This week, from the department of teaching old dogs new tricks: Bonnie Bergin wants you to teach your dog to read.
Bergin, who is well-respected as a dog trainer and who also has a background in human education, says the idea isn’t as far… er… fetched as you might think. She reminds us that dogs can be trained to sniff out drugs and bombs, or guide a blind person across a busy intersection, so why not train them to read? She believes that the average dog can be compared to a two or three-year-old human child in terms of cognitive abilities.
I have no doubt that dogs are smart enough to be taught to read at a limited level; I’ve met some pretty smart dogs in my time, some of whom were smarter than their owners. And comparing dogs to toddlers is probably accurate. Thankfully dogs aren’t subject to as many temper tantrums.
I do wonder though, at the wisdom of teaching man’s best friend how to read. Students of history will tell you that the consequences of one group suddenly becoming literate can be disastrous for another group.
For example, consider the dog food industry. For years, dogs have been happily chowing down on dry kibble concoctions or suspect tins of meat-like food. Teach them how to read and suddenly they discover ingredient lists.
ROVER: Grrr. What exactly is “chicken by-product?”
YOU: Um…chicken parts made from a process not intended to produce, er, chicken parts.
ROVER: You mean I’m not getting genuine drumsticks here?
YOU: Uh, no.
ROVER: Thighs? A nice bit of wing?
ROVER: Has this food even been waved *over* any real chicken? Or have I been eating beak bits all my life?
On the domestic assistance front, forget having Fido fetch your daily newspaper. Or more accurately, Fido will gladly fetch the paper, but won’t hand it over. At least not until he’s done with the sports section.
Your relationship with your dog will change significantly as well. For instance, I suspect dogs will still enjoy chasing after balls, but certain aspects of the game may have to change.
YOU: [Throwing ball] There you go girl!
LASSIE: Sorry to be a pain, but did you wash your hands first?
LASSIE: Before you picked up the ball, I mean? Did you wash up?
YOU: I don’t understand.
LASSIE: It’s just that I was reading the other day about how human hands have 3000 times as many germs as the inside of a dog’s mouth, and, well, no offence, but…
The Internet will never be the same again either. Once they know how to read, dogs will realize that those boxes humans sit in front of for hours are intensely interesting. Keyboard and mouse manufacturers will suddenly have a whole new market for canine usable (dogernomic?) access devices. Dogs will set up their own Amazon.com wish lists (with titles like “Good Owners, Great Dogs” and “Dog Heroes”). They’ll surf for dog porn, write doggie mail, and use instant messaging (“I be K9? U?”) The Internet will change so profoundly it will be a dog com revolution.
You won’t be able to trick them into a trip to the veterinarian’s office, as they’ll be able to read the street signs along the way. Worse, they may be able to work out how to reprogram your car’s navigation system so you end up at the ice cream stand instead. Walks will not be to the park anymore, they’ll be to the local library. Dogs won’t greet each other by sniffing each other’s behinds; instead they’ll read each other’s dog tags. And you’ll find your chequing account won’t reconcile to your cheque book, because a certain furry member of the household has been making donations to the local humane society.
And if your dog works out you can use the phone book to order take-out?
You’ll be pooched.
Also published on Medium.