MAD DOG: Conversation Has Gone to the Dogs

I've never been good at foreign languages. That's why I'm always grateful I was born in an English-speaking country. During school I took several years of French and two of German, absorbing about as much as a concrete sponge. But I'm glad I took them. The French came in handy on my trips to Europe, letting me order food and ask for directions without too much embarrassment. Of course I had to pretend I really did want cigars in hollandaise sauce with sauteed shoelaces for dinner and act happy to know how to get to the louvered windows when I'd hoped to find the museum that houses the Mona Lisa. The German, well, let's just say that the one phrase I remember, "Ich bin ein Auslander," won't come in nearly as handy since all I'd be doing is stating the obvious.

Now it turns out there's a more useful language to study: dog. There's a book out called How to Speak Dog which tries to teach us humans to communicate with canines. The author, Stanley Coren, claims a dog has the vocabulary and intelligence of a two-year-old. This might not be so bad if it converted into fourteen dog years, but I don't think it works that way. Thus, it turns out dogs are perpetually stuck in the terrible twos. Let's see the SPCA use that as a sell point for their next puppy adoption campaign.

Coren says each wag, yawn, and head cock means something and we can learn to interpret them. This sounds good though it raises the question of whether we really want to know this. After all, as anyone who can't remember things they did while drunk will attest, ignorance can indeed be bliss.

Personally I like my linguistic ignorance. I'm perfectly happy not understanding what most of Jerry Springer's guests are trying to say through their three remaining teeth. And I rather enjoy smiling at a chattering two-year-old, then looking up at Mom and knowing it's her problem and not mine. That's why I'm pretty sure I don't need to know that when Fluffy is sprawled out on the floor like a frog with his head cocked left while clenching a sock monkey in his mouth it means he thinks Nietzsche was wrong about God being dead. Or is he actually asking for more Prozac? There's never a Dog-English dictionary around when I need it.

On the other hand there would be plusses. If we did understand dogs we could find out what's so much fun about running after a stick for four straight hours or why they circle three times before laying down. And once and for all we'd find out if they lick themselves for the reason we all think they do. Best of all, it would mean Buddy, the First Dog, could have been subpoenaed to testify before the Senate, telling them what he saw and heard in the White House. Actually, it's not his testimony I'm interested in, it's watching the chief of protocol go nuts trying to figure out whether the witness should be addressed as Buddy, Mr. Clinton, or Hey Mutt.

There are other reasons being able to speak dog would be come in handy. For one, it would let us know where they stand on issues that concern them. In San Francisco, the Commission of Animal Control and Welfare has asked the Board of Supervisors to ban veterinarians from performing cosmetic surgery. These aren't operations in which they increase the number of nipples on a female so she can attract males along with lucrative movie roles such as Horny Bitch in the new James Bond movie. Nor does it refer to giving face lifts to Sharpeis, tummy tucks to St. Bernards, or fur-o-suction for weight loss. No, in the animal sense cosmetic surgery means declawing, cropping ears, and clipping tails. And they want to outlaw all of it. Removing their testicles would be fine, but please, leave those claws alone.

This is the same agency that last year passed a resolution calling on the city to eliminate the phrase "pet owner" in all official documents and replace it with "pet guardian." While this may sound like a purely semantic discussion best left to Edwin Newman and that host of the BBC show who can quote every syllable of the Oxford English Dictionary while speaking as if he has a sausage roll stuck up his butt, it's actually very important. Imagine how it would help your pet's self-esteem to not think that they're owned. Unfortunately it would also open a can of worms bigger than a jumbo size can of pet food. Before you know it your cat would start demanding 9 Lives Hamachi Roll with Wasabi Gravy for dinner instead of that Iams Crunchy Tofu With Granola for Seniors you keep putting out. Then your parakeets will start insisting that you line their cage with a better quality newspaper than the Star. And finally the day will come that you tell your dog to "Fetch!" and she'll look back, wondering who the hell you think you are bossing her around, and say, "Yo quiero revolución!" I'm telling you, we don't want to head down this road.

On the other hand, if we could understand dogs we'd know where they stand on the issues of the day. This would come in handy in case any of them decide to run for president. I don't mean to insinuate that the candidates we have now aren't dogs -- you don't have to look any farther than the morning newspaper to realize they are -- no, I'm talking about the possibility of having a real live honest-to-goodness dog run.

This isn't as farfetched as you might think, since in 1996 Ernest, a 110-pound Bernese Mountain Dog from California, ran for Congress as a write-in candidate. And got 2,001 votes. Not bad considering Coren's book wasn't out yet so none of Ernest's supporters had any idea where their candidate stood on the issues, though I suspect that when asked about preserving the redwoods he was all for it, not understanding why anyone would want to get rid of the world's largest toilet grove.

Ernest died last year so he can't run again, but his success has inspired others. For one, Al Gore has emulated him. Unfortunately he used Ernest's post-death rigor mortis days as his role model. But that's not the point. Gore understands we can learn from our canine friends. He wants to open up a meaningful dialogue. And he's not afraid to get in touch with his canine side. At least I think that's what he's saying when he tilts his head, cocks his ear, and pants.

More Mad Dog can be found online at

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