Sometimes my dog will walk up to me and start a staring contest. I’ll start the questioning: “Do you want to go outside?” Blank stare. “Do you have an itch you need scratched?” Another blank stare. “Are you hungry? Dammit, speak to me!” Does he have a friend he wants to invite over, or just to complain about the same dog food in his dish every day? Or is it possible that sometimes he just wants to have the staring contest? I’d be good with that, but he won’t tell me if that’s what he wants. It’s the longest case of the silent treatment I’ve ever received.
If you’re a cat lover skip this chapter, because I am not a cat lover. My husband has a cat named Swede, who hates me. I have to say that the feeling is mutual. I don’t blame him. Swede had the perfect life before I came along. He had a nice farm to run around on, a slave to feed him, pet him, and play with him. Now Swede’s slave is my husband, and he plays with our daughter and pets me. Not to mention, I’ve brought with me my yellow lab, Sam.
When I first moved to the farm, Swede’s bitter enemies were the woodchucks. Now Sam and I are his enemies. The woodchucks are now his faithful companions, and are helping him plan my early demise. If they could talk, it would not surprise me to find them out in the woods around a huge stump with blueprints laid out. Swede would be leading the conversation and pointing earnestly at the blueprints. I imagine him sounding like a football coach: “Okay guys the driveway is a quarter-mile long. When she drives in I want Jeff to drop this tree, then Greg, you circle around and drop that tree, and I want Mike to go long and drop the big pine. With any luck, one of them will hit her. If not, I’ve crumpled up a few rugs in the house. She always has her hands full when she comes through the door, so she won’t see them. If she misses the rugs, I’ll break right and cut in front of her. She’s sure to trip and fall. If all goes well she’ll be dead. If it doesn’t kill her, it will at least send a strong message and maybe she’ll leave. We’ll work out plans to get the dog tomorrow. Ok, break.” Of course, when they clap their hands together it makes a pathetic muffled sound because of all the fur. God, I hate that cat.
I don’t think it would occur to Sam to take the time to plan Swede’s murder. He’s way too busy for that. I think a conversation about his day would sound like this: “Hey Bobbi! I’m so glad you’re home! I’ve been waiting all day to tell you what happened!” Standing next to him, I can smell rotting corpse and manure wafting past my nose. “By the look on your face I see you’ve probably already guessed! I was out in the field this morning and a butterfly flew past! I tried really hard to catch it! I chased it down through the neighbor’s cow yard and up to the garage! I think that’s where I lost it, I’m not sure! I was distracted by this wonderful smell coming from the garbage can! I tipped that over and found a piece of plastic wrap from some hamburger! I can’t believe they were going to throw that away! It was so good! On the way home I cut through the woods! I came across a dead deer! I can’t believe I didn’t find that sooner! I rolled around on that for a while, and then I came home! By the way, what’s with the cat and the woodchucks? I swear they’re planning to kill me. Maybe it’s just my imagination. I’m starving! After you get me something to eat I’m going to need a bath. I can hardly stand myself! Let’s have a staring contest!”
I would say, “Sam, I would never have guessed the part about the butterfly, and yes, we can have a staring contest.
If Sam could talk, the vet visit would be so much cheaper. He could say things like, “My joints hurt, and I’m feeling so worn out lately.” Boom, antibiotics for Lyme disease. He could say, “I have so much energy, but walking really hurts.” Boom, arthritis! Instead, it’s a blood draw and five hundred dollars later, when the vet says, “He’s twenty pounds overweight. Feed him less and he’ll be fine in a couple of months.” Really?! Wouldn’t it be nice if Sam could just tell me Swede was giving him the business about his thunder thighs, or that Swede had told him to move yesterday because he was blocking out the sun? No. He will just stand there in silence waiting for the end of the appointment, when the vet tosses him a treat.
Barking at mysterious things would be eliminated too. In the middle of the night he’ll start barking as though he’s going to kill something. Why can’t he just say, “Bobbi, I’m not sure what’s out there, but maybe you should load the gun?” Somehow that would be a little less alarming than hearing him bark like something with gigantic teeth and enormous claws is about to come through the door. At least then I would have an objective: Load the gun and wait. Instead, I slowly walk toward the door to see what’s out there. If we were in a movie, the audience would insist: “Don’t open the door! Don’t open the door!” But of course in the end, we must open it. It turns out that it’s not an animal with gigantic teeth and enormous claws. It’s my husband’s cat who has been sprayed by a skunk. As soon as the door opens three inches, he sneaks past me into the house. Now the whole house smells like skunk. Had Sam been able to tell me to load the gun I could have shot the cat at the door. Yeah, I can just hear all the groaning from you cat lovers (I told you guys not to read this chapter). This chapter could have been called THAT DAMNED CAT instead of MY DOG CAN’T TALK, but I didn’t want to offend anyone. Oh well.
