A good police dog has not only a large vocabulary but also extraordinary social skills. He understands many forms of human culture and has his being within them. He can be taken to the scene of a liquor-store robbery and asked to search, with the handler trusting that he won’t molest the customers or other police officers or the clerk behind the counter. He knows what belongs and what doesn’t, sharing our community and our xenophobia as well. He can take down a criminal who is attacking his handler on Monday and on Tuesday play with the patients at the children’s hospital. These dogs, then, are glorious, but for anyone familiar with working dogs they are not surprising, any more than your pet dog is surprising in his or her ability to distinguish between your friends and strangers.
But someone might say that a dog’s courtesy with guests is surprising, or that it ought at least to be remarked on that such profound connections between two species can happen at all. (It should be surprising, perhaps, that we can talk, and, of course, some philosophers have been surprised.)
Consider, for example, what happens when you train a wolf, or what happens at least when I train a wolf. The wolf, or coyote, may sit, heel, stay, come when called and so forth. But a wolf doesn’t respect our language, and his behavior can be accounted for pretty well with a stimulus-response model, from our point of view if not from the wolf’s. The wolf may also become fond of me in some fashion or another, but I can’t use him as a guard dog. Not only will he not distinguish particularly between family, criminals and guests, he will not have the courage of a good dog, the courage that springs from the dog’s commitments to the forms and significance of our domestic virtues. The wolf’s xenophobia remains his own. With other wolves he may, of course, be respectful, noble, courageous and courteous. The wolf has wolfish social skills, but he has no human social skills, which is why we say that a wolf is a wild animal. And since human beings have for all practical purposes no wolfish social skills, the wolf regards the human being as a wild animal, and the wolf is correct. He doesn’t trust us, with perfectly good reason.
From Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name, by Vicki Hearne. (And I’m reminded somewhat of Wes Anderson’s take on The Fantastic Mr. Fox.)