Dogs as talkers

Before we got our puppy -- we had seen a photo of her blue-eyed beautiful self, 'Girl Number Five' of the twelve-puppy litter -- I had all sorts of questions about what she would be like in the flesh. In particular, I wanted to know what sort of noises she would make. I was looking forward to hearing the sounds of my puppy as she reacted to the world and grew up in it.

Well, I was not disappointed. She has always produced the most amazing array of vocalizations, such that listening to her is very much a part of our life with her, and her expressive voice is an important part of her character.

There is 1. the snurgle. The snurgle has variations but it is essentially a dog's version of purring. She snurgles when she is getting the love from us, individually or together, and she is very, very happy.

Then there is 2. the reminder murmur. This says that she is still awaiting the ride in the car/outing in the park or the meal I've forgotten to dish out. It's not a whine. It's a polite reminder.

3. The complaint. This happens when mummy's bacon is taking too long to cook or the blogs have absorbed her attention to the point that something stronger than the reminder murmur is required. I am extremely sensitive to the complaint. I apologize profusely and do as I'm asked.

4. The 'who goes there?' bark. This one is somewhat interrogational. It's insistent, but not all that indignant. It serves to ask questions first and shoot later, rather than the other way around. It's somewhat musical.

5. The 'who do you think you are?' bark. This one is rolling, crescendoing, and frankly scolding. It's no-nonsense, and makes me think of Matron in starched white. Very often it's magnificent.

6. The hum of anticipation. This happens when my doggy really wants something and she knows that I am attempting to decide what it is -- and that she may very well get it, quite soon. It seems to be an encouragement to my thought process. It says: 'Go on mummy, you can indulge me. You know you want to'.

7. The whimper of excitement. This happens when a) passing other dogs while we're in the car or b) encountering a particularly exciting tortoise. Usually accompanied by leaping, prancing, shimmying, and tail-wagging. Occurs when the emotion is too much to keep silent.

8. The wolf howl. I have heard this only twice, and each time it was delightfully unexpected: my puppy wolf-howling over a toy. I don't know what it meant, and she has never wolf-howled since. But to see an adorable non-wolfish puppy howling like her ancestors was truly something to write home about.

So that's a snapshot of my girl's vocalizations. But what about the listening end of things -- her understanding of language? I think that humans are somewhat patronizing when they say that dogs 'only understand sounds'. Well, so do we all when we first learn a language. I knew what the sound of 'sugar' meant, long before I could spell it. I associated the sound of 'bell' with the noise and look of a bell; the graphic dimension of words came significantly later and in any case was never as central to my grasp of English. Dogs do the same thing; they just don't learn syntax and how to write, as well. My dog has a wide vocabulary of heard words, even though she cannot speak them. Besides having a concrete grasp of the names of her human family (I am 'mummy', the others go by their actual names), she understands 'tortoise' (they fascinate her), 'car', 'drink', 'go', 'out', 'hurry up', 'quickly quickly', 'cross', 'sit', 'stand', 'leave it', 'give', 'come along', 'put your paws up', 'dinner', 'breakfast', 'treat', and a number of other words.

She also understands phrases. Whenever we go out, we say 'we'll be right back', so she must associate that by now with a limited time away and our return. She sits or lies on the sofa and waits for us: I never worry what she'll be doing. When we say 'would you like...' she cocks her head with particular interest because she learned as a puppy that something nice is being offered. She has heard 'I love you' thousands of times, and somehow, knowing our attitude, voice, and affection when it's said, she may be reassured by a sense of what it means.