Here are some key phrases that my dog could learn, to make my life easier:
- “Could you please move the rug over by my dish so I won’t have to move my food piece by piece all the way across the house and set it on the rug before I eat it?”
- “Before I come into the house, I should tell you that I went swimming in the creek by the cow Pasture.” (More than once, when he was full of black muck, he has beaten me through the door and jumped on the couch.)
- “No, I did not kill the chicken, but I know who did.” (This has not happened yet, but I am getting chickens in the spring and I am expecting it).
- “Hey, I need to go to the bathroom before you leave!”
- “Are you going to need this shoe again?”
- “When I was chasing the paper boy he flung the paper over there”
- “I’m going to throw up” (Every dog owner knows the importance of this one–especially if you have a large dog and lots of carpet in your home).
- “Scratch a little to the right, please” (This one could be a time saver, but I would still scratch him all over).
- “The bones from the meat market give me such gas”
- “I need to shake all of this water off of me right now!” (Why does this always take me by surprise? And I call him a slow learner).
- “Are you just going to the car for something, or are we going out to play?”
- “The neighbor’s dog is in heat again” (He wouldn’t say this one if he could, so I had him neutered).
When he’s staring at me, is he trying to tell me something? Or is he just waiting for me to say something? Should I be watching his eyes or his tail? Is he blinking once for yes, and twice for no?
One way he does communicate is by hanging his head and tail when he’s been bad. I know some people don’t believe that dogs know when they’ve been bad. They think it’s only when we respond in a negative way that dogs take on a demeanor of guilt. These people also think dogs don’t remember what they do from one minute to the next. I have to take issue with that. Sometimes observing his behavior is how I know to look for something out of place.
One cold day in October I came home. As I got out of my car, Sam came walking up to me with his tail so far between his legs, and his head hung so low that his tail and chin were almost touching. I knelt down beside him and said, “Aw, what’s the matter boy?” I pet him until he felt better. His head perked up and his tail waved in the air again. Then it struck me. I had left him in the house that morning. So why was I able to pet him by my car if he was in the house? I was so confused. I walked into the house and discovered that it wasn’t the warm and cozy atmosphere I usually come home to. Far from it; it was very cold in there. I thought there must be something wrong with the thermostat because we couldn’t be out of fuel already. First things first.I needed to use the bathroom if I was going to be able to think straight. So I opened the bathroom door and there it was–the reason for the hanging head, and the chilly temperature in the house. The bathroom window above the toilet was demolished. He had hopped up onto the toilet and jumped out through the closed window. I was in awe. I turned around to look at Sam. His chin and tail had once again found each other. After I cleaned up the mess I tried to reset the furnace. He must have done it soon after I left that morning. Sam had waited all day long to apologize to me when I came home. This is why I believe they know more than we give them credit for.
As dogs go, Sam is by far the smartest dog I’ve ever owned. He is so good on a leash that I would feel comfortable letting my almost-two year old daughter hold his leash by herself. If he feels the slightest tension he’ll stop and wait for her. He never uses his teeth to steal her food, although distraction and begging are not out of the question (unfortunately, she steals his food too). He will also allow her to crawl on him endlessly without fussing at all.
He handles the cat with elegance too. When Swede hisses at him he just looks the other way. Sticks and stones Swede, sticks and stones.
He’s always happy to see me, and he is a great listener. He can keep a secret like no one else, and he doesn’t tell on me when he’s mad at me.
There are animals that do talk. I’ve been in the presence of a talking parrot. It was very entertaining at first, but by the second hour I just wanted the damned bird to shut up. He kept saying the same three things over and over. I’ll never forget the parrot’s name because it kept repeating it: “Baby is pretty. Baby is pretty. Precious, precious, I love you Baby.” The bird could also whistle a little. When the bird did say something different, it didn’t make any sense, and it just became annoying.
It’s probably better that animals don’t talk. They might be very reflective of us, and who needs that? I’m pretty sure I know I’m screwed up without another species telling me, and I don’t really want Sam to have the ability to yell out, “You blinked!” during our staring contest.