The dog that walks like a human – and other precocious pets: ‘We didn’t teach him, it was his idea’
Interviews by Sophie Haydock
Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Animal lovers describe what it’s like to care for an extremely talented animal
‘I watched in amazement as he hopped up the stairs’: Dexter, the dog that walks on two legs’
We bought Dexter as a puppy. He was an adorable bundle of energy, a pure-breed Brittany spaniel. My husband, two children and I fell in love with him straight away. We’d lost an elderly dog the year before, and had rescued another, who we tragically had to put to sleep. It devastated us. So we poured our love into Dexter.
We live in a small mountain town, Ouray, in Colorado, so he quickly became part of the community. Children pass our yard on the way to school and stop to pet him. We named him after a local creek.
When Dexter was nearly a year old, in March 2016, he was involved in a terrible accident. He escaped from our yard – we think he caught the scent of a deer trail. He ran in front of a vehicle, about a mile from our home.
My husband, Tim, found him with his two front legs badly injured. Tim volunteers as a mountain rescue first responder, so wasn’t too fazed. He called me to come quickly. I jumped in the car, and was horrified when I saw my baby. It was worse than I’d imagined, and Dexter was in a lot of pain. There was no doubt that we needed to get him to the vet, but there wasn’t a moment to lose, as the closest one was an hour’s drive away.
It was clear Dexter wanted to live. I sat with him in the back of the car and he rested his head on my lap, trying to comfort me. When we arrived, the vet was waiting, and on seeing Dexter, turned green. He said he needed to get the senior vet. At that point, we didn’t know if Dexter had a brain injury or internal bleeding. The vet acted quickly, and soon determined that we’d need to amputate his right front paw, but that the left could be saved, though it wouldn’t be entirely functional. I knew we’d do everything possible to save Dexter.
After three days, Dexter came home. He’d had a lot of surgery, but the vet was confident he could enjoy a decent quality of life. It took him a long time to recover, and I worked hard on his rehabilitation – building muscle tone, working on his mobility. For a year, Dexter had to wear a cone, and we had a specially commissioned wheelchair made that fitted around his stomach, with wheels at the front, so he could get around on three legs. He was still a puppy, had so much energy and just exuded positivity.
Every morning, first thing, I’d carry him down the porch steps, without his wheelchair, to go out in the yard. One day, I left him at the bottom while I popped inside to get my coffee. When I returned a few seconds later, Dexter was at the top of the steps. I looked around, dumbfounded. How had he got there?
I put him at the bottom again, and waited. Within moments, he jumped up on his two back legs, and hopped up the steps, like he’d been doing it his whole life. I couldn’t believe it. Since then, Dexter has not stopped walking on two legs. He sometimes uses his front left leg for balance, sniffing around on three legs, but when he wants to go fast, he pops up on his two back legs to run.
I spoke to the vet, who was worried about the pressure on his hips. We encouraged him to keep using his wheelchair, but he’d just stand up with it still attached, which could have caused more damage. We never taught Dexter to walk this way, it was all his own idea. He now visits a chiropractor regularly, who says his back is strong and his hips are pure muscle.
Dexter is now seven. He has rewritten the rules of what it means to have a physical impairment. Nothing slows him down, and he’s the most joyful dog – determined and tenacious. I’m so proud of him. I receive letters from around the world from people in tough situations, saying, “If Dexter can do it, so can I.” He went viral after a clip of him, taken by a stranger, ended up on primetime television in the US. He’s delighted with all the attention – and treats. But at the end of the day, he’s still our family pet, a dog who loves chasing balls, fetching sticks and going for a run in the park. After the accident, the vet said he must have had a serious will to live, and Dexter definitely does. Kentee Pasek
‘He learned to get our attention by mimicking the Snapchat notification’: Apollo, the super-intelligent parrot
Apollo is on track to become the most intelligent English-speaking birdin the world. We bought him in December 2020 from a local pet store. He’d been surrendered by a previous owner, and was eight months old. They decided they didn’t want him any more.
We named him Apollo after the space programme. Straightaway, he was full of inquisitiveness and curiosity. He loves learning and interacting with us. We’ve had birds in the past, so knew how to get the best out of him. We do everything we can to stimulate him, raising him as if he were a child learning a language.
We study the work of Dr Irene Pepperberg, a scientist who specialises in animal cognition, particularly parrots. We were inspired by her work with Alex, an African grey, who has a huge vocabulary, but has been raised in a lab, so is limited in how much progress he can make. We expect Apollo to surpass Alex at some point in the future.
