At times, I forget that my dog, Floyd, can’t talk. Like, all the time. During our long walks, I’ll comment on the weather, the progress of a neighbor’s new fence, my plans for the day. My constant chatter doesn’t seem to bother him, as long as he can stop and leave some messages of his own.
Dog-behavior books give conflicting advice regarding human/canine conversation. Some experts recommend speaking in cheerful tones. One book suggested singing to dogs, a constant flowing river of happy sounds. I wonder what kind of music Floyd likes best. Howlin’ Wolf, or perhaps the Stray Cats? Other trainers recommend silence. Words other than commands only confuse the pooch. Wolves don’t chitchat. Save the speech for commands, for the words that matter: Sit. Stay. Snuggle.
I’m in the first camp. Dogs have been hanging around with our species long enough to know that we constantly voice our thoughts. I believe they’ve learned to tune us out until key words like ride, fetch and treat bubble to the top of our verbal slurry.
So I don’t think my non-command words confuse Floyd. If anything, I think they embarrass him. This may be in part because of my horrible timing. We’ve had several instances where passersby misunderstood my comments. While Floyd circled, shimmied and hopped to achieve the perfect angle for his mark on a fire hydrant, I said, laughing, “What are you doing, you freak?” Unfortunately, I posed the question as a woman pulled up next to us with her car’s window down to inquire about Floyd’s breed (only he knows, and he’s not telling). Instead of letting my comment die a quiet death, I tried to explain that I’d been talking to my dog, not to her. Her expression said it all: “Well, freaks must come in pairs then.”
Once, I said, “Come here, little man” to Floyd at the exact moment a diminutive gentleman turned the corner. How I wished I could scoop up the words in a plastic dog baggie. I wonder if Floyd is relieved that I have finally stopped calling him “Big Stink” and “Monkey Butt” in public after one too many sharp glares from someone nearby.
Calling “Get over here, you handsome devil” while Floyd played in the leaves next to my married neighbor was probably a poor choice of words. Particularly as another neighbor overheard me. Relationships on our street have been strained since.
Not only is my timing awful, I have a constant and inexplicable desire to explain everything to Floyd. “We can’t go to Reigning Cats and Dogs for a peanut butter biscuit today. I didn’t bring money.” His gaze slides to the man walking by who overhears us. I mean, overhears me.
Though I know Floyd is not going to whip out his daily planner to coordinate our schedules, I always explain why we’re taking a shorter route, or why he needs to hurry up. Dogs probably rank “clocks” up there with “lids” as the worst human inventions ever. Yet, I have said, “Give me five minutes, buddy” more than once. I have said this in front of people. Floyd chomps on an acorn to fill the awkward silence that inevitably follows. Signs instruct owners to “curb your dog.” I should really curb my comments to my dog.
My conversations with Floyd shine an ugly light on what kind of parent I would be. After he gobbled some rancid dumpster meat before I could stop him, I yelled (in cheerful singsong), “What were you thinking? We spend a fortune on your organic kibble. If you get sick, don’t come bellyaching to me.”
Did I really blurt, “You know better”?
Yes, yes I did.
And when I say things like, “Now, what did I just say to you?” I only shame myself.
Watching Floyd’s helicopter-tailhappy- dance when I ask, “Are you my best boy?” I realize that he sometimes gets a kick out of the babble. He’ll make a play bow, which is canine for “Well, yes I am. Now toss me that squeaky toy and let me show you a good time.”
We’ve all said things we regret. I’ve happened to say many of those things to my dog. He doesn’t hold it against me. A long walk, squirrel patrol and a possible biscuit later make my monkey chatter completely bearable. Or so he tells me.
Illustration by Amy Portnoy