Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Oh, those Russian dogs

Canine commuters show their smarts

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You always hear stories about how clever cats are, but once in a while it's nice to be reminded that, in some circumstances, a typical dog can be even more resourceful and wily than a tax attorney.

I started thinking about this over the weekend when my friends at the Winnipeg Humane Society invited me to host the launch of a cool new children's book about making the world a kinder place for dogs.

The book is called No Shelter Here and it was written by a very smart and passionate guy named Rob Laidlaw, who has spent the last 30 years of his life travelling around the world protecting animals.

Along with being an award-winning children's author, Rob is the founder of several animal-protection organizations, such as Zoocheck Canada and has started a project to help bring humane dog control to Canada's remote First Nations communities.

In his new book, Rob shares fascinating facts about dogs along with heartening stories of "dog champions," kids and adults who are helping man's best friend by campaigning against puppy mills, volunteering at shelters and running spay and neuter operations.

Anyway, before I conducted a hard-hitting Q&A with Rob -- "How many dogs do you have and what are their names?" -- he gave the audience a 30-minute slide-show presentation wherein, among other things, he discussed the tragic fact there are thousands and thousands of homeless dogs around the world.

What really got me thinking was when Rob described how, in Moscow, there is not only a large population of dogs that live on the streets, but there are roughly 50 remarkably resourceful mutts who make their home in the suburbs and have figured out an innovative system for surviving in the Russian capital. They commute!

I am not kidding about this and neither was Rob, who delighted the audience at McNally Robinson Booksellers by showing us pictures of a group of homeless Russian dogs who, every morning, wake up in the suburbs, wander into the nearest subway station, take a seat among the nonchalant human passengers, then enjoy a good snooze as the train takes them downtown, where they hop off, spend a busy day foraging for food at restaurants and stores, then casually climb back on the subway in the evening for the long ride home to the suburbs.

Being a middle-aged dog lover who was raised watching Lassie -- an extremely realistic show where, in every episode, Lassie's dull-witted TV family became trapped in quicksand, fell down a well or managed to get pinned under heavy farm equipment -- I was incredibly impressed with how resourceful these Russian dogs are when it comes to feeding themselves.

But I was not surprised. I say this because I have personally witnessed an even more stunning example of food-related doggie resourcefulness in my own home.

I am referring here to a dramatic true incident that occurred several years ago when we owned two basset hounds -- Cooper, who is still with us and has the natural intelligence of a cinder block, and Winnie, who, before passing away, was the canine version of an evil genius.

What happened was, one evening Cooper, acting under orders from the brainier of the two hounds, climbed onto the couch and -- how can I word this for a family newspaper? -- attempted to commit an unnatural act with my brother-in-law's unprotected arm.

Being responsible dog owners, my wife and I responded to my brother-in-law's awkward plight by laughing so hard we almost had an accident on the living-room carpet. The chaos, however, provided the perfect distraction for the brighter basset, Winnie, who slipped into the kitchen as quietly as a furry ninja, used her massive beak to open the refrigerator, snatched an entire roast chicken from the bottom shelf, then, with the purloined poultry clutched between her shark-like jaws, rocketed away under the dining room table.

At this point, Cooper abandoned my visibly unnerved brother-in-law, dragged his sandbag-shaped body off the couch and joined his clever canine cohort under the table to divide up the ill-gotten spoils of their precisely planned raid.

My wife was less than happy with our dogs' behaviour, but even she was impressed with the amount of planning their tiny canine brains had put into the scheme.

The thing that shocked me the most -- and I don't care whether you believe this or not -- is that as our dogs snorked down the stolen chicken, I'm pretty sure they were speaking Russian.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 18, 2012 A2

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