After eleven years and thousands of miles, my faithful and athletic dog, Otter, has been forced by arthritis into semi-retirement. Running is now totally forbidden, and her walks have been shortened and rerouted to avoid strain on her fragile back legs. Every once in a while, though, I am able to sneak away with my younger dog, Trooper, for an extended hike in the woods.
Yesterday, our hooky hike took us down to the creek. We hadn't visited the canyon since the ice broke up and I was looking forward to the music of running water. But the first stream crossing proved tricky: the water was higher than I'd expected and my Bean boots leaked. By the time I got to the opposite bank, my left foot was soaked.
"I guess we'll have to climb up the hill before we get to the canyon. Probably won't be able to cross this creek when it narrows up ahead."
I talk to myself sometimes like this, or maybe I was talking to Trooper. At the time, he was trotting about ten feet ahead of me, his blaze orange retrieving dummy clutched securely in his mouth. He didn't look back at me or acknowledge my words.
About twenty yards later, we came to the second stream crossing. Trooper, as usual, waded right in -- he's a Labrador, synonymous with water -- and I surprised myself by managing to cross the creek this time without problems. I began to reconsider my route, thinking maybe that I would venture into the narrow canyon. But I didn't say anything about my change in plans to Trooper.
The hemlock woods where we hike is full of deer, and consequently it's full of deer trails, many of which head down the steep slope to the creek. At the first of these game trails that we passed after our second stream crossing -- a trail we had never before taken to climb up from the creek bed -- Trooper, without looking back at me and without any hesitation whatsoever, veered sharply off our established trail and began following the path up, away from the creek. I stopped walking immediately, watching him, wondering why he had chosen this path. Then I remembered my off-hand remark at the first creek crossing.
When he realized that I wasn't following him, Trooper looked back over his shoulder at me. He didn't come trotting back as he would if he'd gone off on his own for some reason. He just stood there, apparently expecting me to follow him.
This incident wasn't the first time that Trooper has amazed me by his apparent comprehension of a complex verbalization. Trooper is the first male dog that I've lived with, and his mind definitely works on a very different track than the female dogs that I have known. Both Otter, my older girl dog, and Trooper are great bird dogs -- retrievers -- but Otter will only retrieve birds and only when she is hunting. Trooper, on the other hand, retrieves continually: he never goes anywhere without his retrieving dummy. Whenever an opportunity arises, Trooper will deposit his dummy at my feet and glance down at it suggestively, hoping to con me into a few tosses.
Unlike the female dogs I've known, Trooper uses abstractions. When he can't retrieve birds, he will substitute the retrieving dummy, or even a stick. Otter will only retrieve what she's been trained to retrieve: she doesn't generalize the act of retrieving birds to bringing home any other object.
Human language is a series of generalizations. In English we have a few onomatopoetic words (think "hit" and "sweep") but most words are abstractions: there's no physical reason why the word "dog" represents my four-legged companions -- they could just as easily be referenced by the word "thing" or "snue" or "god."
Like many people, I often talk to my dogs -- but I'm never quite sure how much of what I say they understand. Otter has never seemed to make a great effort to learn words. Oh, she knows the standards -- no, come, sit, stay -- but beyond those I think that she mostly responds to the tone of my voice. One female dog I lived with used to get extremely agitated whenever she overheard me speaking Spanish: I think it was because the cadence and tone were so different that she didn't have any idea how to "read" my voice in Spanish.
Trooper, however, has learned to respond to sentences -- especially when they pertain to his beloved dummy. Since he prefers not to go anywhere without it, the moments before we leave for a walk usually involve a mad dash by Trooper as he tries to locate his dummy. If I give him directions such as "Your dummy's in the bedroom," nine times out of ten he'll head for the place where I directed him.
But sometimes -- like yesterday -- he'll astonish me by seeming to understand a complex sentence that's not even directed toward him. The most memorable time this happened was a couple of years ago, in early November, when we -- Otter, Trooper, and I -- set out to conquer Livingston Peak.
We really had no business trying to climb a mountain in Montana in November -- especially since Otter's arthritis was already pretty bad and Trooper'd had "Tommy John" surgery to repair a torn ligament in his knee not six months earlier. But November -- and the approach of winter -- can turn even the most cautious of us into fools.
We had no problem reaching the saddle at 8300 feet, but as soon as we turned up toward the Peak, we ran into snow, packed hard enough so that it required all of our strength to plough a path through it. Its depth increased rapidly: by the time we were half way up the mountain, the snow was knee deep on me and shoulder high for the dogs. I was in the lead, breaking a trail by shuffling instead of stepping forward, trying to displace the maximum volume of snow with each step. It was exhausting work, compounded by the fact that the trail to the Peak climbs at an angle of over 60 degrees.
I glanced back to check on my progress. The dogs followed in my footprints. Otter's tongue was hanging from her mouth, panting; her head down as she plodded doggedly along. Trooper was limping on his bad leg. We still had over a quarter of a mile of climbing -- a quarter mile straight up -- to get to the Peak. Otter noticed that I'd paused and took the opportunity to collapse onto her side in the snow.
"This is really bad now and it's gonna get worse the farther we go up. I guess it's best if we turn around here before we get trapped and can't make it down."
I spoke those words under my breath, more to myself than anything, but as soon as they'd left my mouth, I saw a change in Trooper. His normal expression of goofy, eager acquiescence disappeared, replaced by a grim hardness and determination. His eyes became focused and intense. His entire attitude seemed to say, "You can turn around if you want to, but I'm going to the top of this mountain."
"Okay," I responded. I'm not ashamed to admit it: I spoke to Trooper that afternoon as if he'd said those words to me.
He must have understood our "conversation" because as soon as I'd agreed to go forward he muscled past me, pushing aside snow like a freight engine. Trooper is blessed with a powerful upper body, and that afternoon he used it like a plough to break trail. Once he'd taken the lead, he never looked back, never once paused until all three of us were sprawled triumphant across the point of rocks, swept clean of snow by the wind, at the very crown of Livingston Peak.
And that day I learned that not only can dogs understand language, but that animals -- just like people -- can set personal goals for themselves that sometimes have no connection with survival, or comfort, or any other "animal" need.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources