When we first met Astro–our beagle-spaniel mix–we thought he was a beautiful dog, but probably a little dim. He was a shelter dog at the local PetSmart where we had gone to pick up tadpole food. The shelters around here are full to bursting with hound dogs, labs, and shepherd mixes. This dog was a standout with a great flag of a tail, a big white ruff, and a happy expression. He looked like a miniature St. Bernard, and he wasn’t barking like all the hounds and labs (big plus for a bookish family). On the other hand, he wouldn’t really look at you either. He seemed to regard people the way most of us think of starlings: you share space in the world with them, but so what? You couldn’t really have a relationship with one.
Still, he was so cute, and small, and the kids loved him, and for a family with a fondness for outer space, his name was perfect. The next week, when we learned he hadn’t been adopted, my husband said, “You know we can’t have a dog, but if you bring one home I’ll understand.” And so Astro came to live at our house.
Our first clue that Astro might be smarter than we’d thought, came when he began to imitate our question to him, “Do you want to go out?” He would give a loud, high-pitched yawn: “eoowwww!” (a sound he only made when asked) and scratch at the front door or jump in the air. At first his “word” only ever meant “I need to go to the bathroom. Take me out.” The dog never lied. But over the years his usage changed, so that “out” came also to mean “I’m bored. Let’s go out for a walk.” Or “There’s something out there I need to investigate.” –still an imperative, but no longer tied solely to bodily functions.
Recently Astro’s word has again evolved and he will greet us upon our return with a quick “eooww” that seems to mean “You’ve been out, but now you’re back. (Where’d you go? Let me sniff.)”
I find these canine linguistic changes fascinating. Lots of dogs learn to understand some English–Border Collies have been known to understand well over a hundred words–and I’ve even heard of other dogs who say “out.” The thing that interests me is how my dog came to believe that humans might actually be able to communicate. That step is the one that changed everything.
In the early days, we were to him as senscient as furniture. Now he will look his empty food bowl and then at me, to tell me “You need to do something about this.” Or sniff the air and look at me and sniff again to ask, “Did you notice that interesting odor?” How curious that he should want to share an observation.
This language thing is humbling. I thought my dog was dim, and it turns out he didn’t think much better of me. It was only because we shared close quarters and had to depend on one another that we learned otherwise. How many times have I dismissed other creatures on this planet–many of them human–and simply put them in the starling category? How much might be different with a little more faith in the possibility of communication with those who are radically Other? Something to ponder. Funny what you learn from your dog.