It’s so interesting here that I just did a crazy thing. I went upstairs and phoned the news editor of the good local paper we have, and asked if I could write for them as a freelance. We’ll see if I hear back. The first woman I spoke to was very nice.
This is the specific incident which prompted my call (and really, I have no idea if this would be of interest to non-dog people–probably not, but I have that note factory angle to offer, too). I was sitting at the computer, taking a break from scooping poop, when I looked to my right and saw that Soyer had brought me his ball. He looks truly adorable when he does that–big wrinkly head, ears laid back shyly, eyes hopeful. The thing is, I think he’s hopeful I’ll throw it, but he hasn’t mastered, ‘Drop it into my hand’. He hasn’t mastered the whole sequence of, ‘I bring her the ball, she throws it, I chase it, we do it again.’ The reason he hasn’t mastered it is because I don’t practice it enough with him, but now was the time.
The past few days something has crystallized in my mind. I am now sure that dogs can understand the gist of complete sentences I say to them. Somehow–a combination of my body language, the look in my eyes, my words, their expectations, their super intelligence–leads them to understand complex concepts I’m trying to get across.
So this time I didn’t focus on saying the exactly-correct specific words I’d planned to use. I just said something like, ‘Aw, Soyer, you brought me your ball! That is very good. I love it when you do that, and I love that ball. Do you want Mommy to throw it for you?’ (figuring that it must be that which is responsible for the hopeful look)
He looked interested. Then I said, ‘If you want Mommy to throw it, you have to give it to her. Put it in Mommy’s hand.’ And damned if he didn’t! That was the first time. In fact, although he’s quite good at, ‘Drop it’, that ball is in a different, higher value category for him, even for dropping. There’s another factor at work there, too, to explain his reluctance to drop his ball for me, which is that, now that he’s here, there are always other dogs waiting to grab it, and he knows it. So I don’t ask him to drop it under those unfair conditions, and we haven’t been practicing much lately.
So this time, when I asked him to put the ball into my hand, I asked the other dogs to back off, too. He put it into my hand, I made a delighted fuss, and I walked outside to toss it for him, followed by lineup of dogs, Soyer in the lead. I told them, this is for Soyer to get, and they let him chase it alone, although Giovanni was very tempted, and ran part way, but slowly, not really trying to get it. (That’s another example of a sentence they seem to understand–‘This one is for Soyer.’)
Now the next bit is what was so interesting.
Soyer took the ball into the long room of the dog suite (the door is wide open on this beautiful day), and we followed. Giovanni made an unusually determined dart, to try to take it out of Soyer’s mouth, and, maybe for the first time, Soyer ‘yelled’ at him, made a quick, loud sound to tell him to back off. I wanted to do something to ‘smooth it over’, but I think what I did wasn’t the right thing. I picked Giovanni up and told him, ‘no, that was Soyer’s ball, you have to leave it for now’. Anyway, whatever I said, it didn’t matter–he already understood that perfectly well, from Soyer. I said to Soyer, ‘good gentle’, because he really is a bit of a saint, allowing any dog to do almost anything to him, usually without even a word from him, and he could have been much harsher to Giovanni, who’d breached dog etiquette there.
Anyway, I was saying, ‘blah blah blah’, probably not the right things, and both dogs reminded me of characters in a P.G. Wodehouse book I’ve read many times. There’s a dumb blonde character in the book named Veronica Wedge, a girl who needs everything explained fifty times. Two other characters are having a heated argument, but when Veronica comes into the room, they immediately make an unspoken pact to stop fighting, just so they won’t have to explain it to her. As soon as she leaves, they continue right where they were. That’s how my dogs were. They let me talk, but they were just being polite. They had unfinished business.
I realized that, just as I bent to put Giovanni back down. ‘Hope they don’t pick up where they left off’, I thought. Then I saw the first surprising thing. The ball was not in Soyer’s mouth, but on the floor. Normally Soyer keeps a tight hold on it when others are around. I didn’t want them to argue over it, so I picked it up and gave it to Soyer, as Giovanni was arranging himself after having been set down.
And then came the really amazing thing. Giovanni went to Soyer, and I thought Soyer would scoot out the open door. Instead, Soyer turned around and purposefully dropped the ball so Giovanni could get it! I swear! Giovanni picked it up, Soyer looked relieved or something, and both dogs wiggled happily. They so did not need me to mediate that for them. They had it all under control, all along.
I am quite sure that dogs do tend to have their relationships with other dogs nicely under control and humming along smoothly, except when we mess them up.
I’ll never forget what I learned today. And that Soyer, boy…what a prince of a dog.
Alexander McCall Smith ends the books in his Ladies’ Number One Detective Agency series with the word, ‘Africa’, written over and over in a diamond shape. Even without that, you can tell from the books that he loves Africa with every molecule. When I see things like that little ball episode, my brain just thinks, ‘Dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs’.