The Intelligence of Dogs, article in The Foreign Quarterly Review 1866
Featuring: Researches into the History of the British Dog, from ancient laws, charters, and historical records. With original anecdotes, and illustrations of the nature and attributes of the dog. From the poets and prose writers of ancient, medieval, and modern times by George R. Jesse
IT is no very easy matter in the present day to write anything particularly new or original upon the character of the dog. So many authors, some of them of the very highest rank, have treated in prose or verse of the good qualities of the peculiar friend of man, that there is little left for their successors to do, except to gather up their scattered fragments into a more or less connected whole. This is exactly what Mr. Jesse has attempted, with the addition of a series of notices of the customs of our ancestors in connexion with the employment of dogs, and if many of the sections of his work appear a little disjointed, we must accept the apology for its “rugged form” put forth in his preface, and thank him for the great mass of information on an interesting subject which he has brought together in these volumes.
The old proverb, “Love me, love my dog," might certainly be adopted in its most literal sense by Mr. Jesse as his motto, although perhaps he would widen its acceptation, for the whole tendency of his book is towards the promulgation of a most extensive system of philocyny, if we may coin such an expression. Like Byron and several other writers, Mr. Jesse seems to think that if the Christian injunction to love one’s neighbour as one’s self, is to be observed, still more ought we to love our neighbour’s dog. He recommends us to “take the dog in the aggregate, weigh him against ourselves in moral qualities, such as patience, trustfulness, unselfishness" (which are undoubtedly among the highest of neighbourly qualities), and adds, “How frequently the brute is our superior!" Indeed, when we look at the long list of virtues and good qualities of a humbler rank given by our author as pertaining to the dog, we can find comfort under our own shortcomings only by the consideration, that as the whole of these virtues probably were never concentrated in a single dog, so we may hope that some of them at least are possessed by most men, and that all are manifested more or less by the human race in general.
And certainly, if people ever did follow a moral example any where, except in pious tracts and temperance novels, there can be no doubt that many points in dog-life, duly pondered over, might have some effect in the improvement of human nature; but the misfortune is, that those who stand most in need of such improvement would be the last to see the conduct of their canine instructors in its proper light. And it must be confessed that to look upon one’s house dog in the light of a perpetual, though dumb, moral lecturer, would in course of time become rather a nuisance.
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But, in truth, if we were to seek for examples of unfailing love and devotion, of unshakeable faithfulness to trust, of strict and unswerving attention to duty, where should we find these qualities at least exhibited in such perfection as by dogs; and when we add to these the courage which these creatures will display in defence of their master’s person or property, the
generosity of their disposition in most cases, and their general companionable qualities, there is little to surprise us in the fact, that most men who are worth anything are fond of dogs, and that some who, like Byron, have tried the world, and found it full of hollowness, vanity, and vexation of spirit, should adopt a cynical view of human nature and magnify canine virtue at the expense of their own species. Nay, Burns, according to Mr. Duncan, as quoted by our author, places the dog on a higher pinnacle than that of a mere teacher of heathen virtues:—
“Man,” said he, “is the god of the dog. He knows no other, he can understand no other; and see how he worships him! with what reverence he crouches at his feet, with what love he fawns upon him, with what dependence he looks up to him, and with what cheerful alacrity he obeys him! His whole soul is wrapped up in his god; all the powers and faculties of his nature are devoted to his service, and these powers and faculties are ennobled by the intercourse. Divines tell us that it ought to be just so with the Christian; but the dog puts the Christian to shame.”
Burns naturally knew much of dog-nature, especially as presented by the Scotch colley, one of the most intelligent and faithful of the canine race, and his portrait of Luath, in “The Twa Dogs,” is as perfect as either pen or pencil could make it. Burns also, like many other poets, expressed his indignation at the treatment which the dog so frequently meets with at the hands of a cruel or merely thoughtless master, and this feeling appears to have inspired Mr. Jesse to produce the work now before us; the character of the dog, and the services which he renders to man, being repeatedly contrasted with the bullying he receives, and the frequent neglect with which he is treated when old age impairs his powers.
“The attributes of the dog,” says Mr. Jesse, “show his possession of an extent of mind which is little suspected by the unreflective," and to prove this, he gives a list of these attributes, extending over a page and a half of small print and double columns. These qualities are illustrated by a long series of anecdotes, from which we may extract a few.
