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I learned long ago I can never go wrong by writing about our mutually shared connection to canines.

The neighbor's mixed black Lab Buddy greeted me three years ago with vicious snarls and menacing barks. The enormous fella was obviously lonely and suspicious of everyone outside the confines of his chain-link fence.

As with most things worthwhile, ours since has evolved into a friendship born in earned trust that began with gnashing teeth and slowly proceeded until today's greetings consist of slobbery kisses from an impossibly long pink tongue.

In all honesty, I'm convinced the regular meaty treats he relishes have helped inspire his affection. I've also used the morsels to teach Buddy some basic tricks and add interest to his otherwise boring days. Like many of you, I've been a dog person since early childhood who lost track long ago just how many have shared my life.

There have been beagles, poodles, setters and schnauzers, Labs, goldens and even Bichon Frises, some smarter and more loving than others, yet all best friends and cherished parts of my life at the time.

Today, I'm content to have Buddy living on one side with Sparky, Bonnie and Sadie on the other. To satiate my doggie fix, I also have my daughter's loving little Simba, rambunctious Lulu, son Brandon's Brawny and there is wise little poochy nephew, Toto, who belongs to close friends Danny and Susan Timbrook.

In other words, I maintain my connection with canines though one no longer shares the bed.

The more science discovers about these bright, fiercely loyal and enjoyable creatures (with sweat glands in their paws, of all places) the greater understanding I gain of why we humans remain so tightly bound to their fascinating species.

We now know from studies by animal psychologists that dogs have the average intelligence of a 2-year-old person and can comprehend up to 250 words and gestures, perform simple math and count to five. That doesn't include their uncanny ability to interpret our body language and sense our moods and thoughts.

In the publication Psychology Today, a team of 199 qualified judges on canine behavior ranked breeds on intelligence. The differences in breeds reportedly could be reliably detected based on obedience and working intelligence.

One hundred ninety of the judges rated the border collie atop a list of the most intelligent. They were followed in order by poodles, German shepherds, golden retrievers, Doberman pinschers, Shetland sheepdogs, Labrador retrievers, Papillons and Rottweilers.

I have a feeling there are owners of blue heelers, Jack Russells, shelter mutts and collies (remember Lassie?) who might disagree.

The point is their intelligence and, to a large degree, social intelligence and communication abilities where we are concerned set them apart from other domesticated animals. They can, and often do, sense as much or even more of our love for them as they do for us even when we treat them poorly.

Akiko Takaoka of Kyoto University in Japan and his researchers have delved deeper into this shared communication and discovered most dogs' trust in humans must be earned and becomes easily lost if we then deceive them.

Researchers revealed this by placing food in a container and simply pointing at it without speaking. The dogs normally would approach the container and find food. Then they left a container empty and pointed again. The dogs checked, only to find nothing.

The third time, the dogs were hesitant to go to a container when humans pointed, believing they were being fooled again. In other words, they quickly lost trust in those experimenting with them.

At a time in our nation when political beliefs have deeply divided us and personal relationships are difficult to hold together, dogs have become worthy examples of unconditional devotion who provide deep connections with another living creature.

There are as many stories of canine companionship as there are homes that value them, but often not without potential negative consequences to the dog.

Writing in Psychology Today in 2017, Marc Bekoff said dogs become so attached emotionally that their anxiety level when left alone is far greater than we realize. And according to a report from IFL Science, the first 30 minutes after being left alone is usually the most stressful time for the majority of dogs. For some, the elevated stress level can last the entire time they are alone.

Our dogs can never get used to us leaving, the report said. "After a while, they recognize certain cues of yours--walking towards the front door, looking for your keys, locking the bathroom, and so on--that notify them that you're about to disappear, and the panic begins to set in earlier rather than later."

Take-home message? We should value such devotion without taking their heartfelt affections for granted, which is something we humans sadly are often prone to do with everything in our lives.

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 12/09/2018

Print Headline: MIKE MASTERSON: Earned trust

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