Learning to speak dog

learning to speak dog


Part 1


I had never liked dogs

and up until a few years ago

the feeling was mutual


For many years I identified proudly as a cat person

it was an integral part of my “feminist male” identity


dogs are macho:


stupid, selfish, impulse driven, strong and brutal


insensitive, easily manipulated


As a proud cat person, I was smart, sensitive, caring, independent, willful yet compassionate


“He feeds me, he cares for me, he must be a god,” says the dog.


“He feeds me, he cares for me, I must be a god,” says the cat.


Then a few years ago I decided it was annoying and bad energy to have dogs always barking and growling at me


besides being a little dangerous


so I cooled it with the anti-dog energy


I calmed down the vibe             

 cooled myself out, like a cool cat can


and dogs stopped barking at me…


but I still didn’t like dogs


at all.


Then something happened.


My partner fell in love with her son’s dog


I could feel it, I could see it, I had to accept it. A big, slobbery, blind pit bull. One of the ugliest dogs I’ve ever seen. But a sweet, good-natured, gentle soul.


When she said she wanted to go to Florida for two weeks to train blind Max how to keep out of trouble, I knew instantly that was the right thing to do.


When she returned from Florida and spoke of how she walked twice a day with Max, how good it was for her to run and play every day, I began to see how a dog could bring good things into one’s life.


She talked of how easy it was to meet people, how she chatted with all sorts of people she would never have spoken to, because of the dog.


There is no real community of cat-owners….


So I finally said, you know, it would be OK with me if we got a dog.


Of course, I’m not going to be an equal co-parent. It’s your dog, and I’m just helping out a little. I can’t really take this on all the way…but I won’t stand in your way, because I see how much this means to you.


Then one of her friends said, what about a cockapoo? A little dog, you can take it on an airplane, you can carry her in a serape, they don’t shed, they can be trained not to bark…


And then another friend said, I know someone who raises cockapoos. She has a litter for sale now. And she’s a colleague at the Watsonville Charter School of the Arts. She taught both of my kids at Mt. Madonna. Her dogs are so calm and peaceful; they might as well be cats… Charlotte was pregnant, and we reserved a pup from her litter.


And then I met Nellie, the smallest of the litter. She sat on my lap during our first visit and fell asleep.


My mother’s name was Nell, and I’m in love.


Part 2: Puppy Love


The phases of puppy love:


the silly doting parents imitating the infatuations and obsessiveness of middle schoolers

sharing pictures with as many people as you can think of cause your darling is the cutest thing since Clara Bow

excessive pride in her miraculous success at being toilet trained before her third month birthday, and shame and chagrin when she has several accidents in a day, proving her earlier success mere luck…


Seeing her dash headlong and roll over backward in a fallen over clump of grass that’s twice her height, delighted, abandoned into vegetation, the omnivorous forager that she is. Watching her lick rocks, dig in and eat dirt, chew on dead stumps and live grasses and leaves. She put on a mock stalking, barking and staying, then crouch, crawl and pounce upon a mullein, emerging triumphant from the bushy plant with a leaf in her jaw, which she brought back and wrestled with and munched on with delight.


I met an old friend, the bus driver for my daughter’s first year of school at Orchard School, and father to her friend Jeni, whom I hadn’t seen in over ten years. He drives the bus for the Summer Loop at UCSC, late shift. We talked of dogs, and he said he loved having dogs in his life, cause they made him say to them, “Teach me how to be an animal, I’m just a silly human.” I had just read a similar thought from Maurice Sendak, interviewed in “The Art of Raising a Puppy” by the Monks of New Skete, how he considered his many dogs to have been his teachers, the animalness of the dog and its honesty requiring the same in return from the human.


And so I continue the journey of learning to speak dog. As she matures to a grown dog, I’ll find out what lessons she’s come to teach me. So far so good.


Part 3: It’s ShowTime!


Throughout our month with Nellie, our now 12-week-old cockapoo pup, my wife and I have had ongoing discussions about exactly what language to use for the various commands we need to teach her. “Nellie, come/sit/down/heel/turn/leave it” were all straightforward, but we had a hard time with the most used command, “Let’s go pee,” meaning, “It’s time to put on the leash and go outside to the designated spot in the garden,” and its companion, “Do your business,” meaning “Now we’re here and let’s get on with the elimination.” I refused to use either one. I wanted something I could say out loud in a public place and not feel like a new parent still in toilet training mode.


We discovered “Allez, allez,” from the French, in a moment of invention after reading the suggestion “Let’s go,” in one of the many books we’ve been reading to guide us through this new adventure. Although slightly cutesy, my Canadian wife took readily to the French, and we agreed on that one. We tried “Outside” and “Let’s go outside,” but neither had the feeling I was looking for.


Then I hit upon Bob Fosse’s signature line from “All That Jazz,” “It’s ShowTime!” and I was off and running. Nellie had already earned the nickname “Little Miss Thing,” from how clearly she warranted the designation “cutest thing since Clara Bow.” For her excursions to the yard now to become events in her illustrious career as the smartest and cutest puppy ever just seemed natural to me. My wife does not agree, and I could not say we’ve reached consensus. But I am hopeful.


Last time she returned with Nellie, I asked her, “Was that a double feature?” 


Fred is a Teaching Artist, an arts integration advocate & a social justice activist. He is near completing a two-month Residency as String Game Performance Teacher at Calabasas Elementary School in Watsonville, CA, and performed at the 2015 Santa Cruz Storytelling Festival. He also serves as Teacher Consultant for Professional Development with UCSC's Central California Writing Project and as their Technology Liaison to the National Writing Project. He is a Connected Learning Facilitator and coordinates Face To Face Drop Ins on Connected Learning biweekly at Arts Council Santa Cruz County. He teaches self-directed & connected learning via real-world projects & string games through his Original Digital Project, an Associate of the Arts Council.

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