A curious example of the reasoning power of a dog is shown in the following story, given by Mr. Jesse from the recital of a lady who witnessed the facts:—
“Below our house at Pembury, was a valley, in which were many hares, and in the neighbourhood was kept a pack of barriers. A favourite dog of ours, named Ness, a large, rough bull-terrier, used to lie on the lawn in front of the house, keeping watch all around, glancing occasionally into the windows to observe my motions, as he was always the companion of my walks. One morning I saw a hare run up the hill, and the cry of the harriers, as they followed on her track, was heard in the valley. Ness, too, saw poor puss, started up, seized her, and brought her in his mouth to me. I patted and congratulated him, and showed the hare to my father, who said Ness and I had done a very unsportsmanlike deed, of which we should soon hear more. So we did, for the pack rushed upon the lawn in full chorus on the scent, with the men after them, to the porch, where my father met them, gave them the hare, and expressed his regret that his dog had spoiled their sport; at the same time telling them that he valued his dog highly, but if the same thing occurred again, they should always have the hare. Ness stood by growling, and appearing much displeased. This was repeated several times. Ness always brought the hare to me in the house, and I always caressed and praised him, but was obliged, by my father‘s orders, to give it to the huntsmen whenever they traced it to the house; Ness invariably testifying his total disapprobation of the whole proceeding.
“One day he came to the window where I sat, but not, as usual, with a gladsome bark did he claim my notice. He capered, wagged his tail, grinned; by every silent means entreating me to come to him. I went, and still in perfect silence, but with great appearance of joy and fun, he bounded before me to a thick Portugal laurel about fifty yards from the house, and then stood looking eagerly into it. I looked too, and there lay the dead hare, the hounds being as yet in the valley. Ness would not touch it, but rejoiced exceedingly, as I took it up and carried it: he then resumed his usual station, to watch. I watched, too, from a window, and thence I saw the hounds come up on the scent to the Portugal laurel; there they were, of course, at fault. Ness barked aloud, rejoiced, capered, all but said, ‘You are foiled now; I have outwitted you at last!’ And so he had. They did not come to the house for that hare.”
An instance of an almost equal exertion of intellect, also in a sporting direction, is cited by Mr. Jesse from the “Sporting ‘Magazine:”——
“A dog which some years ago was at the White Hart Inn at Salisbury took his daily walk round the canal surrounding the close, in search of minnows, which he seized with wonderful avidity. When few or none were visible, he scratched up the gravel for a considerable extent, and then patiently took his station till some unfortunate gudgeon came in sight, on whom he pounced with all the ferocity of a hawk, secure of its prey.”
A small Scotch terrier belonging to an officer of the Bombay army invented a singular and ingenious method of killing snakes. “He seized the reptiles by their tails, and ran off amongst stones, dashing their heads against the same, preventing them from turning round by the speed at which he ran.”
Among the most remarkable examples of the sagacity of the dog, perhaps the most striking are those in which the animal shows a sense of the danger involved in occurrences which could hardly affect himself, and of which he certainly could have no experience. A good example of this is to be found related in Mr. Jesse’s book from an original source. the subject of it being described as “a most faithful, favourite, black, curly-coated retriever.” The narrative is as follows:—
“One day Charles was riding his pony, being very poorly at the time, and from weakness fell, when the dear old dog caught the pony by the bridle and held it quite still until he found his master could release his foot from the stirrup. No one was within hearing, so in all probability if he had not been watched by his faithful attendant the pony would have galloped on, dragging the master with his foot caught in the stirrup, and a serious accident must have ensued."
In other cases we find dogs saving their masters or members of the family from death by fire, although in general we might suppose that the destructive power of fire would be far beyond their comprehension. In illustration of this Mr. Jesse quotes a passage from Sir Walter Scott’s diary, in which is described the preservation of Lord Forbes by his dog, after the fire had reached his bedroom. A striking instance of this is also related by Mr. Jesse, with regard to a large rough Scotch terrier, named Bolt, who saved a servant-girl from being burnt, although from the description of the incident her danger could not, one would suppose, have been very manifest to him.
“As well as I remember, the girl was staying up much later than usual, baking bread; whilst sitting opposite the fire she fell asleep and her dress ignited, but being a woollen one it did not blaze. The fire was of peat, and in a grate. The girl’s dress must have been smouldering for some time before Bolt was able to rouse his master, who was asleep; he always slept at the foot of his master's bed, but as my brother usually kept the door open, he could roam about the house as he wished. He succeeded in waking his master by running up and down the stairs from the kitchen to his room, and jumping on and off his bed, each time he did so pulling at the bed-clothes.
