Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities

September 1, 2011

I believe the story of how Ulysses' dog recognised his disguised master after 10 years' absence. My dog's memory of humans - to say nothing of their scents - is infinitely better than mine. He also has a superior memory of routes. His moral superiority is beyond measure. Some people commit the bêtise of thinking themselves more intelligent than their pets. But most dogs' intelligence is too different from ours (if we have any) to bear comparison. My dachshund can count at least to three: I discovered this by giving him fixed numbers of different treats and noticing that he knew when it was bootless to expect more. I do not, however, regard modest numeracy, by human standards, as one of his greatest intellectual attainments - compared, say, with the brilliant cunning he shows in hunting squirrels or sniffing out pistachio-flavoured biscotti.

Jan Bondeson's stories of dog prodigies reveal more about human stupidity than canine competence. Serious philosophers consulted Rolf, the "avid poet" of Mannheim of the early 1900s, who "speculated about the Urseele" and who happened also to be a dog. Medieval inquisitors seriously thought that dog-martyrs, whose shrines attracted popular devotion, were a threat to orthodoxy. People still believe that Greyfriars Bobby and other cemetery dogs cling to their masters' graves, whereas Bondeson demonstrates with indefatigable scholarship that there is no evidence to confirm any such legend. Cemeteries are good places to find shelter and the patronage of gullible, sentimental people.

Bondeson aims to explode canine myths, but his most surprising findings tend to validate them. He shows that stories of the ingenuity and heroism of Newfoundlands are true. Some dogs really can talk in the sense of appreciating the symbolic role of sounds in human communication and reproducing intelligently the corresponding vowels. The "railway dogs" that travelled for their own amusement in the days of more relaxed regulations often did have an uncanny mastery of which trains went where.

The greatest value of the book, however, is as a thrilling read - alternately hilarious and harrowing. We learn how Alexander Graham Bell trumped his invention of the telephone by teaching a terrier to speak, and how a Victorian mongrel played God Save the Queen on the piano, while singing parts from Italian operas. Don, the most successful music-hall talking dog ever, responded to a Swiss bigot's religious objections to his act by ululating "Hallelujah!", whereupon "the Swiss knelt in wonderment" and praised the dog's "religious zeal". Some of the Victorian dogs that collected money for charity misappropriated part of their earnings to buy buns.

Bondeson quotes a radio interview of 1946 with a celebrated talking dog, whose repertoire of sentences was rather limited:

Well, Ben, have you any puppies?

BEN: I want one!

If you want puppies, Ben, the first thing is to get a wife.

BEN: I want one!

What do you think of the political situation, Ben?

BEN: I want one!

Much of the book is sad. It pained me to read of the insensitivities of medical professionals, students and politicians who conspired to destroy the original Battersea monument to a victim of vivisection. Chapters on St Bernards, dog cemeteries, ghost dogs and ratting bring tears to the eyes, lumps to the throat and blood to the boil. The collection is disparate and selective - overwhelmingly anglophone, strangely silent about dogs in war. The analysis is unsearching and begs big questions about where dogs belong in our moral communities. But the tales are compelling and the conclusion admirable. If one allows that dogs are doggily intelligent, rather than humanly intelligent, "Dogs are much cleverer than people give them credit for."

Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities

By Jan Bondeson. Amberley, 320pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781848689466. Published 24 March 2011

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