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Have a Dog? "Speak"!

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I just assumed everyone did it. To me, it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. And yet, I can recall that first time someone told me they thought that I was mad. It was nearly 30 years ago and I was living on an Air Force base in the middle of the corn and soybean fields of Illinois. I was hanging my newly washed laundry out on the line to dry as I talked to my friend Louie – oh, and yes, Louie was my dog. My next-door neighbor walked over to me, laughing as she spoke, and told me that she and her husband frequently "got a kick out of the fact" that I talked to my dog all the time, almost as if he was a person. I smiled back at her, I probably even chuckled, just to be polite, but I didn't really understand what was so absurd about talking to Louie. As she walked away, I couldn't stop thinking about it – I still haven't.

Our first duty station was at Chanute Air Force Base, a base that has long since been closed. I was a young woman adjusting to military life in a new marriage and a new state. This little Brittany Spaniel/Border Collie mix quickly became the light of my life. That's not to say he couldn't be the bane of my existence as well. Between his non-stop energy level, his Houdini-worthy escapes, and his ability to chew my house - or at least everything within his reach - to shreds in only the time it took me to go the grocery and back, my daily challenges were many, but through it all, Louie was most definitely my friend. He slept in our bed, he rode in our car, and he kept me company so why wouldn't I talk to him?

One of my favorite Gary Larson cartoons is the one that shows a man talking away to his dog, but all his dog understands, beyond her own name is "blah, blah, blah". I know that's true for the most part. I'll even stop myself and hug my dogs as I laugh at their sweet, but puzzled expressions as they try hard to grasp a recognizable word here or there, but I also believe they understand more than we realize. And in addition to those random words, I strongly believe we both gain from the interaction.

Louie's been gone for many years now, but I've talked to every dog I've had since and my husband does the same. No, I can't say that we have any meaningful conversations, and no, I don't expect any answers, but our dogs are members of our family and I've always believed speaking to our dogs can only serve to reinforce that bond. If you speak to your dogs in a calm, affectionate voice, they know how you feel about them and will return that affection just as screaming and shouting at them would make them fearful or angry. Wouldn't it do the same for you? Dogs are intelligent animals, don't sell them short. They know what makes them happy, sad, fearful, or angry. Our voices and body language go a long way to telling animals everything they need to know about us. Yes, dogs need guidance and it is important they know who is in charge, but they also need to know who to trust as well. We strengthen families through communication and both communication and families take many forms.

I can only imagine how boring our lives with dogs would be if we restricted our discourse to "no", "come", "sit", "stay", or "bad dog". I have four dogs right now so I can't say those words are never uttered, but our human/canine "conversations" tend to be more along the lines of "What in the world did you get on your head?", "Pinecones do not belong in the house!" or, "Nora, quit dragging Max through the dirt." But there are also bath time conversations, "Nick, are you going to get in the tub by yourself or are we going to have a showdown?" or dinnertime conversations, "Minx, I am not giving you anything different than the others, if you don't eat, you're going to find yourself hungry in the morning!" Do the dogs understand every word? Of course not, but do they mind us when push comes to shove? Well, usually. Do they know they are loved and safe here? You bet they do.

Louie was only a few months short of 17 when my husband and I sat on our back deck and began talking to him, nonstop. Louie, just like every other beloved dog who has shared our lives since, passed away to the sound of a familiar voice calming and comforting him, thanking him for his friendship and telling him over and over that we loved him more than we could express. I have no doubt in my mind that he knew.

So now, when someone looks at me funny at the way I talk to my dogs, I just smile. I occasionally think about my next door neighbor in Illinois, but I no longer wonder what was so absurd about my old conversations with Louie because now I know. Nothing. Nothing at all.

The picture at the top of the page was taken in 1993 after the move to Washington. It's of Louie and the writer's husband having just one conversation of many.