Maybe I should take our dog, Topanga, to an English-as-a-Second-Language class.
She seems to understand quite a bit of what I say, but she can’t speak English worth beans. Consequently, we have what you might call an asymmetrical relationship. It’s tilted strongly in her favor.
The miracle of language
You may think I’m joking when I say Topanga understands English. I’m not. For example:
• When I say, “Topanga, it’s time to go night-night,” or, “We have to go now” or, “It’s time for church,” she gets up and runs back to the spare bedroom where we keep her kennel.
• If I ask, “Do you need to go potty?” she trots to the back door.
• Joanna and I have realized we must spell certain words, because speaking them really sets Topanga off. For example, we spell “T-R-E-A-T” and “G-R-E-E-N-I-E,” or else she will run to the cabinet where we keep her food and spin around in circles, crying. We also spell “W-A-L-K” to keep her from jumping up and down, shivering and looking at me with big, brown eyes that can make me melt.
Topanga actually would be a pretty good mime, because she’s quite skilled at nonverbal communication. For example:
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• When I arrive home from work, while Joanna and I get ready for dinner, we re-hash our day, and Topanga wants to be in on the action. She stands on my left side and looks up directly into my face. If I don’t notice her and pick her up to adult human eye-level, she raises up on her hind legs and pushes me on the left leg with her front paws. If I still don’t respond, she repeats that trick and whines at the same time.
• If Topanga needs to go outside, she rings the little bell hanging just above the floor by the back door. If—because I’m getting hard-of-hearing in some tone ranges—I don’t notice she rang her bell, she stands at the back door and barks. Once and only once, because she knows once is enough.
• When she finishes eating her regular food and wants a Greenie treat, she whine/growls in the back of her throat. She makes it sound as if each second might be her last. (Technically, this may be verbal communication, but since she doesn’t use real words, it doesn’t count.)
• When she wants to go for a walk, she follows me everywhere in the house. She looks up at me, straight in the eyes. I can see the thought-bubbles over her head: “Take me out for a walk. You know it’s my favorite thing in the world, you dummy.”
• And when Topanga and I have a disagreement and need to make up, she sits nearby, but she refuses to meet my gaze. She’s usually watching me. But if I turn my head toward her, she looks away and up, as if returning my look is beneath her dignity.
A shared language would make us closer
If I could teach Topanga to speak English, we could deepen our relationships tremendously. As much as we “read” each other and understand each other now, we could become much closer.
She could explain exactly why mailboxes, light poles and fire hydrants are so fascinating to sniff.
I could explain why other people love her more after she takes a shower and no longer smells like a wet blanket.
She could tell me what she thinks about when Jo and I have to be gone all day, and she passes the time in her kennel.
I could try to describe how happy she makes me when she hears the car in the garage and sits in front of the back door when I enter our home.
She could explain why dogs have to walk around in circles before they pee.
I could tell her I refuse to give her treats every time she wants them because (a) nobody enjoys a spoiled child or a diva dog, and (b) if she knows she can fill up on treats, she won’t eat her regular food, and an unbalanced diet isn’t healthy.
She could say: “OK, I know we’ve been having fun playing catch. But, in dog years, I’m only four years younger than you are, buddy. How would you like it if I made you run wind sprints for 15 minutes? I’m tired. I’m going to lick my paws and lie down. Just because I can.”