My faithful canine makes herself clear on a large variety of matters. She tells me if she is happy or sad (easy – just a wag of the tail, or not), when she is tired (impossible not to catch the yawn), and when she is scared (jumps into my lap, winding me, or worse).
She also knows a great deal of words. I haven’t counted these, and may not have the patience to so do, but I feel they could add up into the hundreds. She knows her name (Luna), what kind of animal she is (a dog), her favourite article of clothing (socks) and many, many others (dinner, bath, cat, squirrel, postman, sausage, walk, run, fetch, jump, sit, shush, down, up, help, attack, kill, destroy, maim…) I should point out that although she certainly understands the last few words, she also understands irony, and never accepts these as a viable command.
Luna understands sentences (excuse me please, out of my way, go over there, get off me, please get off me, I’m not kidding now I said get off and I mean get off, okay do what you want). Although I will admit there is a limit to her linguistic abilities, for instance if I were to ask her, “please go around to the neighbour’s house and deliver a parcel,” she would happily accept the package into her care but would then take it to her bed, turn around in circles four or five times and then flop down and proceed to chew one of the corners.
In instances such as these, it is the dog’s ability to place restraints on her own innate capacity to communicate that is the mark of a genius. Suddenly, all communicative functions are shut down as she investigates the amount of slobber she has already conveyed onto next door’s post. No tail-wagging, no pricking-up-of-the-ears, no attentive-panting. Instead, she concentrates fully on her task, studiously avoiding any eye contact whatsoever.
This is a phenomenon also witnessed when out and about roaming the nearby countryside. If I were to spot something ahead and say for instance, “do not go near that steaming pile of horse shit,” then she would dutifully stick her nose into the greenest part and wolf down as much as she could before I can pull her away and tell her how disgusting her behaviour is.
On a misty morning in the fields, if I say to her, “do not get lost in the fog,” she would bounce into the mist and spend half an hour chasing magical invisible rabbits.
It is as if she doesn’t hear the instruction “do not”, but parses perfectly the rest of the information.
This, then, is what my dog would say to me if she could speak. It would be one word, and it would simply be, “pardon?”
Perhaps this is because dogs are infinitely positive beings. In the presence of happiness, they move and bounce with joy, but when confronted with negativity, they go still, slump their shoulders and hang their wooly heads. I would suggest that their selective hearing is therefore an evolved defence mechanism to protect them from the petty worries and concerns of humans.
We all know that both people and dogs have finite life spans. We also know that we often miss the chance to say what we really need to. It happens all the time. The world turns on lost possibilities as much as it does on momentous events.
So, when you need to say something, just say it. Tell your boss you want a raise, tell your parents you love them, tell your wife and kids that they are the best thing that ever happened to you, and inform your dog that she is a close runner-up.
Go ahead because you never know when it might be too late.
Three of the smartest dogs in literature