By special request I am sharing Sam, A Shaggy Dog Story and I hope those of you who have not read his adventures will enjoy…
Last time we discovered Sam’s love of sausages, ice cream, snow, Christmas and the ‘love in’….in this chapter he shares his efforts to learn ‘Human talk’
Chapter Eight – Human Language Lessons
My pack was made up of the alpha pair, Sally and David. As I have already mentioned both of them talked to me all the time. As well as words designed to let me know my role in the pack and behaviour expected from me, I began to understand the tone and meaning of many other words as well.
It is a common theory that animals do not understand human speech except for specific and relevant words such as sit, wait, down etc. This is a misconception because if you have been talked to continuously over a period of time you do begin to attach meaning and actions to certain words and sentences.
For example, it is no secret that dogs, and I have to include myself, are quite self-centred and are only really interested in what is in it for them or this case me.
At only a few months old I was beginning to isolate certain words that applied to my well-being, specifically the well-being of my stomach. For example, my favourite treats in the world cheese and cooked sausages. The latter was an occasional addition to my training sessions and they were, Sally assured me low fat and healthy enough for me to eat from time to time. Personally I could have eaten them every day but she assured me that I would soon grow tired of them. This was one of those rare times when I felt that she perhaps did not understand my needs quite as much as I wanted her to.
Anyway, I would begin to listen to conversations between humans carefully to determine when I might be able to partake of my favourite foods. Even if I was in semi-sleep mode, which for the uninitiated is flat out with eyes open but in a dream state, I could recognise the key words.
Let me demonstrate. “I thought that we might have chicken tonight with cauliflower and cheese sauce.” Or perhaps; “I went for a walk at lunchtime and I saw that the butcher has begun making home-made sausages.”
I think that you get the idea. Now, as I got older I learnt more vocabulary and I certainly knew more that the sixteen words the vet had predicted I would know eventually.
I knew the names of all my toys. When I was six months old Sally had bought me a football but it only took half an hour to puncture it. Although we now live thousands of miles away from my home in Ireland I still have that ball and some of the other toys I was given. Apart from Ball there is “Santy” (a rather portly plastic Santa Claus), Squeaky and Precious. The latter got its name after we all sat through the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and you have to lisp on the middle of the word.
At ten I now have a very extensive vocabulary including not only my favourite things that are important to me such as Car, Walk, Play, Football, and Chase, but words that also get me wound up like Flies, Magpies, Gaston (my next door neighbour here in Madrid, who is a large and stupid Pyrenean Mountain dog), and Cats (not the wild kind, but domestic variety who are very arrogant and self-satisfied and ask to be chased).
I was only a few months old when I began to string words together and although I sometimes would get wildly excited over nothing in the last ten years, I have really got into the whole conversational thing.
Sally often whispers to David in an effort to avoid ‘a certain somebody’, as she refers to me, getting any ideas but she still does not have enough respect for my hearing as she should do.
Apart from things in my life, I also know the names of all the people too. The other day Sally mentioned Henry to David and I could tell from her voice that she still missed that smelly old boy. I immediately went up to her and looked up to see if there was something else that she might say about my friend. She just looked at me, stroked my ears and said. “Where do the years go Sam?” Good question.
But understanding of human words and emotions is only part of my ability because after a year of being bombarded with vocabulary an event occurred which ensured that I would be even more immersed in the human language.
David was offered a job in Madrid, Spain and it became too good an offer to turn down. Sally and David had often worked and lived abroad for their careers and had always moved homes and countries together. In seventeen years they had lived in England, America, Belgium and Ireland but this time there were other considerations to be taken into account.
They had only owned the house for a couple of years and would barely break even if they sold up now and Sally had only just bought a business in the local town and was in the process of building up a successful dietary practice. It was decided eventually that David would go to Madrid and that they would alternate visits every three weeks at the company’s expense and Sally would find someone to look after me for these few days at a time.
It was a wrench for them both but at least Sally had me. Apart from when she was working in the mornings, she and I spent all our time together and apart from an occasional night out with her girlfriends, I was her friend and confidante. It was my job to look after her and make sure that she was happy. Without David to talk to she talked to me all the time, and although I already had an extensive word base this immersion therapy gave me a great many more.
This is the time that I wanted to improve my ability to communicate back and the result was my first spoken word.
The three of us had already established a very effective method of communication using body language, eyes and tongue. Well I had, they continued to use the spoken word. For example, if you want a drink or some ice (perfect for cooling a dog down on the one scorching day in an Irish summer), you lick your lips and hold your mouth slightly open indicating extreme thirst.
If you particularly like a morsel of food, and you want more, then you lick up as far as you can to your eyebrows once or twice to demonstrate that this is delicious, and further examples would be appreciated.
If you are desperate for a wee or other business you put your paws up onto the sofa between a person’s legs and hold your face up close to theirs and stare them out. If this does not result in the desired affect then you whine deeply in your throat with a rising pitch at the end to indicate a question. “Do you think that I can hang on to this for ever and are you getting the message?”
If I was in the garden and wanted a game of chase, which was let’s face it is most days, then a sharp but restrained nip on the back of the calf usually resulted in a thoroughly satisfying gallop through the bushes.
