Monday, November 15, 2010

Developing Dog Fluency

Are you going to drop some food, or not?
When my dog Achilles looks at someone else who doesn't know him as well as I do, I find myself translating. "Hey Neil, down here! Just saying hello," I say to my friend, the guy who has never met a dog he didn't disdain. "Girls! I need some water!" I yell to my kids as the dog sticks his paw into his water bowl and whips it past me along the kitchen floor like he's on the Norwegian curling team. "I just wanna play, I'm friendly!" I assure a suspicious elderly yellow lab we meet on the trail, as my German Shorthaired Pointer does his spastic dance of invitation in a widening spiral around him.

I have become a person who narrates for her dog.

I never saw this multi-species language fluency coming. This dog is the first I've had since childhood. I treated my old dog Sandy with the swings of ardent affection and utter disengagement that characterize most children's interactions with the family pet, and expected to maintain a similar level of polite distance when finally we broke down and gave into our daughters' incessant begging for a dog.

And at first, when Achilles joined our family four years ago, I remained aloof, unswayed by his winsome dog smiles and acrobatic glee whenever I returned to a room I’d left fifteen seconds earlier. This was the children’s dog, after all.  All I could see were the harsh realities of dog ownership: the insistent paw on my foot just as I was settling down to read the paper, the early morning trips to the yard and the long off leash runs during my lunch hour, the trips to the vet, and tug-of-war he demanded every night as I was starting to cook dinner. His brown eyes bespoke nothing more than another demand on my already-scant free time, and his barks were an annoyance that I was constantly shushing.

Then one day, when we’d had Achilles about six months, I took him out running with me in the Oakland hills. Just before we got back to the car, a bee darted out of a bush and dove straight down onto my dog’s back, stinging him right above the tail.  Luckily I was able to get the stinger out using my fingernail, but Achilles was shaking and whimpering. There was fear in his eyes as I loaded him into the car. Even an idiot could see that.

I drove home down the twisty narrow streets and brought him inside, hoping against hope that he might go off to his bed and spend the afternoon in some sort of uncharacteristic canine repose. Instead he followed me, wrapping himself around my knees so I couldn't walk without tripping over him, and staring up at me hard. Suddenly there was a distinct dog voice in my head saying, "Lady, what the heck? Why does my tail hurt so bad? Help me!"

I sank down onto his lumpy dog bed in the hallway, intending to examine the sting site. Within seconds Achilles had twisted all of his 57 pounds into a tight ball nestled in my lap and I knew beyond doubt what he was asking of me. 

"Quick, someone look up dog bee sting on the computer," I yelled. The kids were off and running. "Bring me an ice cube," I said to my husband, and the look of relief in the dog's eyes as soon as I held it onto the spot was unmistakable. A couple of teaspoons of children's Benadryl and a melted ice cube later, I could feel the dog relaxing and the fear dissipating. I looked up at one point as my husband strolled by the dog bed and said, "Remember how I said we would never have a third child? I was wrong."

The dog licked my hand and snuggled a bit deeper. "Hey, thanks for hanging out on my bed, lady. This is kind of cozy."

From that point on, I could hear his dog voice in my head, and it didn't take much longer for it to come out into the open. When I narrate for him, it's not just the words that are important; the faux dog voice is what drives the meaning home. The one that I assumed, with virtually no forethought,  is somewhere between Huckleberry Hound and a person who's been hit in the head by a shovel, full of sighs and dips. For some reason he altho lithpth.

If I'd written out a list of Things I Won't Do When I Get A Dog before we adopted him, “Narrate for him” would have certainly been near the top. It's been crossed off, along with “Hand feed him food when he’s acting balky,” “Refer to him as ‘my baby boy,’" and "Buy him an orthopedic bed." But how can I deny him when he’s so good at letting me know what he needs?

About the only thing left on that list, in fact, is “Let him sleep on my bed.” But last night I could swear I heard Achilles say, "Lady? It's kinda cold down here. Mind if I come up?"


  1. Would love to hear your faux dog voice. Another poignant post; third child indeed! Keep 'em coming!

  2. Ruh roh! Hiya! Hiya! Ooh, your hand tastes nice! I'm so glad to see you! Huh? Gotta go! Gotta go!

    All things Achilles has said to me.

  3. And he'd say, Σε αγαπώ μαμά!You're a good mom!

  4. Since Amy was his first mom and taught him Greek, I am taking her word for it. I forgot he too is bilingual. Opa!

  5. Are you sure that it's not him narrating for you??

  6. Achilles, heel!

    Sorry but someone had to say it.

  7. Funny, that appears to be a phrase he doesn't understand at all, along with "don't eat food from the countertops" and "webkinz are not for chewing."

  8. Similarly we have a donkey farm near us that raises dwarf donkeys. I've wondered if any of them are called Xote?

  9. Ed, you have a gift. It is a gift of questionable value, but a gift just the same.

  10. ...searching for my lost Shaker assault (envision lots of angry lost farmers with pitchforks)

    Done now.

  11. Please drop the plate of pancakes! Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!Please drop the plate of pancakes!

    I'm pretty sure that's what River is saying to me...

  12. Funny, because what River says to me is "Let me lick your ankle," over and over again. But then again, I'm company.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...