he delighted at the role reversal — that he got to be the good dog (and the tattletale) this time?

Though many people do not believe that dogs are capable of such deep, conceptual thinking, I do believe that Jana and Wylie are capable of making the judgment to do the “right” or the expected thing, even in the face of temptation. I have seen it many times in working dogs (including Wylie) — as well as in Jana and other pet dogs. I’ve also seen  both Jana and Wylie give in to temptation and follow their impulses or their instincts. Just as we humans sometimes “do the right thing” and sometimes do what’s fun or feels good, so do dogs.

All things considered, my best guess about that morning is that she didn’t want to miss breakfast. Your thoughts are welcome.

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