September 27, 2013

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Remember, we’re not as smart as we think we are

Cynthia DewesThis is a cautionary tale about dogs being smarter than people when it comes to danger, not to mention their superior smarts about many other things. Humans don’t know when someone’s sneaking up the stairs, but their dogs do. And humans can’t smell or hear certain threats when dogs can.

Having said that, I’m about to tell on myself as being one of these clueless humans who owes a lot to a perceptive dog. Namely Fred, our big, old chow/golden retriever mix who, with his sister, Ginger, of chow/husky heritage, has been protecting us for many years.

One day when they were young, the dogs were enjoying the sunshine, leashed to a post on the front porch. I didn’t hear a pickup truck pull up in the driveway, but the dogs did and loudly announced its arrival. Then a man knocked on the front door and said he was from the telephone company, here to check out our phones. These were the days of landline phones only.

Now I’ve never, before or since, known Fred to bark viciously and bare his teeth, but he did both that day. He knew this fellow was up to no good. Nevertheless, dummy me let the man into the house and showed him to the kitchen phone.

In those days, we were used to trusting the honesty of service people and would never have thought to ask for their credentials. Many people never locked their doors, even out in remote areas. We’d not yet been treated to the deluge of scary movies about evil strangers invading the homes of women who were home alone. We didn’t expect rape, robbery and generally being scared out of our wits.

Finally, Fred’s continuously threatening behavior and some inner light bulb prompted me to go immediately to the back door and stand outside, waiting for the man to follow. Reluctantly he did, and as he passed as far as he could from the dogs, Fred lurched and strained at his leash, snarling and ready to bite and probably kill the intruder. The man leapt into his truck and took off, and I never heard later from the telephone company inquiring about the interrupted visit.

My husband and innumerable others who’ve heard this tale have pointed out the stupidity of my actions, and I heartily agree. I learned a lesson about being cautious when I’m home alone.

Mulling over this incident has led me to ponder the limits of human ability, and of what constitutes Christian virtue and its related responsibility. That is, we’re taught to trust others, to turn the other cheek, to be generous and hospitable, all good things. But sometimes we encounter bad responses like that of my sinister service man, and we need to change our tactics.

Now, we don’t cut off robbers’ hands to punish them, or to deter potential robbers. But we can’t be indiscriminately welcoming, either. Dogs know that. Sometimes we should actually be the opposite. And this is true of other virtues besides trusting others.

We can’t always follow an ideal to its intended result without unintended consequences. For example, we can’t hand out welfare checks without proof of need because cheating will diminish the money available to those who need it most. We can’t gloss over suspicious behavior in adult friends when we have children to protect.

I think we should keep an eye on our dogs because God seems to have given them more common sense than we have.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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