Apollo’s first words were “hello” and “fresh water”. We do have to interpret him: “fresh water” might be him asking for a drink, or a shower. We offer him some and he’ll either sip or hit the cup with his beak and say “pour water” for us to drizzle it over his head.
Before that, Apollo learned to get our attention by mimicking the sound of the Snapchat notification. He would notice us going to our phone when it went off. He’s very clever, and has loads of toys and games to stimulate him. He likes anything shiny or that makes a sound.
One thing Apollo asks for a lot is “snacks”. He knows he’ll get them as a reward, so will say “earn a pistach” for a pistachio, or “want a snack” for walnuts.
It’s not all been easy though. It’s standard practice for the pet store to clip birds’ wings, and for a long time Apollo experienced night terrors when we got him home. Several nights a week, he’d panic because he couldn’t fly. Like calming a child after a nightmare, we’d bring him into our bed, put him under the blankets. He’d fall asleep, and that would reset him. It took Apollo about eight to 10 months for his wing feathers to grow back, and then the night terrors receded. We’d never clip him ourselves.
Now he wakes us up early. He has a snack, we hang out for an hour and he likes to practise his language skills. He gets lunch at noon, and will eat for an hour. Then he’ll preen his feathers. We feed him pasteurised egg yolks, a lot of fresh vegetables. As soon as it’s dark, he’s fast asleep.
We’re almost in uncharted territory with Apollo’s language skills. He’s two and a half and has so much potential. An African grey parrot’s average lifespan is 50 to 80 years. These formative years are most important – as with humans, that’s when they absorb everything.
Apollo loves people. He wants to perform; he’s social, fearless. That really helps him interact with new people and pick up new skills. Recently, we’ve been working with a local university. Students come to interact with Apollo three days a week. The professor contacted us to suggest it as he’d watched the videos of Apollo performing and been impressed.
Of course, some people say that keeping a bird in our home is against nature. But Apollo was born in captivity and raised in captivity. He’d probably end up poached in his natural habitat. We support the desire to stop breeding parrots and capturing them from the wild.
But teaching him is not cruel. Apollo is hard-wired to learn to communicate; he wants to do that. He loves our sessions, learning new things. It’s a form of play and connection. He’s learning constantly by watching us interact. You can’t meet Apollo and not say he’s an emotional animal, worthy of a fulfilling life.
Having the responsibility for Apollo and contributing to his language development fulfils us and definitely outweighs any small annoyances. He’s hitting puberty. He’s got a bit of an attitude right now – out of nowhere, he can get on your shoulder and split your ears with a shriek. But being responsible for something that you care about and are proud of makes you happy. Dalton Mason and Tori Lacey
‘Skateboarding is one of her most impressive skills’: Didga, the skateboarding cat
Didga is exceptional. I have three other cats, and she is by far the most accomplished. Her name is short for “didgeridoo”. There’s no cat in the world that even comes close to what she can do in terms of skills.
I adopted her as a 12-week-old kitten and now she’s nearly 11. In that time, she has surpassed all my expectations and helped me teach other people how to get the best out of their cats, too.
In 2017, Didga performed a record-breaking 24 different tricks in under a minute, which got her into the Guinness World Records. Those included a high-five, a sideways roll and jumping over a bar while skateboarding. My favourite trick, and hers, is to jump up on to my hands, and balance on them. Didga loves a challenge.
I’ve been in the animal-training business for 40 years. I used to live in the US, training police dogs in the military, then moved to Hollywood and worked with animal actors before I opened my own business in Malibu.
When I moved back to Australia, I thought about getting a cat – everyone said cats can’t be trained, but I wanted to prove them wrong. I knew I could work magic with treats, positive reinforcement and clicker training. People would be amazed at how little time is required to teach your pet quite extraordinary things.
I started searching for potential kittens to adopt. I went to a shelter, and, as I was walking through, a kitten caused a ruckus behind me. We stopped and looked over. The lady said, “She’s really trying to get your attention.”
So I picked the kitten up. She was comfortable with other cats, and liked playing. I gave her a treat and she ate it right out of my hand. I put her on her back and she relaxed. I adopted her and never looked back.
Before long, Didga would go out with some dogs I trained and swim with them in the river. She did everything willingly. I never forced her – she walked on a leash, and got into the water herself. She wanted to be with the dogs, who were her friends.
Didga knows a handful of tricks that took over a year to learn. Training with cats is difficult – you have a very small window before they want their meals. As a trainer, I understand the preparation, the patience, how to break everything down into baby steps. Didga certainly enjoys learning.
