The Dog Physician

November 3, 2009 § 4 Comments

momdavisbertdogsMy mother (middle, seated) at her house in N.H. many years ago. My sister stands behind her, demonstrating her mastery over her dogs. My cousin Roberta smiles charmingly.

In an article in today’s New York Times, “Good Dog, Smart Dog,” The reporter writes about scientists’ growing certainty that dogs are smarter than scientists thought they were. (The rest of us already knew this.) Dogs can learn hundreds of words, differentiate photographs with dogs in them from photographs without, and sniff out nascent lung cancers and oncoming epileptic seizures.

So far, so good. I’m waiting for the day when yearly checkups consist of lying naked on a soft carpet while a gentle (and gentlemanly) dog sniffs me all over, then presses a paw onto something like a giant cellphone where a couple of dozen diseases and conditions are indicated by various mysterious symbols. Then the doctor will rise from his stool in the corner and say, “According to Harry, you do not have heart disease, cancer, lupus, typhus, Lyme disease or diabetes. He thinks you need a dog.”

I’ll remind the doctor that I keep up with the research; I know he made up that last bit.

“You’re wrong,” the doctor says quietly. “Look at him. He’s in love with you.”

“No,” I’ll say. “It’s not me. I was cleaning the kitty litter right before I left and a turd fell down my blouse. I got it out of course but didn’t have time to shower.”

“Oh, that’s why he spent so much time at your breasts. I almost scheduled a biopsy.”

The Times writes,  “Clive D. L. Wynne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida, who specializes in canine cognition and has himself said he met a border collie who knew 1,500 words, takes issue with efforts to compare human and canine brains.

He argues that it is dogs’ deep sensitivity to the humans around them, their obedience under rigorous training, and their desire to please that can explain most of these capabilities. They may be deft at reading human cues — and teachable — but that doesn’t mean they are thinking like people, he says. A dog’s entire world revolves around its primary owner, and it will respond to that person to get what it wants, usually food, treats or affection.”

You know, there are a lot of people like that. They’re kids. They’re married to someone who has all the money or can beat them with impunity. They’re low or mid level replaceables in the corporate world of 2009. They comprise a very large percentage of our population, because humans, like dogs, are wired to survive.

The point is dogs’ intelligence, not what they choose to use it for. Perhaps my mother’s poodle would do better learning to bake bread rather than perfecting his I’m-so-innocent act after stealing a baguette. I’m sure if he cooked for her, she’d give him tastier dinners. But, you know, there’s the thumb problem. The walking on four legs issue. It’s tough being alive, even when you’re smart. Getting the dazzling ones to take care of you in their warm and splendid houses, and not butcher you at young adulthood the way they do so many others…that’s smart.

“If only they’d understand that letting us eat cat turds would benefit everyone,” mourns Harry. (Harry is my Labradoodle Imaginary Friend. He’s young and handsome, with sensitive poetic eyes and loves walks, naps and scrabble.)

Homer’s Seeing Eye Dog

Most of the time he worked, a sort of sleep
with a purpose, so far as I could tell.
How he got from the dark of sleep
to the dark of waking up I’ll never know;
the lax sprawl sleep allowed him
began to set from the edges in,
like a custard, and then he was awake,
me too, of course, wriggling my ears
while he unlocked his bladder and stream
of dopey wake-up jokes. The one
about the wine-dark pee I hated instantly.
I stood at the ready, like a god
in an epic, but there was never much
to do. Oh now and then I’d make a sure
intervention, save a life, whatever.
But my exploits don’t interest you
and of his life all I can say is that
when he’d poured out his work
the best of it was gone and then he died.
He was a great man and I loved him.
Not a whimper about his sex life —
how I detest your prurience —
but here’s a farewell literary tip:
I myself am the model for Penelope.
Don’t snicker, you hairless moron,
I know so well what faithful means
there’s not even a word for it in Dog,
I just embody it. I think you bipeds
have a catchphrase for it: “To thine own self
be true, . . .” though like a blind man’s shadow,
the second half is only there for those who know
it’s missing. Merely a dog, I’ll tell you
what it is: “… as if you had a choice.”

–William Matthews


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§ 4 Responses to The Dog Physician

  • Davis Diehl says:

    I just read that article myself! And somehow I knew you would write about it. All the ‘smart’ breeds listed in that article are very frequently in my office, and sad to say, many have owners whose limited understanding of their dog’s emotional needs is incredibly depressing. Far too many people simply cannot understand dog language, and don’t feel any need to learn it. Of course the same can be said for people raising their children.

  • Gina says:


  • I’d like to see a futuristic version of ER in which hospitals and doctors’ examining rooms are staffed with diagnostic dogs – or at the very least a headline and article about it in The Onion.

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