Vancouver psychologist Stanley Coren is one of the world’s leading experts on dog behaviour. In his latest book, The Modern Dog, an informal collection of anecdotes and reminiscences, Coren discusses how humans have bred dogs to particular ends over 14,000 years, instilling behaviour in them that often clashes with contemporary wishes, as Coren discovered personally. “Take the case of Joan and Flint,” he writes. “Joan is my wife, and Flint was her gift to me.”
Much of our bond with dogs comes from the fact that they are playful and uninhibited. We have actually bred playfulness into dogs by selecting for animals whose minds are much like those of wolf puppies all of their lives. It is their juvenile minds that makes dogs want to play and do the silly things that make us laugh. In humans the same behaviours would be evidence of a sense of humour.
As many owners will undoubtedly attest, though, playful dogs are not an unmitigated blessing. While such dogs are a joy to people who can handle the occasional bouts of chaos, they are an exasperation to those who cannot. Take the case of Joan and Flint. Joan is my wife, and Flint was her gift to me.
When I found myself without a dog for the ?rst time in my life, Joan knew that I would go crazy if I didn’t get one soon. She also knew that I had set my mind on a cairn terrier because they are extremely playful and make me laugh. When you spend your whole life in a research laboratory or at a keyboard writing, having a dog that makes you laugh is better for stress reduction than a psychotherapist. Joan announced that she was giving me a cairn puppy as a Christmas gift.
At that time he was only around three pounds of brown brindle fur. Named Flint, he would eventually become the number one cairn terrier in obedience competition in Canada. He would also grow up to own a large part of my heart and to be the bane of my wife’s existence.
The following year my wife bought me a 12-gauge shotgun for Christmas. My daughter by marriage, Kari, assured me that there was a clear symbolic connection between the two Christmas gifts.
Flint was a constant trial for Joan, a prairie girl who had grown up in a family that kept large sporting dogs—mostly retrievers, pointers, and hounds. They were trained to pay attention, to do what they were told, and to work silently. These working dogs were allowed into the house only when they were to be fed or when the temperature dropped to something around minus 40 and everyone was feeling guilty about their welfare. Quiet, order, reliability, predictability, and unobtrusiveness are values that Joan cherishes in her own life and also demands from her dogs. A terrier as a house dog was something completely beyond her experience.
Joan had never encountered the likes of this dog before and was not amused by his favourite game, “The Barbarians are coming!” Flint played this game with great vigor at random intervals on carefully selected days and nights. It always began with him leaping into the air with a furious round of barking that was explosive enough to be heard throughout the entire house. Next he rushed to a door or window or leapt onto the highest surface he could reach, such as a bed or a sofa. His timing was such that the game always seemed to start when the house was quiet, because Joan was reading, sewing, or napping. Careful investigation would often reveal that the triggering event was usually something innocuous, like the wind brushing tree branches against the house.
To keep my wife from disemboweling Flint at such moments, I explained to her that terriers are speci?cally bred to bark. A working terrier absolutely must bark when it is the least bit excited or aroused because in earlier times this alerted the hunters to the location of the burrow where the dog had pursued an animal into its den. It was the sound of the barking underground that told the hunters where to dig to uncover the fox or badger. The earliest terriers, which were not so ready to bark, had to wear collars with bells on them to guide hunters in their chase and digging. Unfortunately, many terriers choked to death when their collars caught on some obstruction underground. Others died because the hunters could not hear the tinkle of bells when fox and terrier were lost under the ground in a ?nal confrontation. A barking dog, however, could be heard, and hence found. My historical explanations were lost on Joan, especially when she had just been awoken two hours before the alarm clock was set to go off in the morning.
Flint had a mind of his own, and his likes and dislikes had no regard for Joan’s preferred lifestyle. She would shoo him off a chair, only to see him immediately jump up on the sofa. She would push him off one side of the bed, only to have him jump back up on the other. She would scold him for barking at the door, only to have him jump up and begin barking at the window.