Skateboarding is one of her most impressive skills. She rides along with the motion of the board, jumping on and over objects. It’s an incredible feeling when a cat does a trick I’ve been trying to teach for so long. With patience and encouragement, they pick it up eventually.
The psychology of training a cat is fascinating. Because I understand how animals think and learn, I can adjust to the cat’s abilities. If Didga doesn’t like it, I stop or go in a different direction.
I started a YouTube channel and other social accounts calledCatmantoo to teach people to have a better relationship with their cats – it’s all about having a process, being patient, not having expectations and letting things happen at the cat’s pace. By working together, Didga and I have hopefully made other cats’ lives better. Cats are family members, after all.
People are fascinated when they see the cat doing tricks. The attention we get is astounding. When people see a skateboarding cat, they say,“I’ve seen it all now.” Very few are negative. You wouldn’t be able to train a cat if they didn’t want it, and I’d never push one beyond its comfort zone.
Didga has changed my life. She has taken me to levels I would never have dreamed of. The internet helped explode things. Everything came together – my background, my love for animals, then finding this very unique, special cat – really one in a million. I won the lotto, so to speak, finding a cat like Didga. Robert Dollwet
‘My wife slipped the drum under him and he made the perfect rhythm’: Ben Afquack, the drumming duck
I am a recovering drug addict. Before I got treatment, I had another pet duck, who was my only buddy for a couple of years. He lived in my car with me, was right by my side in whatever random place I was crashing that night. It wasn’t a stable living situation for either of us.
When I went into recovery, I had to find a new home for that duck, and it messed me up to let him go. I made a promise to myself: someday, when I get my life together, I’ll get another duck, and do it right. I’ll give him the very best life.
It was that thought that helped motivate me to get sober. I’ve been clean for nearly nine years now. When my life was firmly on the right track, my sister helped me research which duck breed makes the best pet, and found it was a pekin. We called a farm supplies store near our home in Minnesota and asked if they could let us know when they next had some available.
A few months later they called back to say some were about to hatch. We drove there the next day – it was about an hour and half away, and I felt excited, sure I was making the right decision and doing it responsibly. I was handed this tiny duckling, less than a day old. He was so cute – he looked like a tiny yellowish-brown fluff ball. He fitted in the palm of my hand, and I could close my fingers all around him. It was an instant connection.
The duck would have otherwise grown up on a farm. It’s not technically a rescue, but I guess it would have been farmed to eat. We brainstormed names with friends, and when I suggested Ben Afquack, everyone laughed. It’s his name now. I’m a fan of human names for pets. Our dogs are Doris, Lewis, Leonard and Frank. I’ve never met another pet called Ben.
We discovered Ben’s skills by accident. I’m a drummer, so the kit is set up all around the house. I don’t play much any more, but there happens to be a drum in our hallway. When I pick Ben up, he kicks his feet. It’s fun for him. If he wants to get away, he lets me know and I’ll always listen to him.
Then, one day in January 2020, while he was kicking, my wife slipped the drum underneath him and we realised Ben was making the perfect rhythm. The drum is soft and wouldn’t hurt him at all – he’s perfectly relaxed and happy. I posted a video of it on my Facebook and woke up the next day to discover it had half a million views overnight. I went to the gym before work and someone messaged me to say, “They’re talking about you on the radio.” Things got pretty crazy from there.
Ben and I do everything together. I take him to the park, or we might drive to a beautiful river for a swim. He’s started to put it together that if we’re in the car, we’re going somewhere cool, and will quack the whole way, like a dog on its way to the park. Then on the way home, he passes out, fast asleep.
He has an incredibly spacious duck house, with a heated floor. There’s no reason to ever want to get out of there, other than to hang out with us and the dogs – they are best buddies. He’s got a pool in there. And all his food. He’ll swim around all day. He’s living his best life.
Ben is three and a half now, and makes friends wherever he goes. I use his fame to help reduce the stigma of drug addiction. On his Instagram, I share treatment or overdose prevention resources. I talk about my experience so it might help others.
I’ll have been clean for nine years in February. I own a recovery company now that helps others get clean. My life is completely different to what I might have imagined 10 years ago. We go to recovery events, meeting a lot of people who are in places I once was.
It’s great to see how happy Ben makes people. He might be the difference between them using that day, or not. So a duck can change lives. He can bring a smile, motivation and inspiration to both myself and others. Derek Johnson