Tuesday, September 06, 2005


In Which A Second Language Proves Useful...

Cecilia, the trainer I jokingly referred to earlier as the Dog Whisperer, was a short, slender woman. Not someone physically imposing. She was one of those women who called everyone "Hon" or "Sweetie" and had the high-pitched, saccharine voice to match.

Until she started talking to my dog.

I should say here that for the most part, Blaze is attentive. He usually comes when called. He has a 50 to 60 percent success rate at following more complicated commands, such as "Sit" or "Stay." Which is more than I can say for any dog I've ever had. But when he gets excited about something--a person at the door, a perceived threat to his children--his ears go offline and he starts following his own script.

Cecilia's premise was a simple one. The more a dog misbehaves or disobeys, the more likely we are to say words like "No" and "Stop." And let's face it, in a house with two kids and, well, me, Blaze is likely to hear those words a lot in the line of duty. They're meaningless to him. What isn't meaningless to him is the language his mother used on him. And here Cecilia trotted out an impressive body of animal studies demonstrating the way that alpha dogs speak to their pack. It's very similar to the low-frequency growling moms use on their pups. Thus, to successfully communicate with your dog, all you have to do is learn to mimic that growl.

To prove it, Cecilia had Thomas sneak around to the front door and ring our doorbell while Her Lovely Self, the Brownie and I watched. As soon as it went off, Blaze bolted, feet scrabbling on hard wood, ears up, a bark in his throat.

But Cecilia beat him to it. This sweet, tiny, squeaky woman stood by the door, turned her head slightly in Blaze's direction and opened her mouth. What came out was no whisper, but a deep, raspy "Grrrrrraarrrrrrgggh!"

I couldn't have been more impressed if she had just belched "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was like one of those nature programs where you watch the tiniest frog emit the loudest, deepest, basso profundo croak. And what happened next was even more impressive.

Blaze stopped in his tracks. He sat down on his rump and slid a few feet in utter amazement, gazing up at this tiny woman with a look of equal parts surprise and fear.

Cecilia immediately switched back to her sing-songy voice and pointed to a spot about five feet from the door. Head down, licking his chops in submission, Blaze trotted over to where she pointed. She praised him the whole time and then told him to wait. She turned and went to the door, and Blaze immediately began to follow her. In a flash, she whirled and gave with another "Grrrraaarrggghh!" and Blaze froze, staring at her goggle-eyed. After about two more tries--and two more growls--Blaze got the message: stay five feet from the door or else you get a scolding like you used to get from mom.

"Now you try, hon," she said to Her Lovely Self.

Cecilia told HLS to practice clearing her throat, to get a sense of the stomach and throat muscles she'd be using to generate her own growl. HLS is a bit on the quiet side (except when she's yelling at me) so this took some practice.

While she stood there in the hallway, making slight ahem noises, I asked Cecilia if she had any idea what she was saying to our dog. She smiled.

"Oh. sweetie, it doesn't really translate into speech like we know it. It's just to get your dog's attention. It's how the alpha dog speaks to the pack. Once he sees you as the leader and you have his attention, he'll do anything you want. And he's a real smart one, this guy, aren't you Blazey?" she said, gazing at our dog.

But Blaze wasn't looking at Cecilia. He was staring at Her Lovely Self with a cocked ear and that look of growing astonishment as she progressed into lower and lower tones of growling. He had the look of concentration of someone trying to tune in a distant radio station and was only making out half the words.

And then Her Lovely Self seemed to hit his frequency.

"Aherm. Rrrr. Baaaaaahhh. Baaaaaaagggghhh. BAAAAARRGGGH!"

I laughed in spite of myself. My sweet bride sounded like nothing so much as a really pissed-off sheep. The Brownie giggled too, then stopped and pointed. "Look at Blazey!"

Whimpering slightly, Blaze lowered himself to the floor and began to roll over, exposing his underside.

"I think you've got it," said Cecilia. "Look at how submissive he is now."

And then as he rolled completely over, we saw that not quite every part of him was completely submissive.

"BLAZEY HAS A PINK WINKIE!" Brownie shrieked.

I stared at Her Lovely Self. "What did you say to him?!?"

Her Lovely Self eyed Cecilia. "Um. Is that supposed to happen?"

Cecilia laughed and assured us it was just another sign that the dog was, uh, attentive to my wife.

"Okay," HLS said uncertainly. "I just hope I didn't promise anything I can't deliver."

Cecilia practiced with Her Lovely Self for the next half-hour as she trained Blaze to stay away from the door. Then they took him outside and I'll be damned if the dog didn't heel every time my wife made her little aggrieved "baaahhh" noises at him.