In the genes of every terrier is the ability and desire to eliminate rats and other vermin. People who have not had direct experience with this aspect of terrier behaviour tend to think that the most ef?cient rat killers are cats. While cats are certainly ef?cient at killing mice, where stealth and patience are the most important qualities for the hunt, rats are often too large and vicious for cats to handle; hence, terriers were bred for the job. The general method that terriers use to dispatch their prey involves grasping the rat or other small mammal by the neck and giving it one or two swift shakes to break its neck.
Cairn terriers are no different from other terriers in that their desire to chase vermin, whether rats, mice, rabbits, or squirrels, is built in. The simplest way to arouse Flint to a frenzy of activity was to shine a spot of light on the ?oor with a ?ashlight and then to move the spot erratically around. A small moving target automatically elicits the pursuit response in terriers, and Flint would chase the spot with undying enthusiasm. The game would usually come to an end only when I grew too tired to continue, or the ?ashlight batteries began to fail.
Flint was one of the few dogs that I have owned that spontaneously watched television. My spunky dog had ?rst become interested when I turned the TV on to a program called The Littlest Hobo, a low-budget series that featured a German shepherd that wandered around the countryside, befriending various people and getting them out of trouble through his heroism and cleverness. When Flint saw this dog moving across the TV screen, his attention was immediately captured. He would stand up on his hind legs, the way that he often did at the windows to watch other dogs go by. If the dog disappeared from the screen, he would get closer and look slantwise in the direction that the dog had gone, perhaps trying to catch a glimpse of the disappearing furry star. After that he would always check the TV screen as he passed.
None of this caused any problems until the attack of the giant rats. I no longer remember the name of the ?lm being shown on TV that night, but I do remember some of the content. It involved scenes in which rats were occupying some abandoned structure. At his ?rst sight of them, Flint froze. A low territorial growl started, and he began to quiver with excitement. When the rodent stampede occurred, with all of the accompanying frantic rat sounds, Flint could contain himself no longer. He launched himself off the sofa and attacked the wooden stand on which the television stood. Growling, barking, slashing, chewing—he desperately tried to grab hold of the table leg and shake it to death. In a matter of moments the wooden leg of the TV stand looked like it had gone through a war. Meanwhile the rat scene had drawn to a close. The squeals were now gone and no rodents were visible any longer on the face of the tube. Flint backed off and looked up. He snorted once or twice through his nose, then with tail erect and legs stiff, proudly walked out of the room, pausing only once to glance at the TV to make sure that his job of saving us from the onslaught of vermin was truly ?nished. I quickly rotated the TV table so that the damaged leg was against the far wall where the tooth marks would not be visible. I really didn’t want to have to explain this new episode of genetically generated terrier behaviour to Joan. Over the next couple of days I secretly repaired the damage.
Flint’s ability to hunt rodents did endear him to my wife for a while at least. He proved to be quite an ef?cient “varminting” dog. In his life he would kill rats, mice, moles, gophers, and even an opossum. Most of this was done out at our little farm that I often use when I am writing or just hiding from the world, especially during the summer. Flint’s thinning of the rodent population meant that Joan’s vegetable garden was more productive and there were fewer unwanted fur-bearing visitors trying to make their way into the house, garage, or cupboards where food was stored. His useful work was well appreciated by everyone in the house.
In the city, we live in an old house built around 1916. It is not sealed as well as it should be, especially around the basement area. Every year, as the autumn rains fall and the weather starts to turn cold, mice work their way inside. With a degree of patience and dedication that would make cat owners envious, Flint turned into a fabulous biological mousetrap. Joan was quite pleased with Flint’s pro?ciency. She would warmly praise him for his efforts, giving him a friendly pat and maybe even a treat.
Perhaps Flint saw this as his opportunity to make amends, or perhaps he just reverted to being a terrier with a sense of humour. In any event, one morning Flint decided to make his peace offering to Joan. It was quite early, and Joan awakened to the gentle pressure of Flint’s front paws resting on her. She looked down at him only to ?nd that he had deposited a mouse on her chest—still warm, but quite dead. I fear that the gift was not accepted in the tender and accommodating spirit with which it was offered.
As with many terriers, Flint’s motto was, “If two wrongs don’t make a right, try three.”
From The Modern Dog by Stanley Coren. Copyright © 2008 by SC Psychological Enterprises, Ltd. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.