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In 1959 I was living in the hills above Florence, with my hand on the pulse of Italian culture and intelligence. Preparing an anthology on contemporary Italian arts and letters, I had to scan attentively the daily press, the numerous weeklies, the manifold reviews and magazines, readings that were both stimulating and absorbing. But there was one item of information, wedging its way from the back pages of the provincial papers to the headlines of the big national press, that all but distracted me from my dedication to Italian humanity. For the protagonist was not Italian, but French, and a poodle at that.
FRENCH POODLE ENTERTAINS BERGAMO AUDIENCE BY SOLVING ARITHMETIC PROBLEMS AND SPELLING ANSWERS TO DIVERSE QUESTIONS.... PROGRESS OF STUDIES OF PRODIGIOUS ANIMAL AMAZES MILAN AUDIENCE.... WONDER DOG APPEARS AT GALA AFTERNOON TO RAISE FUNDS FOR REBUILDING OF BURNED CAT ASYLUM. Under such and similar headings, journalists, well-known authors, philosophers and psychologists recounted their bewilderment at what they had witnessed: a dog's achievements in the three Rs; a dog's rendering, in correctly spelled human words, of an amazing amount of learned information, of common sense, of humor, of affection.
I realized, of course, that the case, though rare, was not unique. Other animals—dogs, horses, even cats—have made headlines, have inspired entire books, with their presumed feats in reading and spelling, in human reasoning and in advanced arithmetic. But when separated from their masters, when subjected to rigorous scientific tests, these animals usually had failed. In practically all cases, some system, however subtle, of communication between trainer and animal had been discovered, and the animal's "science" had been unmasked as a result of conscious or unconscious fraud.
On the other hand, having lived all my life with dogs, I have often had occasion to wonder at their intelligence. I was anxious to see for myself, and when it turned out that the wondrous headline-making poodle actually belonged to a friend of a friend of mine, I could no longer resist. I interrupted my work, packed up my two dog-loving daughters and my two dog-loving Swiss nephews and drove up to Chiari, near Brescia in the north of Italy, the poodle's residence. The following report is absolutely faithful, adds nothing, withholds nothing. It is based on the notes I took at Chiari, and on the tape on which I recorded interviews with the trainer, Mrs. Ines Giordano Corridori, as well as the meaningful barks of Peg the poodle.
"So you are my guests"
Peg lives in an old Victorian villa with turrets and bulging bay windows. Entering the villa through a friendly flower garden, we found ourselves in an ample lobby, whose high ceiling was sustained by fluted columns. Crisp white curtains and flower boxes and indoor shrubs enlivened the otherwise solemn atmosphere. A roomy cage, with a parrot in it, was fastened to one of the columns. A cat rubbed her arched back against the foot of another column, and through an open door a Bedlington terrier came trotting up to us and sniffed. A wide marble staircase led from the left of the lobby up to the next floor.
We were halfway up the stairs, in the enchanted silence of this afternoon, when we met the wonder dog who had come down from her apartment to greet us. L'apr�s-midi d'un chien. She walked toward us, then sat down on a step, wagging her short tail. Peg is a medium-sized French poodle, black with some gray, and a white marking on her chest. Her movements are graceful: quick without being impetuous, cordial without being intrusive. Her well-groomed poodle cut gives off a pleasantly clean smell, almost perfumed—the aroma of an excellent dog shampoo. But the most remarkable thing about Peggy is the expression of her eyes. She looked at us, mustered us, one after the other, and her eyes seemed to say, "So you are my guests today; I need not tell you that my name is Peg." "Peggy," we tried to say nonchalantly, the way one talks to dogs. We caressed her head. "Can you smell our doggies?" But Peg does not give a hoot for smells, especially not for doggy smells. And the caress seemed indiscreet somehow, out of place.
Upstairs, Mrs. Corridori was waiting to receive us: a stately blonde with intelligent and imposing features, and with a natural dignity that would make anybody "behave" in her presence. She wore a simple black dress, with an unbuttoned wool jacket over it.
"So Peg has introduced herself," she said. "Come right in." And she led us to a spacious room in the rear of the house, which evidently served as the family's dining room. The far end of the room, to which she asked each of us to carry a chair, was Peg's playroom and study. To the right there was a blackboard with some pieces of chalk; to the left, a sort of abacus with large colored beads. In between lay a rug on which Peg was invited to sit down.
"Did you have a good trip?" Mrs. Corridori asked. "When did you leave Florence? Are you going back tonight? Oh, you are going on to Turin...."