They enjoyed the game as well and knew that the more arm waving and barking they did the more I liked it. It was standard pack practice and I was delighted that my instincts were so closely aligned to theirs.
However, as I grew older and was no longer a growing puppy, some of the goodies that I had come to enjoy seemed to be reduced to the occasional treat. I have to admit to playing on the common collie predilection for pickiness when it comes to eating and I am one of the few breeds that can affect disdain when a perfectly good bowl of food is presented.
Give them their due they were fast learners and discovered that if I knew that I would be offered a small morsel of cheddar, I would eat all my dinner. All was well and good but the scarcity of the offerings made me contemplate another strategy.
As I have already mentioned I do not have a voice box and it is virtually impossible for me to annunciate human language but I learnt to give a very good impression.
The first word I learnt to say that was understood was ‘more’ needless to say. I really had to concentrate and it usually involved several parts of my body. I would crease my forehead, lick my lips, wag my tail and from deep in my chest produce the sound of ‘mawgh’. As you can imagine this became one of my party pieces when David and Sally had friends over for dinner on his visits home. I managed to obtain several pieces of after dinner cheese from all the guests who felt very honoured that I spoke to them personally.
I have to say that eight years on and I have had to modify this particular word, as with any middle aged dog my waistline has expanded somewhat. This is also due to having my teeth cleaned by the vet three years ago but more about dentistry later.
Back to ‘more’. About a year ago I was particularly intent of achieving a further portion of my favourite after dinner treat and I had been told three times to go away and find my bone. Usually I did this as I am well aware of pack etiquette, and one does not want to push the alpha female too far, as she is very good at the ‘hot tongue and cold shoulder routine’ that reminds you of where you are in the pack.
On this occasion she was involved in a television programme and her directives to move away were slightly more offhand than usual so I pushed my luck.
The result was a frosty look to encourage me to mind my manners and a gentle sweep of her arm that indicated that I should move away. I do wish she had not watched so many episodes of the Dog Whisperer, that woman has a lot to answer for. Anyway, I ignored the instructions and she turned to me and looked my right in the eyes.
“You are beginning to sound like Oliver Twist and if you don’t stop pestering me I will call you Oliver in future.”
She obviously considered this Oliver chap to be quite something if she was willing to call me his name.
I scrunched up my forehead and really concentrated. I licked my eyebrows and wagged my tail vigorously.
“Pardon.” I had certainly got her attention now.
“ORH,EE,VA.” I emphasised.
David who had been trying to watch the programme throughout this exchange turned the volume down on the remote control.
“Did he just say Oliver?”
Right on brother and they were so impressed it resulted in an extra treat, my favourite next to cheese, a hard-boiled egg.
I now no longer bother with the short but ineffective ‘more’ and get right to the point with ‘Oliver’ after my dinner.
I also developed another word that stemmed for an everyday activity. I have already told you about the ‘greeting rug’ which is used to have a pack greeting when we have been apart.
David and Sally would always use a word over and over when we hugged and stroked each other and it was ‘hello’.
One day when I was about six years old, I felt the need to reciprocate and began responding with my own version which sounds somewhat like ‘hayyo’. Sometimes it comes out better than others depending on my level of concentration, and I do get a real charge from uttering this word when we meet people on our travels.
There was one particular occasion when we were staying in our apartment on the Costa’s, where you find a lot of people who talk like David and Sally, unlike here in Madrid where I cannot understand a word people are saying.
We were out for their morning walk which they insist on taking rain or shine and this couple were coming towards us arm in arm. As they reached us the woman stopped and greeted us.
“Hello, what a beautiful dog.”
“Heyoo.” I greeted her back wagging my tail.
Just as well she was hanging onto her husband’s arm, to say that she jumped two feet off the ground is a bit of an exaggeration but you get my drift.
“Did he just say what I think he did.” She looked at me awestruck.
“Sam, say hello nicely to the lady,” Sally prompted.
“Heyoo.” I uttered again and was rewarded with much petting and admiration.
This has inspired me to try and use other words, not all are successful but it is a work in progress and combined with my other effective methods of communication, I feel that I probably do better than most dogs in achieving the right balance of food and comfort.
©sallycronin Sam, A Shaggy Dog Story 2009
About the authors
Sally Cronin waited until she began working for herself, and had the time to commit to the welfare of a dog. before she fulfilled a dream of having another Lassie Collie. From the moment that Sam came home at 8 weeks old they were inseparable, and travelled thousands of miles together and with her husband David, exploring Ireland, Wales, England and Europe. Finally they all ended up in a large house up a mountain to the north of Madrid.
Sam could charm the birds out of the trees and assumed that every human that he met was more interested in him than his humans that were tagging along. He developed a vocabulary and non-verbal clues as to his needs, cheese and sausages being the main ones.
They collaborated on this book, with Sam dictating his recollections and Sally correcting some of his more flamboyant claims pertaining to his adventures.
You can find out more about Sally’s books and their reviews: Sally’s Books and Recent Reviews
I hope you have enjoyed this chapter and will join us again next Sunday.. thanks Sally.