Our dogs have jobs that they are expected to do, similar to assigning household chores to a child. Jana brings in the morning paper. Jana and Cali each bring me a shoe when we’re getting ready for a walk. And each dog is expected to bring me her food bowl when she’s done eating.
Jana learned this task very quickly. She does it eagerly, always happy to receive her dessert in exchange (a small cookie). Alberta is also an eager participant, usually the first to finish her meal and deliver her bowl. If I am not paying attention, she’ll push it into my leg, hard, in a not-at-all-subtle demand for her pay. Past dogs have learned the task too, though Wylie made it quite clear that he saw this task as beneath him — girls’ work — and he would immediately depart for more masculine pursuits upon finishing his meals. Jana was happy to pick up the slack (and the extra cookie).
Then there’s Cali. For months, she’d pretend to try, lifting the bowl by one edge before dropping it with a loud clang. Putting on her saddest golden retriever face, she look at me as if to say, “I tried, Mom, but I just can’t lift it. It’s a very large bowl, and I am a very small puppy.” As the very small puppy became 56 lbs. of solid muscle, this excuse held less and less water, but the sad eyes … well, let’s just say that she does a very good “sad golden” face.
Along came Deni. Not only did we switch Cali to a smaller bowl this summer, but Deni took over much of the feeding supervision. Deni wasn’t moved by the sad face. Weeks of cajoling and praise and cookies paid off. Cali started bringing her bowl, but reluctantly and only with much encouragement. Once we knew that Cali understood what was expected and that she was fully capable of doing it, the coddling was phased out.
Now, as Deni explains, Cali broods over the looming task or “stands there and glowers at her bowl.” She knows she’s supposed to pick it up; she simply does not want to. It’s similar to her reluctant acquiescence to brushing her teeth. But, more and more, Cali talks herself into bringing the bowl with no prompting from either of us. Deni reports that if Cali sees that extra-special treats are being offered for dessert, she is able to convince herself to pick up the bowl much more quickly, and she does so with far more energy and enthusiasm.
The battle of the bowl shows Cali’s increasing maturity and offers a window on her personality and intelligence. We all sometimes choose to do things that we do not want to do. Sometimes we do them for rewards (a paycheck, working extra hours to earn a vacation …) or to avoid worse consequences (dental checkups) or because we don’t want to disappoint someone we care about. Whatever the reason, we all face large and small decisions every day. Cali is no different.
In his wonderful book Beyond Words, which I have mentioned before, Dr. Carl Safina talks about sentience, cognition, and thought as the “overlapping processes of conscious minds.” He defines sentience as “the ability to feel sensations”; cognition as “the capacity to perceive and acquire knowledge and understanding”; and thought as “the process of considering something that has been perceived” (page 21).
We see all of these at work in Cali’s struggle. She understands what she needs to do and how to do it; she feels stress, anxiety or discomfort of some kind when she thinks about this expectation, and she considers how to resolve it. Sometimes the feeling of anticipation or desire for a treat wins; sometimes, probably, the desire not to disappoint Deni or me tips the balance; sometimes she needs some prodding. But she is very definitely making a choice. Whether she decides to go for the cookie or she’s concerned about our reaction or she walks away and lets Alberta or Jana pick up her bowl, she is in control; she weighs the options and makes her choice. She is not instinctively or automatically responding to a stimulus in a conditioned way, as some behaviorists would argue. Every day, every meal, Cali shows what it means to be a thinking dog.