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Pets Large & Small

Sometimes animals can really surprise you

Jennifer Vanderau
Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter

(8/2016) For people who say they tell their dogs about their problems because the canines are often better listeners than humans, they might be a lot closer to the truth than any of us ever thought.

I’ve talked to a lot of people recently who wholeheartedly believe their dog understands what they’re saying.

Indeed, my family claims my canine brothers and sisters know what they are talking about. The pups know what "go outside" means – they go right to the door. Dad always said our dog Max would lead him to the car in the driveway if Dad asked her if she wanted to go for a ride.

Mom also believes they know what the word walk means. Although, I gotta tell you, some of those little stinkers have minds of their own, so we may never really know what human language they actually know ‘cause with some of them, you can talk ‘til you’re blue in the face and they either a) don’t care or b) will just do what they want anyway. They’re brats, but we love ‘em.

For those of you who, like my mom and pop, believe your dog understands language, there are studies to back you up. A few years ago, they did a study in Germany with a border collie named Rico. Researchers believe Rico understood more than 200 words.

Rico had the ability to fetch toys. Specific toys. People would tell Rico which toy they wanted and he would not only bring the right one, he would pick the one you asked for out of a pile of other toys. I think that dog’s smarter than I was when I was a toddler. Seriously.

In fact, Rico even had the ability to search out a new toy. He had enough intelligence to recognize a new word and connect it to the new toy. Amazing. Even a month after the first test, he could bring the new toy back three out of six times, which researchers say is about the equivalent of a 3-year-old. See? Smarter than me as a toddler.

Sometimes, dogs can actually prove to be wiser than people. One lady owned a Jack Russell Terrier that had a better memory than she did. She always brought home toys for her girl. And eventually the dog began to recognize which toy was which. One day, she brought home a duck and said to her pup, "Go get duck-duck."

When her little girl ran downstairs – the opposite direction of the new toy – mom though she had her. The kicker is the Jack Russell came up the stairs with a toy from a long time ago that Mom had named "duck-duck." The dog remembered the name of the old toy, where mom didn’t.

Sometimes animals can really surprise you.

When I take animals around for visits to nursing homes, a number of people will say to me, "You know dogs aren’t dumb. They know who loves them and can learn more than we think."

Never a truer word has been spoken.

We had a German Shepherd years ago at the shelter who could get out of his kennel. No matter what we did. It actually started to freak us out after a while.

He would get out of his kennel and through three closed doors to greet us at the front door every, single day. We did just about everything we could think of to keep him in, but every morning, there he was staring at us (with a knowing little smirk if you ask me) as we opened the door.

It got to the point where we just said, "Okay, we give. You’re smarter than us. Just try not to destroy anything when you’re running around at night."

And the training some of the dogs we’ve gotten have had – it kind of makes you scratch your head to try to figure out why someone would go to the trouble to train a dog only to give him up to an animal shelter.

After 15 years, I’ve kind of learned to stop asking why.

But my point, and I do have one, is that a lot of dogs come into the shelter already trained. Some of them know sit, shake, down, stay and a host of other commands. One English Setter had actually been trained to point. The problem was we had no idea what the command was to get her off point.

So when you would take her on a walk and she saw a squirrel she would freeze and no matter what you did, you had a devil of a time getting her to move. She was a stray, so we had no background information on her at all. Again, someone had trained her to do that and didn’t care that she was lost.

Now, I will tell you, we’ve had canines at this shelter who seem, I’m sorry to say, dumber than rocks. I’ve taken some with me who actually try to go out the wrong side of the door. You know the one with the hinges and all? Yeah, they’ll shove their nose into the crack of the door – even as the other side is opening – and try to squeeze out past the hinges.

I typically say, "Um, sweetheart, the door opens the other way."

They eventually figure it out, but I’m left shaking my head.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, every single dog on this planet is different. Different personality, different likes and dislikes, different intelligence level. Some are sweet, some not-so-much. Some seem smarter than we are, some can’t figure out which side of the door to go out.

But they are all equally worthy of our love and devotion.

For those of you who tell people your dog understands words and get the "you must be out of your mind look," reference this column and the studies that have been done. ‘Cause you aren’t wrong. A lot of dogs can be smarter than you think.


Jennifer Vanderau is the Director of Communications for the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter in Chambersburg, Pa., and can be reached at The shelter accepts both monetary and pet supply donations. For more information, call the shelter at (717) 263-5791 or visit the website

Read other articles by Jennifer Vanderau