This essay appears in Deliriously Happy: and Other Bad Thoughts, out this week.
Have you ever noticed that you always know when your dog wants to go “out”? Or when he is hungry? Or when he is angry with you or others?
You know because your dog is already talking to you!
Dogs are natural actors, instinctively adept at using their bodies and facial expressions to communicate with you nonverbally. They are also expert mimes, capable of performing a vast repertoire of deceptively simple routines to subtly get their points across. Some of these “bits” are universal (e.g., nosing the dog dish to indicate hunger, drinking out of the toilet to indicate thirst), but most are specific to the dog. For example, my own dog, Flynn (a seven-year-old Irish setter), raises his paw and points at the television screen when he wants me to change the channel.
Many dog owners are content to communicate with their pets solely on this preverbal level. But imagine how handy it would be if, in addition to being able to alert you when somebody was at the door, your dog could also tell you who it was (dogs, remember, have a keen sense of smell). Or how enriching your relationship with your dog would be if the two of you could just “shoot the breeze” sometimes. Let me show you how.
Exercises: Try this simple nonverbal exchange: place both hands firmly on either side of your dog’s head. Apply firm pressure and pull your dog’s face close to yours (between 1″ and 2″ is optimum). Now, smile broadly and—again, using both hands—vigorously stroke your dog in an upward motion from the base of his neck to just behind his ears. Your dog will understand this as meaning, “I like you. I value you as my dog.” If your dog then licks your face, that means, “I like you, too!” (Do not be discouraged if your dog does not immediately lick your face. The setting may be too intimate for him, or, more likely, he is just not a licker.)
THE CANINE TONGUE
Dogs are the most vocal of all domesticated animals. Whereas the cat goes meow, the cow goes moo, the sheep goes baa, and the pig goes oink-oink, the dog is not limited by these crude utterances. The average American dog can bark, howl, yap, snap, growl, whimper, woof, yelp, bay, howl, whine, gnarl, mutter, and, of course, bow-wow. In fact, many scientists believe that if dogs had more highly developed brains and sophisticated vocal cords, they could converse much like humans do.
But make no mistake: dogs do “speak,” and not just as a parlor trick. My own close examination of the canine tongue reveals that dogs have a “vocabulary” in excess of 2,000 words. Fortunately, nearly all of these words roughly translate into the English word “food” (dogs have more than 120 words for dry food alone), and so you will only need to learn a working vocabulary of about 400 words in order to talk to your dog.
Pronunciation can be tricky, however. The canine alphabet differs significantly from ours, featuring a fraction of our consonants (b, f, h, p, r, w, and sometimes y) and the rounder vowel sounds, which are more “sung” than “spoken.” Words are therefore primarily distinguished by minor variations in pronunciation (dogs can differentiate twelve types of r sounds and five degrees of hardness in the letter b). From this deceptively sparse phoneme palette, dogs are thus able to create a comparatively rich language.
A basic Canine/English dictionary can be found at the back of this book, but you should be aware of few matters of form and style before attempting to use it.
Eschew Excess Barking. Dogs tend to follow Strunk and White’s dictum about omitting needless words and avoiding weak modifiers. Rather than saying something smells “very tasty,” a dog will simply bark “tasty” (woh-af), placing added emphasis on the initial vowel sound and saying the entire word louder.
Regarding Plurals and Possessives. There is no true plural in the canine tongue. Rather, your dog, seeing another dog, may say, Rarf ! (“Hey, there’s another dog!”), whereas, upon seeing a pack of dogs, your dog will likely exclaim: Rarf rarf rarf rarf rarf rarf! Possessives, on the other hand, are usually indicated with a low growl.
Some Things Just Won’t Translate. Not all human concepts are meaningful to dogs; for instance, there is no dog word for “stay.” Likewise, there are several dog phrases which cannot be translated adequately into English (a few of these do have analogues in German and Chinese, however). Among the more enigmatic dogisms you are likely to encounter:
Bow wow—This frequently uttered canine cant provides an intriguing look at your dog’s overall philosophy. Directly translated into English, bow wow means, simply, “I am.” But to your dog, it means something ineffably more.
Rowp! Rowp!—Usually delivered enthusiastically with your dog’s head thrown back, means something along the order of “Would you listen to that? Is that loud or what?”
