Canine intelligence experienced in Toronto

Apollo and Hermes give the gift of intelligence to 15 dogs. The selected canines wake up in a veterinary clinic feeling suddenly changed

It sounds like the start of a good joke. Apollo and Hermes are sitting in a bar. Having had a few too many drinks, they make a wager. Apollo bets Hermes that if animals were given human intelligence, they’d be just as miserable as humans.

Canadian author André Alexis runs with this conceit, spinning it into an entire novel, Fifteen Dogs.

As it happens, Apollo and Hermes give the gift of intelligence to 15 dogs. The selected canines wake up in a veterinary clinic feeling suddenly changed. The dogs question if there isn’t something other than a bowl of kibble to eat, discover they can unlock their kennels, and release themselves onto the streets of Toronto.

Given the gift of intelligence, the small band of animals must figure out what to do and where to go next. Some of the dogs feel burdened by this awakening consciousness and want to ignore it. Others start spouting poetry. Still stuck within their dog’s view of the world, the group is unsure how to pick a leader of the pack. Do they pick the strongest as before? Or should intelligence be considered?

This wonderfully odd book has already won this year’s Giller Prize, the Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize and is shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award. Still, I’m not sure it’s a book for all dog lovers. Hermes and Apollo decide that if any of the dogs die happy, then Hermes is declared the winner. So, unfortunately, as the book runs its course each of the dogs must reach the end of their days.

Many die in a gruesome manner. Alexis doesn’t shy away from describing canines ripping each other’s throats out, and sniffing and mounting one another. Of course, with their new found consciousness, some of the dogs come to realize that cleaning oneself in public might not be a respectable thing to do.

With their new sense of awareness, they aren’t as simply happy and grateful for human companionship. Two dogs who are forced to flee the pack find a bleeding heart to take them in from the cold winter streets. But while enjoying the food and warmth, the dogs become increasingly irritated by the clingy old woman, who suffocates them with love.

Fifteen Dogs is the second in a series of books based on philosophical ideas. In this outing, Alexis takes a good long look at the benefits and pitfalls of consciousness. Is it a kindness or a curse to be aware of one’s own mortality? Prince, a thoughtful dog, falls into a deep depression when he discovers that their invented dog language will die with the pack.

Fifteen Dogs will make you think, just as much as it will make you laugh. What does it say about our own existence if many readers end up glad that Apollo and Hermes only inflicted consciousness on 15 dogs, and spared the rest from enduring our fate.