'Woof' as a second language

Forget speaking with humans, key to peace may be talking with dogs

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2004

OK, I admit it. I have absolutely no interest in learning a second language. I didn't even like learning English back in the days when we had to conjugate verbs and diagram sentences.

But I've been feeling a little guilty about globalization and how we should all learn a second language in order to facilitate better understanding of our world community. I think my insecurities along this line have come from all the snide jokes about the French. Especially the one that goes: "If it weren't for the British and Americans, the French would be speaking German."

Well, think about this: If it weren't for the French, we would be speaking English with a British accent, and one of our symbols of liberty would not be perched on a rock in New York harbor.

But I digress.

The only second language I've ever acquired willingly is the ability to communicate with the dog sometimes the cats, depending on their mood, and mine, but definitely the dog.

We understand each other, if not perfectly, at least well enough to coexist peacefully. Not because I'm so smart, mind you, but because he has so much patience.

The first thing he taught me, right out of the dog pound, was how to throw his favorite ball repeatedly. Who can resist that hairy little face with the excited brown eyes?

But it has to be the "favorite" ball. He has five, all alike as far as I can tell, but he knows which one is his favorite. It is the only one he will fetch. It is the only one he sends me to search for if it disappears.

My entire house has been turned upside down when a visitor has hidden the ball in a place neither Toto nor I could discern. I finally had to call the visitor and ask where he put it in order to get any peace.

On a normal day, its disappearance is grounds for tearing all the cushions off the sofa, tipping over the toy box, tearing up and down the stairwell searching every possible nook and cranny, and finally barking if it is found and irretrievable (under a low piece of furniture).

I know that bark. It means "Come and get down on your hands and knees and debase yourself by putting your cheek on the carpet and fishing my ball out from under the blanket chest."

And I, of course, obey. Not only do I understand his language, but I know he won't quit until he has the ball. He taught me about doggy depression when the ball was missing for more than a week.

He's even taught me a doggy silent language. If he wants to go out, he waits until my hands are full of something or the final five minutes of my favorite TV show and then stands by the door wanting out. Silently. If I try to get him to go out on my schedule, he will immediately sit down. That means "No, I don't want to go out. You don't have anything in your hands and the TV is off."

Toto also taught me to stand at the bottom of the stairs (even with a load of laundry in my arms) while he stands at the top and rolls the ball down to me. Then I toss it back to him. He catches it every time he ought to be an outfielder and then puts it back on the top step, gives it a quick lick with his tongue and sends it down the stairs. He will keep this up for as long as I can take it.

To my knowledge, the English words he's learned are "That's enough," when I've finally reached my limit. Only then will he relent and stop the game.

Oh, and he's learned "shut up," but only insofar as barking at company. When it comes to moose or other dogs he sees out the window, the only thing to get him to stop barking is to put him outside and let him bark. As soon as the other dogs are out of sight or after he's told the moose what he thinks of them up close and personal through the fence, he leaves off barking.

I've learned there is a different pitch to "moose alert" barks and "other dogs alert" barks and "somebody pulled in the driveway alert" barks.

He also occasionally is very sassy; the beagle-terrier in him being somewhat vocal. He will sometimes mouth off to me in English. Well, it sounds like English, but then again, maybe it's just the English version of "woof," translated for my benefit.

So I hope "woof" counts as a second language. Surely it means I could at least converse on the merits of world peace with the dogs of each country. I don't believe French poodles speak French or German shorthairs speak German, or English bulldogs speak English or Russian wolfhounds speak Russian or Chinese pugs speak Chinese.

I think dogs, unlike humans, have a universal language. Since I've learned the basics, I can be the ambassador of the international community with no language barriers.

Well, at least no barriers in a world gone to the dogs.

Marilyn Wheeless is a lifelong Alaskan who is daily educated by experiences produced by the dog, the cats and life in general. She is active in Pioneers of Alaska and the Central Peninsula Writers' Group, and works for Attorney Dan Aaronson in Kenai.Marilyn Wheeless

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