By Neil Lurssen
At first sight there was no real reason for Jack to get much attention. As Labrador Retrievers go, he wasn’t the handsomest member of his breed. His eyes were set quite close together for a blocky English lab and his black coat turned ash grey in blotches before he was two – maybe because he liked to plunge into our chlorinated swimming pool several times a day, rain or shine. After his swim he would sometimes find his spot under my desk, soaking wet, his head on my feet and ignoring orders to scram.
His ears did not fold closely against his head as Lab ears should – and, before I forget it – his snoring was notable. When Jack dozed, the whole household knew. For his day-time snooze he rested his head on the base of the coat stand in the entrance hallway where he could keep an eye on comings and goings.
He loved car rides: If I turned right at the bottom of our road, Jack was delighted because it meant we were going to the beach or a mountain trail. If I turned left, all hell broke loose. He carried on like a fool in agony. You had to turn left to go to the vet and Jack never forgot it. He could be a real pain about this.
We adored Jack. We marveled at his smarts and his cunning and at dinner time we often exchanged stories about his antics that day. More than any dog of the many I have known, he showed us how he could get things done his way. He thought about things and drew conclusions. He made plans and implemented them.
Can dogs think cognitively? Does logic play a role? Do cause and effect exist for dogs? I am no animal psychiatrist – or any kind of shrink – but I believe that dogs can figure things out and plan ahead. Some dogs do it better than others; some not at all. But people are like that too. Jack was one of the best. He was a schemer.
Jack showed us this side of his personality often. I can cite many examples but let me start with this one: He showed as a pup that he was an escape artist – our four foot wooden fence was no big deal. He would be over in an easy leap and go off on a trot around the neighborhood. I got my tools out and raised the fence to six feet. That was no problem for Jack. I would have to cruise the streets in my VW minibus looking for him. I found him once on the deck of a house a mile away and the owner told me he was a regular caller. She kept a water bowl and snacks for him – and gave him the name Buddy.
Local laws set the height of residential fences at six feet in our neighborhood but since we were at the end of a cul-de-sac I hoped nobody would notice if the fence suddenly rose to eight feet. My tools came out again, I ordered in a fresh supply of wooden planks, and demolished the old fence to build a new Jack-proof enclosure. Instead of horizontal slats the new 8ft fence had vertical slats. “Hahaha – just you wait ‘Enry ‘Iggins,” I sang as I worked. “Try to get up that!”
Jack stretched out on the lawn watching me work with hammer, saw and nails. He showed no signs that he was hatching a scheme – but he was. Just a few days after the new streamlined and inescapable barrier went up he was gone again. And this is how he did it. Where the new fence joined the wall separating my house from my neighbor’s there was a substantial vine. Jack figured out he could crawl up the vine and then sidle along the top to reach a jumping off point. He saw the problem, worked out a solution and then implemented his plan. Cognitive thinking.
Sadly, I had no choice but to banish him from the front yard, a place where he loved lolling about. He would be confined to the back yard. I told myself it wasn’t so terrible because that is where the pool was located.
Jack loved water and swimming in it. But he didn’t want anyone else to swim. When our two preteen boys and their pals entered the water, Jack plunged in to save them. He thrashed straight to them and herded them to the steps like a border collie with sheep. The boys were intimidated by the advancing dog with his flailing legs and called him ”Paws” after the shark movie. He also tried to chase them out of the waves when the guys were learning to body surf at our favorite beach. The cry would go up: “Watch out! Here comes Paws!”
But it wasn’t only the pool that grabbed Jack’s attention in the back yard. There was a big old loquat tree that had become the home of two critter colonies – a squadron of fruit bats in the branches and a family of Trachylepsis capensis around the roots. The latter is the hifalutin’ name of cute snake-like striped lizards known to every school kid in Cape Town. They are found in urban gardens throughout the Southern Cape and they can be tamed up to a point. You can get them to munch insects from your hand if you are patient about it. They are also called skinks and look like plump little snakes with pointy heads and four tiny legs.
Jack ignored the bats when they swooped down to get water from the pool – but he hated the lizards. His dream was to catch one and it became an obsession. And when Jack had an obsession it usually led to a plan. Every time we came home from an outing he couldn’t wait to leap out of the minibus so that he could tear around to the backyard to attack. As he bore down on them the little lizards abandoned their sunbathing and scrambled under their tree roots to safety. Jack would stomp around, growling and whining.
The Trachylepsises were probably laughing the way I am sure lizards do at times. This is where cognitive thinking comes in again. Jack wrestled with the problem, realized that mad dashes didn’t work and made a new plan. He waited for the right time to try it out.
My home office had a large window overlooking the back yard. Jack often hung out with me while I worked. When he sat up he could peer through the window – and when the lizards came out for some sun he could see what they were up to. I noticed one day that he suddenly wandered out and hunched down on the grass at the edge of the pool.
Slowly, slowly he started inching towards the loquat tree. Then he stood up cautiously, faced his quarry, and Jack the Black Lab became Jack the Black Panther – body tense, moving forward, one silent foot at a time. I watched through the window in awe. The lizards seemed unfazed by the hairy doom sneaking their way and carried on basking.
When Jack was about 3ft from his prey he could no longer control his inner hunting lust. He made a sudden lunge at the sunbathers. But – woosh! – they were gone to safety in a flash and Jack had to deal with failure again.
That night, in bed, he must have wondered what else he could possibly do next. But in the nine years that we lived in that house he never did catch a lizard. Years later, new generations of skinks probably still bask under that tree without knowing how their forebears escaped a scheming Lab.