The effect on my dog was nothing short of miraculous. He was like a completely different animal. No matter what distracted him--and during the training a rabbit even broke across the yard on front of him--he heeded Her Lovely Self and her aggressive little sheep calls. I have to say, it was cute as hell watching her take command. By the time her session was over, I was ready to roll over on my back whenever I heard her growling "Baaaahhhh!"

"Okay, let's do a quick session with you," Cecilia said, gesturing me over to the front door. No one figured I'd need any practice growling--you should hear me clear my throat in the morning. So I waited while Thomas snuck around to the front door again and rang the bell.

At first Blaze hesitated. But as Thomas rang the crap out of the bell and it became clear that Her Lovely Self wasn't going to say anything, Blaze started for the door.

I stepped towards him and let loose with a very deep, gruff "Grrrraaarrrrrgggghh!"

And Blaze ran right past me, growling and barking all the way to the door.

"Hey!" I called after him. "Didn't you hear me? I said 'Grrrraaaarrrrgggghh!'"

Blaze continued barking. By this time, I was barking too.

And then Her Lovely Self poked her head around the corner and cleared her throat. "Bahhh."

Blaze closed his yap so quickly I heard his jaws click. Then he dropped to the floor and stared back up at Her Lovely Self.

I stared at Cecilia, utterly nonplussed. She smiled and shrugged in a simpering way.

"Sometimes this happens. Blaze is used to you speaking in a deep tone of voice. And if you clear your throat or raise your voice very much--" and here my own children looked at me and nodded in that "Yeah, Dad!" way that kids love to do "--it may not be as effective." Cecilia paused, weighing her next words. "Of course, it may also be that Blaze doesn't really see you as the alpha dog."

"What?!?" I yelped.

Cecilia smiled. "Well, consider who's here most of the day with him, giving the orders and running things."

"Mom," the kids said in unison.

"So what are you saying?" I asked. "That he'll never listen to me?"

"Oh no, sweetie," she said, patting my arm. "You just need to practice until you find a voice he'll listen to."

So for the next week, I cemented my reputation as the neighborhood eccentric, slowly, deliberately walking my dog from street to street, stopping at intervals to get him to sit, or heel or stay, always with plenty of growling. I tried everything. I woofed. I yipped. I even tried the sexy little "bahh" that worked so well for Her Lovely Self. Blaze wasn't having any of it. He barely paid attention to me. Which is more than I can say for my neighbors' kids, many of whom had taken to barking and woofing at me as I walked by.

As is so often the case in my life, it felt like someone was once again having a fine old joke and I was the punchline. It made no sense to me that I couldn't be a dog whisperer just like my wife and, now, half the kids on my street.

"There must be a secret," I said to HLS one night as we sat in bed, reading. "There must be something else to it."

"Nope," she said, staring intently into her magazine. "I just mean it, I guess. And he knows it."

"I mean it. I totally mean it. I want him to mind me!" I protested.

"Not enough," she said matter-of-factly, then turned off the light and rolled over.

"At least I haven't resorted to talking dirty to him," I muttered.

The next day, I took Blaze for a long walk, past a few well-wooded lots where I knew there were tons of rabbits. Cecilia said that it was important to present him with lots of temptations to bark and disobey so I could practice my growl and find the right tone to use.

As we walked, we didn't see any rabbits. But in the distance, prancing around in his yard, was something perhaps just as good.

It was the Mean Dog.

For those of you who read the links in yesterday's entry, you're aware that Mean Dog is Blaze's arch enemy. His owner lets him loose without a leash and Mean Dog uses that freedom to terrorize other dogs and passing children. He and Blaze have tangled many times, including an incident early this summer when the Mean Dog came charging down to our neighborhood and into our yard, resulting in a knock-down drag-out fight of such ferocity I actually had to get the garden hose and spray them both. If Blaze saw him, he never missed a chance to bark and drag himself after the Mean Dog, who still has tooth marks in his stringy flanks from the last ass-whupping Blaze gave him.

Call me foolish, call me desperate to prove myself, but I thought if I could keep Blaze from charging after Mean Dog, I'd would win this battle of the growls.

So we headed up towards the house where the Mean Dog lives. Blaze knew exactly where we were and began pulling on the leash. We were 50 feet from the Mean Dog and he hadn't seen us yet.

Growl with intent, I thought to myself. You have to mean it.

Twenty feet from the yard, Mean Dog snapped to and stared at us. Slowly, but getting faster with every step, he began running towards us. Blaze stiffened and a growl formed in his throat. Mine too.

"Grrrraarrrggghhh!" I muttered. But Blaze wasn't even looking at me.

Mean Dog was closing. Blaze strained at the leash, yelping in that excited please-oh-please-let-me-kick-his-ass way.

"Grrrraaaarrrr-rrrraarrrggg!" I said, adding a syllable for emphasis.

