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Howard Jacobson: What the Nazis failed to grasp about dogs

Why don't they tweet drivel, run marathons, fiddle their expenses or take out superinjunctions?

Speaking of Nazis training dogs to say "Heil Hitler", my father's dog Ricky once chewed up my only copy of Mein Kampf and buried the introduction in the back garden.

I'd like to say he was a German shepherd, ashamed of his heritage, but in fact he was only a common-as-muck Manchester-born labrador – reputedly the most dickheaded of dogs. But he knew what he liked.

My father apologised on his behalf and offered to buy me another copy, but I said it didn't matter as I'd already read it. I'd rather have The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or anything by Chomsky, I told him. But don't let Ricky see them.

Scientists have been lining up to pooh-pooh the idea that dogs could ever have been smart enough to do covert intelligence or propaganda work for the Nazis. So how smart do you need to be to open your jaws and bark, "The personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew"? Or "All Zionists want is a central organisation for their international world swindle, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states: a haven for convicted scoundrels and a university for budding crooks"? Reader, you will hear this at a UCU meeting any day of the week, and you don't need me to tell you how few brains are required to make your voice heard in a union for academics. My own view is that if the "Woofen SS", as it's been called, failed to materialise, it wasn't because the dogs were too dumb but because they weren't dumb enough. If you think my dad's dog's attack on Mein Kampf was mere brute accident you should have seen the reverence with which he sniffed the works of Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt.

Though I was never a dog-lover when I was a boy, and generally felt uncomfortable around Ricky – I think he saw my relations with my father as a threat to him, and I certainly saw his as a threat to me – I never doubted his acuity. Though it all but killed him not to eat, or at the very least worry, the rabbit my father employed in his magic routines, he knew that to have done that would have ruined my father's act, and so he turned his back on any trick that had the rabbit in it. Once my father returned the rabbit to the pockets of his capacious magician's coat, Ricky would resume watching, pricking his ears, smiling, banging the floor with his tail in appreciation whenever a particularly difficult piece of magic worked, which in all honesty wasn't often.

His death he organised entirely on his own. No slow deterioration, no years mouldering on the sofa and looking heavenwards with rheumy eyes, no impossibly high veterinary specialist bills incurred. Once he knew that he was fatally ill he slipped away from the house when no one was looking, made his way to the boating lake in Heaton Park, around which my father had walked him for a decade, and threw himself in. Several people witnessed it. Nothing became his life like the leaving it, was the verdict. It was suicide in the noblest Roman style. I should do as well when my time comes.

Thomas Mann, in a fine essay on his own dog, a short-eared German pointer named Bashan – you'll find it just after Death in Venice in his collected stories (I happen to think, by the way, that Ricky's end was no less tragic than Aschenbach's) – puts paid to the arrogant assumptions of science that dogs are fools. A Man and His Dog is no flight of anthropomorphic fantasy. Witnessing Bashan encountering other dogs, Mann admits that his imagination fails him, that he finds it "impossible to enter into his feelings or behaviour or understand the tribal laws that govern them". But in his description of Bashan's "intoxication with his own identity" on hearing his name, his "loud exultant barks to heaven out of the weight of dignity that lies on his chest", and their mutual amusement – for "yes, Bashan has a laugh, too" (the sight of which Mann calls "the oddest and most touching thing in the world") – there is no mistaking a conviction of some sort of equality of heart and spirit.

If we find a painting or a piece of music beautiful, it is beautiful and there's an end of it. It could even be argued that our appreciation confers the beauty we are convinced we see. So it is with animals. We make them intelligent in the act of believing that they are.

And of course it works the other way. I don't doubt, anyway, that the moment I decided, after Ricky's suicide, that dogs were intellectually, not to say spiritually, our equals – and, in a few cases I can think of, our superiors – my relations with them improved immeasurably. I now stare at every dog I meet, not desperate for an acknowledgement, or even a sign of friendship, but out of some necessity in me I'm not sure I can explain. It's as though they hold some secret, not just to those "tribal laws" Mann couldn't penetrate, but to my own humanity. It isn't that I feel I know something about dogs which I want to share with them, more that dogs know something about me which they might communicate if I look long enough into their eyes. Such apparent depths of feeling in a dog's Spanish-topaz eyes, such profound knowledge of something or other, and such soft beauty, even in the eyes of the scabbiest little mongrel.

I would own one if there were anywhere for it to run wild, bury its own faeces, and then return to me for an afternoon of exultant laughter. A big one, ideally, unkempt, uncombable, a dog I could wrestle with. My wife would prefer one far smaller. A handbag dog, the size, and indeed the appearance, of a ball of ear wax. But it's immaterial what we prefer. She won't clean up after a dog and neither will I. It is enough to clean up after oneself.

How a dog manages to maintain self-respect, never mind froideur, when someone is following behind scooping up its mess with a plastic glove might be one of the mysteries I would like explained to me. By a dog, that is, because only a dog can know. That, and why they don't take out superinjunctions, don't tweet drivel, don't fiddle their expenses, don't run marathons, don't do botox, don't wear military uniforms, don't join teachers' unions, and don't inveigh against the Jewish lobby.