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How does an 'only dog' learn?

May 23, 2012 - By Carolyn B. Tyler

My dog Samson loves to give gifts.

Sam usually positions himself so he can see out the front door. Even if I can't see who is coming up the walk, I can tell if it is a friend or a stranger, just by Sam's posture. If it is a stranger, he is alert. If it is a friend, his whole back end starts wagging, and he runs to get a gift for the visitor. He quickly chooses between a nylabone or an unstuffed toy, and greets the friend at the door, bearing his gift for the visitor.

The visitors don't always welcome the gifts as much as Sammy enjoys giving them. As I say, I buy the "unstuffed" variety of soft toys. Otherwise, within the first few minutes of their arrival on the scene one or another of the three dogs has proceeded to remove the stuffing, and the living room resembles a snow storm.

The nylabones are well chewed, but apparently still tasty because all three dogs are protective of them, so it is a big deal when Sam is ready to present a nylabone to a visitor.

Rita wouldn't be so generous. She worries over the bones with the same intensity as the Travelers Insurance dog in the commercial where he takes it from safe place to safe place. Rita's "safe place" is usually between my feet, whether it is in bed or at the kitchen table.

Sammy and Rita prefer my company above all others.

BonnieBlue (who turns 11 months old next Sunday) would choose the company of her adopted brother and sister. She is learning from them how to be a dog, and I suppose at some point will shift her primary loyalty to me.

It makes me wonder -- how does a single dog learn the ways of a dog? Until the past decade I always had single dogs. Then Tobi died suddenly and it was some time before I could get a new dog. I vowed then to always maintain "carry-over." Being without a dog was very difficult for me. Having a trio sort of "just happened." The result has been that my pups of the 21st century have always had an elder dog to learn from. And they have learned well.

have never had to housebreak a Boston terrier. The newcomers have learned from the elder dogs. And so it has been with safeguarding the house, reminding me when it is snack time, and other important things in the canine world.

I've learned this spring that dogs aren't the only ones who watch and learn from their elders. I have a friend who is hand-raising an orphan calf. Daily she regales me with stories of what Jazzy is learning from the old cow that shares her corner of the farm.

I doubt, however, that the calf will ever learn Sam's habit if gift-giving, and meet visitors with a bucket of milk.

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