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Canine intelligenceof epic proportions

By John Gould / April 6, 2001



It is such a joy to catch the unerring game show "Jeopardy!" in a palpable error that I am always impatient for the next one, which usually comes about now. This time they said Argus was the hound of crafty Ulysses, who recognized his master after 20 years. Good Homer (not to be mistaken for Good Humor) sometimes nods, and in this matter I think he did.

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A dog of 20 years is unusual, and one still keeping his memory remarkable. Argus remembered and roused himself from where he slept to wag greetings to Ulysses, whom he had not seen since the well-greaved Acheans had sailed for Troy.

I, too, have an amazing memory, but the Argos I remember was our farm dog back when the children were preschoolers. Named after the Homeric hound, he was in our sequence of farm pooches that included other famous mutts such as Cerberus, Sirius, and so on.

The dog we had been employing had retired, and we needed a replacement. Somehow we heard that a stray dog was being held at an animal shelter in a Boston suburb, and because he seemed an unusual animal, they didn't feel he should be "placed" just anywhere. I got on the phone and suggested 100 acres of Maine farm with lush meadows, a duck pond, sheep and cows, horses and pigs, two youngsters and a barn cat, immediately available.

They said this sounded like a dog heaven and to come and get him. Thus we acquired Argos, and he was in charge of everything except paying the taxes. He was an Alsatian shepherd a bit over a year old, trained totally by an expert. All else about him was a mystery. His intelligence was incredible, and I always said he knew enough to be president of Harvard but was too smart to work for those wages.

The next day, Mother drove down to Massachusetts to get him, and they arrived back home with him on her lap, as if driving. That relationship never changed. Argos was forever her dog. Unless urgent business required his attention, his head was always by her right knee. When she'd go to see who knocked at the back door, many a peddler decided to be brief.

He could seem furious and vicious, but was gentle with the children, and when the barn cat had kittens he helped her carry them wherever she wanted. Then he'd lie down in the sun and the litter would walk all over him.

Here's how smart he was: One morning, Game Warden Phil Mahaney tooled his cruiser into our dooryard. He said somebody in the neighborhood was poaching deer and he wanted to walk through my woods to see what he might find. He got that far when Argos came with a rack of deer antlers in his jaw, which he laid at the warden's feet.

Warden Mahaney patted him and said, "Good boy! Bringin' home the bacon, eh?" Argos cocked his head and wagged his tail. Philip said, "I guess you and I better go on a prowl," and he and Argos took off for the woods.

Argos showed the warden where he'd found the horns. Other leavings were clues the state police lab quickly made useful. Phil arrested three poachers the next day, the charges stuck, and fines were considerable. That's how smart he was.

The first evening Argos was home with us, my wife set his supper down in a bowl, and he wouldn't eat. He stayed there, looking down at the dish, trembling and whimpering, and we realized he had been rightly trained to eat only from his own dish.

As a stray dog, it was possible he hadn't eaten in days! My wife got another bowl, let him sniff it, and said, "All right, boy, this is now your dish, and you can eat again!" She dumped his supper in the new dish, put it on the floor, and Argos polished off supper in a twinkling.

Except for snacks handed to him at table, which didn't count, Argos never ate but from his own dish.

The next time my wife's parents came to visit, they brought their cocker spaniel, Peggy, a city dog untutored in bucolic ways. Recognizing an opportunity, Argos, always a gentleman, took over and for starters showed her a woodchuck in a stone wall.

Then the woodchuck bit Peggy on her only nose. Argos took charge and taught him a good lesson, and then, since Peggy's nose had swelled like a puffball, he comforted her all afternoon by lapping her wound. At times Argos could be a loving old slob.

He did not live 20 years. I never knew a dog that did except his ancestor in the Odyssey. He faithfully earned his keep for maybe 10 years and had become an expert sheepdog people came to watch. He took to it naturally, and herded our flock of 15 Southdowns not only by whispered commands but also by hand signals. He could count, and when the 15th sheep was in the fold, he'd push the gate shut.

Every evening after supper, Argos had himself a run, and he'd be gone for exactly 30 minutes, as if he carried a watch. Where he went we never knew. He'd return on the split second, woof! for in, and we'd open the door.

And then there came an evening when he didn't woof. So we needed a replacement for Argos, who turned out to be a mongrel du pays that we named Gelert after the Welsh hound of Llewellyn, if you'd care to check my spelling for the "Jeopardy!" people.

Gelert made a good dog, but he was never an Argos. Or an Argus, either.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor