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Is it Crazy to Talk to Your Dog?

Bedtime stories for your canine friend?

While watching this year’s State of the Union address, I turned to our mini goldendoodle, who’d settled on the couch, to ask, “Doesn’t John Boehner look dazed, Charlie?” After an attentive tilt of the head, Charlie replied with an upward trending vocalization that I’ll render in English as “hm↓↑mmua?↑,”as if to say, “run that by me again?” To be fair to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the White House does schedule this annual address inconveniently well past cocktail hour. And to be fair to Charlie the Dog, so far as I can tell, he doesn’t follow politics.

But Charlie does clearly follow the intonations of my voice, the attitude of my body, the direction of my gaze, and the bearing and urgency of my gestures. And he shares this attention to human speech and body language with most others of the subspecies canis lupus familiaris, descendents of friendly grey wolves who have been dogging our steps for at least 15,000 years, and possibly for much longer.

Charlie, author's dog

Charlie

Over the long and short haul, dogs learned to warm us at night and protect our perimeters. The ones that stuck with us in the fullness of time also learned to discern our speech by capitalizing abilities that packs had long used to communicate: dogs have an ear for the meaning of yips, yaps, yowls, howls, squeals, snarls, growls, and barks. And so, some dogs now can also master a surprisingly useful human vocabulary about as large as the volume of words that dolphins or great apes can remember and interpret. And dogs can learn vocabulary in startlingly clever ways. In 2008 researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig discovered that their wonder dog, Rico, could pick out a brand new toy from his large collection by deducing that this was the only object given a name that he did not yet know. “Exclusion learning,” the researchers termed the method.

Like most dog owners do, we ask our Charlie to locate an item—red ball, big ball, barbell, hoop, doughnut, rubber bone, or Scarecrow or Fox (these last two are but chewed remnants)—and he finds them successfully. The chances he’ll bring one back or not proves to be no better than a coin toss, which I attribute to his ancestry lying only 50% in the retriever line. But the act of asking and the response of finding is a conventional, wordless, dog-human conversation.

It may strike you as more than a bit loopy when I tell you further that our Charlie enjoys bedtime stories and that I enjoy telling them.

These tales chase no traditional narrative marked with a beginning, middle, and end. In fact they consist almost entirely of proper nouns evoked in succession. Still, for Charlie, they have high emotive content. Just as his eyes droop, I’ll tell him the one about his dog acquaintances: “Remember Oscar? (Charlie’s eyes flicker.) Luca? (I see one nostril twitch at the memory of his wrestling buddy.) Brownie? How about Brownie? (The ears perk up.) And Jackson, you know Jackson with the under-bite? (He lifts his head.) And Olive! At the mention of the French bulldog next door—a charging, bowling ball-shaped mass made of dark-star matter—Charlie gives a soft, urgent groan, “arahnn↑yah↓.”

Is it crazy to talk to your dog? The funniest answer, “only if he talks back!” During Obama’s address had I heard Charlie say, “The Representative from Ohio does look a bit green about the gills, Scotch-o!” I’d be in some trouble. But the best and most useful answer is that communicating with humankind’s best friend is often a kind of mutually enjoyable play.

 

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