The talking dog

Wednesday 10 June 2015 — Falmouth Dog Park — Birthday of Toto’s human companion, Judy Garland

It will come as no surprise to you, dear readers, that I converse with canines. I understand dog language. I speak dog. I’ve learned the subtleties of canine language in the dialect “greyhound.” Yes, dear readers, dogs have not only language but also dialects, depending on the breed. Dogs speak with an accent. Of course, dogs can’t use words. They use body language. Greyhound body language, as that of all other dog breeds, varies slightly with the individual animal. Greyhound body language is actually very similar to cat-speak. Greyhounds stretch like cats and they curl up into little balls like cats. 

I was taught greyhound body language by a succession of articulate animals that have chosen to adopt me over the years: Aran, Molly Malone, Cleopatra, Napoleon, Annie, Lolo, Miss Piggy, Gabriel, and, currently, Transit. I will now briefly explain the fundamentals of dog talk to you.

There’s the “nose nudge.” This means, “Excuse me, but I’m hungry and you must feed me immediately. Drop whatever it is you’re doing.” If I happen to be eating lunch, my dog gets my alpha dog warning, “Naughty, naughty. No table scraps for you.” This command, I’ve noticed, is for some reason not all that effective. Otherwise, I just feed my dog. Nose nudges usually come at the same time every day, within approximately 15 minutes of feeding time. Dogs are time-sensitive when it comes to food.

Greyhound Justin has his own distinctive body language. He will search me out in the rectory and begin making rooing sounds, his ears straight and his eyes alert. Translation: “Woe is me. I am a poor, starving dog, abandoned by my cruel master to forage for food in a barren land. I haven’t eaten in days. Could you please spare a bite to eat, kind sir?” Dog language tends to be overly dramatic. This pleading, I have noticed, comes moments after Justin has scoffed down the bowl of kibble Father Peter John, his owner, has just fed him. Simply because a dog tells you something, doesn’t mean it’s true. Dogs cannot only speak, dogs can speak lies.

Greyhound Transit uses a communication tool known as the “stone cold stare.” He sneaks silently into my bedroom in the middle of the night and just stands there staring at me with his beady little eyes until I awaken. The stone cold stare means, “Get up. I need to go. Now.”

Then there is the “turbine tail twirl.” This means, “Am I ever glad to see you! Where have you been all this time, anyway?” The turbine tail twirl can lead to complications when the tail in question is smacking against the wall. Poor greyhound Cleopatra had her tail bandaged more than once as a result of overzealous tail twirls. Dogs, by the way, deem the turbine tail twirl appropriate whether you’ve been away for five minutes or five days. Dogs have no sense of time whatsoever (except for feeding time. See above).

The “play bow” is universal dog language. It consists of a deep bend, two front legs extended, while simultaneously projecting the hind quarters into the air. The play bow is accompanied by strenuous tail-wagging and wiggling. It means, “There is no competition here. I readily acknowledge you as top dog. Now let’s have a little doggie rough-housing shall we, just for the fun of it?” By the way, no dog appreciates a human hug. It can be intimidating and easily misunderstood as aggression.

A variation is the “roll over.” It says basically the same thing but in a different way. Yes, dear readers, dog-talk, like human language, has more than one way to convey the message.

I notice that dogs sometimes speak with their eyes, while otherwise remaining perfectly still. In such a situation, I find myself humming Roy Orbison’s “The Eyes of Texas are Upon Me.” My dog Transit will follow me across the room with his eyes every time I move. It means, “Oh, now what? What is this one up to?” If a dog deflects the eyes from you, it means, “Go away. I have more important things to do — like finishing my 18-hour nap.”

On the other hand, dog eyes can also signal ominous messages. Never stare into a dog’s eyes. If the animal is staring hard at you, with pupils dilated, that’s not a good sign. Greyhound Annie used to squint her eyes as a sign of warning. Check to see the rest of the body language. Tail stiff and wagging slowly? Ears back? Teeth showing? Hair on the back of the neck standing up? Nose wrinkled? Body rigid? The meaning is, “Beware! I am about to attack you.” This may or may not be accompanied by growling. Take appropriate action. Four and a half million Americans are annually bitten by dogs simply because so many humans are illiterate in dog language.

Now that you’re fluent in greyhound, shall we move on to some other dog dialect — Great Dane, perhaps?

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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