But Blaze couldn't stand it. Mean Dog was out of his yard now and charging down the sidewalk at us. He stopped five or so feet away and began yipping in a taunting way. Blaze's neck bristled and he bolted.

I took my deepest breath and gave it everything I had.


Spittle flew from my lips and snot ran from my nose. I threw in a couple more snorts for good measure.


My growl reverberated off houses. I was growling with intent. I wasn't just the alpha dog. I was the omega dog too, dammit!


The effect was galvanizing. Blaze stopped and stared at me, as though I had just uttered the most obscene epithet in the dog language. Of course, he didn't roll over and act submissive.

But Mean Dog did.

He cowered beneath me, showered by my expectorants. Then he turned slowly and, head down and licking his chops, scuttled back to his porch.

Where his owner was standing.

I've only seen the Jerk Who Lets His Mean Dog Run Free once before, when a neighbor brought his dog back to him and warned him to leash him up or he'd call the cops next time. The Jerk is not a big guy, just an inconsiderate and rude one. He scoffed at my neighbor.

He wasn't scoffing now.

In fact, I can't quite say what he looked like. Not mad certainly. When he spoke, it was with the quiet, uncertain tone of someone addressing a crazy person.

I can't imagine why, though. I was just standing there, breathing heavily through my nose, wiping spittle off my shirt-front. Blaze continued to gaze at me, looking more embarrassed for me than cowed. Which I found infuriating.

"Did--did you just growl at my dog?" the man finally asked.

Still snorting, I turned to face the Jerk across his yard. "That's right!" I called, hopping a little up off the sidewalk as I did. "And if you don't keep him on a leash, next time I'm gonna BITE him!" Then I turned on my heel, gave Blaze's leash a gentle tug, and headed back to our house.

"Baaahhh," I said as an afterthought.

And damn if Blaze didn't finally give me that quizzical look of attention.

I can't say Blaze is a perfect dog now. He still doesn't listen to me all that well, but he does mind Her Lovely Self, and I guess that's what counts.

However, I have noticed that Mean Dog doesn't come into our neighborhood anymore.

I guess you could say he and I are finally speaking the same language.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

EXTRA: For an audioblog of Dr. Doolittle here in action, click on this link.

Maybe if blaze is responding to the "baah" sound it means he's afraid of sheep. You could try wearing a wool sweater next time you take him walking. :)

Seriously, very funny entry, MM. I did growl at a dog myself once when a large dog was attempting to hassle my parents' much smaller dog when I was out taking him for a walk...and the big dog backed down right away!
Dogs crack me up. They always let you know where you stand - very funny story.
Reminds me of that scene in The World According to Garp. Please try to refrain from chewing Mean Dog's ear off.
Cheers! Applause! Whistles! He's baaaaack! That was everything I expected! What a hoot.

Even the dog thinks your wife is hot when she's authoritative!

Definitely sidebar worthy.
That's the best thing I"ve read all week!! Congratulations on taming the Mean Dog...I'm sure Blaze will follow suit eventually.
I bet if you had a female dog it would be different...

That is great that you were able to defeat the MEAN DOG... Congrats

and again as always a great story...
MM, you've GOT to do a video blog on this one. Hilarious! :-)
I was chuckling outloud when I got to the part about the Mean Dog. Gotta say, I did see that coming (only because it just seems to be the way things happen for you), but still very funny read.
You *are* the storyteller.

I would so love to hear you barking like a dog. Holy crap.

I think I'm happiest about that neighbor getting put in his place!
This is one of those times when you really have to include an audio recording for the readers.

But anyway, this is one of the funniest things I've read on a blog in a long time. I'll have to try growling at my dog now...
when people would comment on how my parents' dog wasn't exactly the most obedient of creatures, my father's standard response was: "my daughters don't listen to me, why should the dog" -- maybe he should try your technique! (with the dog, not us)
My parents used a dog whisperer to train Ripley the wonder-dog (an extraordinarily hyper German Shorthaired Pointer). His name was Vladimir and he said the dog's name, "Reeeeeepleeeeee". He was literally the only person the dog ever minded.

Love the visual of you making dog noises. Fabulous.
Okay. I just attempted several times to communicate with my beagle, Duke. Quite loudly. Husband asked what the hell I was doing. Duke just brought me his toy.
After your success, however, I might just try it with the neighbor's dog.
Oh my GOODNESS. We need an AUDBLOG of this post!
that's amazing...almost fell off my chair at the snort!
My dog never listened to her name, but if you made a low growl in your throat without opening your mouth she would stop dead.
A classic!

Yes, audio blog. Oh please. Pretty please!

First you can try, then hand the phone to HLS who will demonstrate how it's really done... hee hee.
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