“Border Collies are the most intelligent of all dogs.” Koos Swartberg – who doesn’t live near a black mountain, but inherited the add-on from his father, who once did – makes the statement with that superior tone of voice some preachers use.
Koos isn’t a regular in Boggel’s Place. His farm is quite a distance away, near the Orange River, where he farms with peach brandy and a few sheep. A struggling farmer – like the rest of them -he had been basically bankrupt when fortune decided to flash him a smile. A rich German’s car broke down. Koos stopped to help. They had a bit of his peach brandy while Koos tinkered about under the bonnet. The car still didn’t start, but the German was impressed. Kalahari Schnapps is now exported to the German’s exclusive liquor store in Munich.
“Ag, ever since you’ve become rich, you think you know everything.” Vetfaan doesn’t like the man much. Sure, he came to town to buy some of the dried peaches they all keep in their attics; and yes, they can all use the extra money; but Koos has a way of bragging that isn’t popular in Rolbos. “Who wants a dog that doesn’t understand Afrikaans, man? You have to whistle to tell them to go left or right. otherwise they’ll just keep on running to Cape Town. Can they swim? No, give me a dog that understands what I’m saying…and can think for himself – like Vrede, here.”
Now – everybody knows about Vrede, the town’s dog. Having retired himself from the police service, Vrede spends his days sharing Boggel’s cushion beneath the counter. He understands Afrikaans. Perfectly. Mention the word biltong, and he’ll be at your chair in a flash. Or say Selebi, and his head will hang in shame.
“My dog, Rocket, isn’t stupid, hey? Rocket looks after my sheep even when I’m not around and is far superior to any other dog in the district.”
And so the argument begins. Who’s dog is the genius? Every time Vetfaan says something about Vrede, Koos Swartberg trumps him with Rocket’s abilities. Later (after quite a bit of Cactus Jack) Vrede can drive a Land Rover and Rocket is an expert mechanic. Anybody who has spent enough time in a rural pub, has heard such
drunken arguments conversations. Gertruida says these things happen when alcohol makes you stupid, but it may equally be true that drinking improves a dog’s intelligence. At least, in this case, the two dogs in question became so intelligent, they could have become parliamentarians – according to the two men at the counter.
“We’ll hace a com..com..com…pe…ti..shun.” Koos has great difficulty to pronounce the word. “Rocket againsht – wahtshisname – yes! Vrede.” He swnings a floppy finger through the air. “Rocket againsht Vrede. Ja. The win…winner takesh it all.” He glares in the general direction of where he imagines Vetfaan to be.
Business has been slow in Boggel’s Place lately, so the bent little barman offers to make his bar available for the competition. “You guys can settle it right here. Koos can bring Rocket and Vrede is here already. I’ll ask Gertruida to put up an obstacle course and Kleinpiet can bring a few sheep. Next Saturday. Let’s do it next Saturday. I’ll supply the peanuts.”
And so it happens that the world’s first canine intelligence Olympiad is held in Rolbos. Boggel’s Place is packed to the rafters when Koos Swartberg leads Rocket into the bar. Vrede, as usual, is fast asleep beneath the counter. Koos is wearing a small, silver whistle around his neck and a superior smile. Gertruida sits next to the counter, paging through a dictionary.
The rules are simple. Rocket has to obey the whistle commands, while Vrede has to listen to words before acting.
“This has to be a fair competition, guys. You know, no cheating?” Servaas has appointed himself as the judge. “So I read up a bit. We have to make sure the dogs don’t just go through some routine they learnt at home.” Vetfaan and Koos nods. “So, here’s what we’ll do: Vetfaan gets the whistle, Koos gets the dictionary.”
Chaos. Koos says it’s not fair at all, while Vetfaan shouts that Koos will only pick out impossible words. The rest of the group in the bar won’t be left out of the argument. And Boggel? He’s smiling. Business is good. It takes quite a while before things simmer down. By that time, Koos is slurring his words again.
“Right. Okay. We’ll stick to Left, Right, Front and Back.” He blows the commands on his whistle, which causes Rocket to dash this way and that. “See, it’s easy. You try…” He hands the whistle to Vetfaan.
Have you ever seen an inebriated man handle a dog whistle? Even when sober, it takes a bit of concentration to get the notes right. And don’t blow too hard. Or too soft. It involves an easy, sustained exhalation to produce the right sound. Vetfaan doesn’t know this, of course.
Taking a deep breath, he puts the whistle to his lips. Unfortunately, he’s forgotten about the peanuts in his mouth. A wayward nut feels how the inhaled breath – in anticipation of the effort of blowing the whistle – sucks itself down, past the tongue, over the soft palate and into the vocal chords. What follows may be quite natural, but the results are extraordinary.
Coughing with a whistle clamped between the front teeth can be extremely messy. First of all, bits of nut and spittle go flying all over the place. Even smaller pieces of the snack get lodged in the whistle itself. It takes a supreme effort to keep the whistle firmly between the teeth to prevent the instrument from flying through the window.
But it’s the effect on both dogs that is the subject of much discussion later. Both Vrede and Rocket are galvanised into action. Rocket doesn’t understand this new, rather urgent and piercing note, and stands stock-still. Vrede – who has been sleeping peacefully – sits up and notices the other dog for the first time.
Gertruida will later say one must understand these things. Vrede has been the only dog in town for so long, after all. He only did what is natural, one cannot blame him.
Blame or not, it makes no difference to what happens. Vrede lets out a howl and rushes towards Rocket. Koos Swartberg’s dog reacts instantly, heading for the door at great speed.
By the time Vetfaan stops coughing, the whistle is clean once more and the laughter has subsided, the two dogs are missing. Completely. Not a canine in sight.
The competition was called off, the town had a good laugh and Vetfaan discovered that Koos, despite his attitude, is actually a nice guy – he paid for the drinks they had while searching for their dogs.
Two days later Vrede was found when he slunk back to his cushion under the counter. A day later a passing motorist picked up Rocket, on her way back to Grootdrink. Recognising Rocket as his neighbour’s clever Collie, he returned the dog to her thankful owner.
Her pups are due any day now.