Rur rar roo roo roo rawr rawr awr raw rarp rarp rarp!—Means nothing; your dog has gone crazy.
Exercises: Let’s start with a simple “hello.” While dogs prefer to say hello nonverbally, they are capable of a standard declarative greeting when actual contact is not possible. The dog word for “hello” is woof (pronounced wuf, wüf, and sometimes wrüf, depending on breed and regional dialect). Facing your dog, say woof in as energetically and friendly a way as possible (tone of voice is very important; the similar-sounding weuf means “Back off! This is my food!”). For maximum impact, place added emphasis on the w and f sounds (The f is actually more of a ph. Dogs have more space between their lips and teeth than humans do, which causes increased “lip flapping” when they speak and makes them particularly well-suited for consonantal diphthongs.) If you have said “hello” correctly, your dog will woof back, a bit louder and slightly higher in pitch. If your dog just stares at you, you have probably mispronounced the word. Try again. If repeated attempts to say hello fail, it may be because your dog feels you are making fun or trying to talk down to him. Try to sound more sincere. If you have a smaller dog, you also might want to try substituting the phrase yip yip yip.
NOW THAT YOU AND YOUR DOG ARE ON SPEAKING TERMS: WHAT DO YOU TALK ABOUT?
Like humans, dogs prefer to talk about what they know. This varies widely from dog to dog, but my experience with Flynn is probably typical.
Flynn loves to talk about smells, all kinds of smells, even and especially smells humans consider impolite to discuss. You must try to give your dog some latitude in this regard. Remember, smells are your dog’s only colors.
Flynn is also keenly interested in the environment, though his commitment wavers. During our trips to the city, for example, he will complain long and bitterly about the air quality, and yet, he plainly enjoys all the garbage.
Among Flynn’s other favorite topics of conversation are: animals (all kinds), music (particularly opera), the weather, and the moon. Conversation stoppers for Flynn include: politics, religion, sports, clothing, the future, and money matters (about which he often displays an exasperating disinterest).
Your dog will likely share some of Flynn’s interests; undoubtedly he will have several of his own. The important thing for you is to explore a full range of talking points with your dog, to discover what he wants to talk about. Any topic is fair game, although I would strongly warn you against broaching the subject of death. When I tried to explain this concept to Flynn, he began whimpering uncontrollably, then took off through the house, scooting along on his rear end and making a horrible mess.
Exercises: Take your dog for a short, brisk walk around the block. When you arrive home, go into separate rooms and compose a list of all of the things you saw. (Since your dog cannot write, he will have to memorize his.) After about fifteen minutes (a time limit is important; your dog will otherwise spend hours pondering a single five-minute walk), get together and compare and contrast your lists.
You will be amazed at how differently you and your dog look at the world.
GETTING PAST THE SMALL TALK
How much do you really know about your dog? To find out, it is not enough to talk to your dog: you must also listen. Only then will your true dog emerge, as Flynn has for me.
For example, I never realized, until I took the time to listen, that Flynn has such a terrific sense of humor (albeit a bit immature). Before I mastered his language, one of Flynn’s favorite jokes was to spout a canine vulgarity of the lowest order whenever I commanded him to “speak.” He’s really quite a kidder.
In getting Flynn to open up, I also discovered he has the heart of a poet (as I suspect most dogs do). He loves to recite his song poems (which resemble blues dirges) on clear evenings when there is a full moon. Here’s one (translated):
My master is good
and he gives me good food.
When I am hungry,
he brings me food then.
I remember one time in particular.
he is a good provider.
Had I known this was what Flynn had been howling all along, I never would have yelled at him to shut up. Getting to know your dog can help you avoid similar misunderstandings.
Be warned, however: it is possible you and your dog will get to know each other, only to realize you are totally incompatible. This happens rarely, but when it does, it is better to accept this fact, and take appropriate measures, than to go on living a lie.
Exercises: If you and your dog have gotten this far, you are beyond structured exercises.
HOW TO TALK TO A BAD DOG
Being able to talk to your dog is wonderful, but should not be confused with true intimacy. Don’t find this out the hard way, as I had to.
A few months ago, I came home from work and discovered Flynn had chewed up all the mail. He could not, or would not, give any explanation for his behavior. Furthermore, he did not seem the least bit contrite. I sternly lectured him on the importance of respecting the property of others (throwing in a few ominous references to U.S. Postal Inspectors) and thought that would be the end of the matter.