“When my brother awoke he lay quiet for some minutes wondering what could be the matter with the dog, who was then sitting on the ground looking up into his face, and appeared in such a state of excitement that, thinking something must be wrong, he got up. Then Bolt became quite quiet, and sat at the door wagging his tail. When his master went out on the stairs, he, as if to show him the way, ran down to the kitchen before him, and over to the fire where the girl was sitting fast asleep. On my brother entering the kitchen, Bolt was sitting beside her looking towards the door, and seeing his master he ran over to him, and then back again to the fire. I think it very likely that had it not been for Bolt the poor girl would have been burnt to death, or nearly so, for the kitchen was down two flights of stairs, and she was a very heavy sleeper."
This Bolt appears to have been quite a character in his way. His earliest exploit consisted in killing his own mother, when the pair were shut up together in a stable. At a later period, when it was supposed that he was threatened with hydrophobia, he was chained up for the night in a small room, where he amused himself by howling, gnawing the leg of the table, and tearing some shoes and the Family Bible to pieces; but a chest to which he was chained, being his particular owner's property, was untouched, and in the morning he was found sitting upon it, looking complacently at the devastation he had committed, and wagging a three-inch stump of tail with which he was endowed. Chaining seems to have been quite necessary when it was desired to confine this dog; if he was merely shut up in a stable or out—house, he would gnaw a hole through the door, and thus free himself and any companion that he might have in his im prisonment. Another anecdote related by Mr. Jesse of this dog, although' showing that he was somewhat demoralized in character, illustrates that power of making-believe which must be familiar to all who have had much experience of these animals. “A dish of rice was one day cooked and put on the table to cool; his owner coming in, found Mr. Bolt sitting on the table close to it, but pretending to be absorbed in catching flies, to disguise his having been nibbling at the dish round the edges.”
In human society the employment of a wet-nurse is looked upon as one of the luxuries attendant upon a high state of civilization, and it is rarely to be regarded as indicative of great affection on the part of the mother towards her offspring, but in the following case of canine wet-nursing, recorded by Mr. Jesse, there is no doubt that the lady-mother was actuated by anxiety for the well-being of her progeny. “At Airth, in Stirlingshire, a greyhound, having a numerous litter of whelps, and deeming herself unable to rear them all, went to the village and hired a collie. The collie came regularly to assist, and as regularly received meat and bones which the conscientious mother had saved for her."
Considering all these instances of thought, of the appliance of means to ends, and of forming a judgment upon the probable course of events, it cannot but be admitted that the intellectual processes performed by the dog are the same in kind as these which are carried on in the human brain; that the dog, in fact, exercises a reasoning power differing only in degree from that of man. Perhaps the most striking evidence of this is to be found in those cases where dogs apply their acquired information in new directions. The present writer many years ago taught a young dog to beg in the ordinary way, by rewarding him with a piece of bread or biscuit when he performed the trick satisfactorily. He soon became an expert beggar, and if not attended to would sit upon his hinder end with great steadiness for a long time. But very soon after he had learnt to beg he began to employ the gesture of entreaty for all sorts of purposes. This was first noticed one day when he wished to get out of the room; he went to the door and sat upright upon his tail until some one noticed him, when he immediately jumped up towards the handle to indicate his desire of being released. After this he was constantly in the habit of begging for whatever he wanted, going so far on one occasion as to beg to the servants first at a dresser on which some crockery was standing, and then at the water-tap, to show that he wished them to take a basin from the former and give him some water in it. Such facts as these, although not so effective in the narration as some of those mixed incidents in which it is hard to say how much of the animal’s performance may have been taught to him, are nevertheless of especial interest, as showing what the dog is capable of doing with his own mind. In the case just referred to, the dog had evidently spontaneously extended the notion of begging from the concrete form in which it was taught him in connexion with biscuit, to a more abstract idea of asking in general, and this most certainly at first without any assistance from his masters. It is questionable whether many human beings ever perform a higher mental operation than this in the whole course of their existence, and therefore the notion of drawing a line between man and the brute, on the ground that the one is rational and the other irrational, is hardly tenable.
