Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Truth is never that far away -- ask dog, kid

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I've been spending a great deal of time lately thinking about the nature of intelligence.

I've been doing this partly because I just finished reviewing a groundbreaking new book entitled The Genius of Dogs, wherein the author, a scientist named Brian Hare, explains his theory that dogs are the canine versions of Einstein.

The central point of Hare's book is that dogs are geniuses because they have a unique ability to spontaneously make inferences, to solve problems by reading human gestures. For instance, your standard dog is able to locate a food reward hidden under one of a series of plastic cups by following a simple human gesture, namely pointing.

I have tested this theory with my own dogs and it works perfectly, provided the hand I am using to point with is also holding a ham and cheese sandwich at the same time.

The other reason I have been pondering the nature of intelligence is because I have been spending a lot of time visiting local schools for I Love to Read Month, wherein I help foster a love of reading by telling small children embarrassing stories about my dogs.

The surprising thing I have discovered is that modern children are a great deal smarter than the kids I grew up with, which, technically speaking, would include myself. When I was a kid, no one would have mistaken me or my friends for Einstein, even though we all had atrociously bad hairstyles due to the fact we were growing up in the '60s.

Whereas modern kids spend most of their time physically attached to computers and smartphones and other high-tech devices, kids of my generation (the Precambrian) occupied themselves by riding bikes without helmets, supergluing their fingers together and, in the name of scientific advancement, licking nine-volt batteries "to see what happens."

I started to realize how much smarter today's kids are when I visited a local kindergarten class and, for fun, got them to answer a series of hard-hitting questions of the kind legendary TV personalities Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby asked children on the old TV show Kids Say the Darndest Things.

So there I was, sitting in the back of the classroom on a teeny-tiny chair, interviewing a kindergarten kid who, conservatively speaking, was marginally larger than a loaf of Wonder Bread.

The little guy basically shrugged off most of my questions, until, at one point, I looked at him and asked: "Do you know what a politician is?"

He scrunched up his face and looked puzzled for a few seconds before finally, in the most earnest voice you have ever heard, blurting: "Um, I'm not sure, Doug, but I think it's some kind of a clown!"

Naturally, being a responsible adult, I immediately set him straight. Just kidding. What I actually did was laugh so hard I was afraid I was going to wet myself, then I told him his answer made a great deal of sense.

If you think about it, other than the fact politicians do not wear giant novelty shoes or cram themselves by the dozens into cars the size of canned hams, the little fellow was spot-on.

Then, last week, I encountered genius yet again when I spent the day reading to a small army of whip-smart 10-year-old kids at Phoenix School in Headingley.

I mesmerized the kids by telling them my favourite story, which is the tale of how I shattered my arm several years ago while chasing my dogs in a blind panic. In a nutshell, the dogs dashed out of the house and, in giving chase, I unwisely stuck my arm through an iron trellis at the end of our porch, then flung my body towards the driveway, thinking I'd gain half a second and overtake my fleeing hounds.

It has been my experience that kids love this story because it involves an adult sustaining a crippling injury in an extremely odd manner and because, when I tell it, I do a great impersonation of my dogs running away as well as a person with a broken arm dangling from a trellis.

At the end of the story, I looked out over the sea of alert faces and asked if they knew what the moral of the story was.

Now, in my mind, the moral has something to do with making lemonade when life hands you lemons, but apparently the kids saw it differently.

"Ooh! Ooh! I know! I know!" one little guy squatting on the floor in front of me shrieked, thrusting his hand in the air.

"OK," I said, pointing at him, "what's the moral of the story?"

Face flushed with joy, he jumped to his feet and chirped: "The moral is: DON'T BE AN IDIOT!"

It's amazing how modern kids get to the heart of things. Even if you don't have a ham and cheese sandwich to point the way.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2013 A2

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