But the next day, Flynn had done it again. He had also attempted to hide the results of his crime throughout the house.
It didn’t take too long to figure out what was going on. Behind the bedroom toilet (where Flynn is not even supposed to go), I found the pulpy remains of my broadband bill; it was for nearly fifteen hundred dollars!
A quick call to the company confirmed my worst suspicions: someone had ordered Beverly Hills Chihuahua more than three hundred times. (This is not quite the fantastic accomplishment it seems; the remote is quite intuitive.) Although a cable company supervisor said she would give me a one-time credit on the bill, I was absolutely furious. It wasn’t the money; it was that Flynn had deliberately lied to me, something I thought dogs were not even capable of.
I lost control and lashed out at Flynn viciously.
Harph! Harhh rrah gruh rau-hurr! I barked without thinking, and then went on to say a number of other things I immediately wished I could take back. But it was too late; Flynn had understood every word.
In retrospect, I guess I should have just taken a rolled-up newspaper and rapped Flynn across the snout. I thought we had gotten beyond that kind of thing, but I’ve since come to realize that words hurt far more when they are spoken in anger than when they appear on the printed page.
WHEN YOUR DOG IS NO LONGER TALKING TO YOU
Flynn didn’t speak to me for a long time after the Chihuahua incident.
I would try to initiate conversations, ask Flynn how his day was, but he would just mutter something unintelligible. When I would try to tell him how my day had gone, he would look straight into my eyes, and then rudely turn away to attend to an itch between his legs.
After about three weeks of this, I couldn’t take it anymore.
I got down on my knees and literally begged Flynn to talk to me again. I have re-created the resulting conversation below. It represented an important breakthrough for Flynn and me, and I think you’ll find it instructive.
Me: C’mon, boy, speak to me! Speak!
Me: Arph? Because we need to talk about this. I’m going nuts with this.
Flynn: Wuf wif.
Me: I said I was sorry! You don’t know how sorry I am. Rü! But there’s something else going on here, isn’t there? You can tell me, boy. This is your best friend talking. Please. Roof.
Flynn (softly): Har hraugh rhuf whuf hrr.
Me: What do you mean? I pay attention to you all the time!
Flynn: Har hraugh rhuf whuf hrr.
Me: Yeah, rhuf. We talk all the time, don’t we? Or at least we used to.
Flynn: Rhuf… rhuf… hurr.
Me: Oh my God. I am such an idiot.
What I had only then realized was that when Flynn said to me, “You never pay attention to me anymore,” he was employing a euphemism! What he had meant was, “You never pet me anymore.” And I had completely missed it.
I had gotten so wrapped up in the idea of being able to talk to Flynn, and so comfortable discussing matters with him as an equal, I had completely forgotten that, when you get right down to it, Flynn was just a dog—a dog with the same physical and emotional needs as any dog. Words count for very little to a dog; actions speak much louder.
This is the most important lesson I can impart to you: it is not enough to talk to your dog; you must also communicate. I shudder to think that if Flynn had not opened up to me, I might have gone on hurting him indefinitely. Remember: your dog might not be as assertive.
Flynn and I talk less than we did at the beginning, but that’s all right. We know that when we want to, or need to, we can. And it still comes in quite handy sometimes.
But other times, like on hot, firefly nights, when the stars seem so close you can catch them in your mouth, and the old porch swing creaks rhythmically back and forth with the crickets adding chirpy syncopation, and the slow, thick air smells a deep, dark purple, well, words are meaningless. Flynn has taught me that.
You can purchase the audiobook for your dog by sending $19.95 cash or money order plus $3.50 for postage and handling to: Talking Dog, P.O. 8745, Champaign, IL 61820. Flynn cautions that some of the growling on this tape may be too intense for younger dogs or more sensitive, miniature dogs.
* Like He’s Your Best Friend
Larry Doyle, a former writer for “The Simpsons,” works in showbiz and writes funny things for The New Yorker. He is the author of I Love You, Beth Cooper, which won the 2008 Thurber Prize for American Humor and was made into a major motion picture, and Go Mutants!. He lives outside Baltimore with his wife, Becky, and their three children.