Of the strong affection manifested by the dog for his master, and the sagacity which, inspired by this feeling, he often displays, the recorded instances are so numerous that they must be familiar to every one. The stopping of the pony, already alluded to, by which a dog probably saved his master’s life, is an instance of this, and the numerous cases in which people have been saved from drowning by canine agency may serve as further illustrations of it. Mr. Jesse cites one of these, in which, as he indicates, the strong affection of the dog for his master made him overcome a strong and probably well-founded aversion to the water. The dog, who had received the name of Neptune, was found on the beach near Lydd, in Kent, having in all probability swam ashore from some wreck. He was evidently not an engaging animal in appearance, being described as resembling a wolf so strongly, that when first seen he was shot at. On the occurrence of another wreck on the coast, the dog’s master, a Mr. Procter, of Lydd, rode down to the beach accompanied by the dog to see if he could render any help. The remainder of the story may be given in Mr. Jesse’s own words:—
“On arriving at the water’s edge, Mr. Procter‘s horse became frightened at the furious seas washing over the fulls of shingle, and fell suddenly backwards into an eddy, in a large deep hole cut by the sea, one side of which was nearly perpendicular. Mr. Procter disengaged himself, and vainly tried to get to land. Twice he went under water, and was nearly exhausted and insensible; when the dog, which had been jumping, crying, and barking from the beach as if calling his master, made in to him and repeatedly attempted, though fruitlessly, to seize him by the collar; but the smooth waterproof coat his master wore baffled his efforts, his teeth slipping over without being able to get a hold. Mr. Procter was going down a third time, when he fancied he heard a voice shout, ‘lay hold of his tail.’ In a confused state he did so, the animal doubled round, licked his hand, turned, and struck out for the shore, which, with much difficulty, he reached, towing his master, who was then quite unconscious. That gentleman was then carried to the inn, and restoratives were applied; the dog never quitted his side, but laid himself on the bed, where he remained for a considerable time, and would move for no one, but at last was enticed down stairs. . . . . . From the day of the wreck to the last day of the dog's life, he seemed to take possession of his master—would never let him go out alone, and when, in any of his journeys, he was obliged to pass through water, the dog would always go first to pilot the way.”
Even after the death of his master the dog will often show his affection by watching the lifeless body, or even mourning over the grave to which it has been consigned. Napoleon, as is well known, was much struck by seeing on the field of Bassano a dog guarding the body of his slain master, and a similar incident occurred after the battle of Talavera. In more recent times the American papers have recorded the following incident of the war just concluded:—
“The widow of Lieutenant Pfieff, of Illinois, was enabled to find her husband’s grave at Pittsburgh Landing, by seeing a dog which had accompanied the Lieutenant to the war. The dog approached her with the most intense manifestations of joy, and immediately indicated to her as well as he was able, his desire that she should follow him. She did so, and he led the way to a distant part of the field, and stopped before a single grave. She caused it to be opened, and there found the body of her dead husband. It appears from the statement of some of the soldiers, that when Lieutenant Pfieff fell, his dog was by his side, and thus remained, licking his wounds, until he was taken from the field and buried. The dog then took his station by the grave, and nothing could induce him to abandon it but for a sufficient length of time each day to satisfy his hunger, until by some means he was made aware of the presence of his mistress. Thus had he watched for twelve days by the grave of his slain master."
Twelve days, however, are as nothing when compared with the three months during which the body of a tourist, who died from a fall on Helvellyn, was watched unburied by the little dog that accompanied him, an incident celebrated in verse by Sir Walter Scott and Wordsworth; and in the romance of “Syr Tryamoure," quoted by Mr. Jesse at considerable length, a greyhound is represented as burying his murdered master and watching the grave for the space of seven years, when he quits it to go to court and bring the murderer to justice, after the fashion of the well-known dog of Montargis.
In many instances, especially among that fine breed of dogs, the Scotch collie, and to a certain extent in the English sheepdog, this affection for the master takes the shape of a strong sense of duty, and as this is seconded by perhaps the highest canine intelligence, the results produced are sometimes most wonderful. At a single word, sometimes without a word or even a signal from the master, these dogs will direct the evolutions of a large flock of sheep, although one wonders very often how their physical energies can hold up under the incessant fatigue to which they are exposed. Mr. Meyrick, in his little work on “House Dogs and Sporting Dogs," describes the proceedings of one of these dogs in a manner which sets in a striking light the faithful dutifulness of the animal. He says—
“I once saw a colley, in the highlands of Scotland, left in solitary charge of a flock of sheep which were feeding in a field separated only by a ruined wall, full of wide gaps, from a field of young corn. I watched the dog for some time: he had taken his stand on a hillock, from whence he could overlook the whole field, and check the slightest attempt to make free on the part of the sheep. I was told by the person who accompanied me, that the dog remained patiently and watchfully at his post from the earliest dawn till nightfall, and brought the flock home in the evening on hearing the shrill whistle of his master, who lived nearly a mile away. What extraordinary intelligence and what a strict sense of duty must this dog have possessed!"
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