Talking Dogs

, Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A few years ago I read a novel called Dogs of Babel. It's about a linguistics professor who tries to teach his dog to speak so he can hear an eyewitness account of his wife's death which only the dog witnessed. We kind of did the same thing with Marco, but instead of trying to get him to actually say things, we said the things he might want to say using a voice he might have used if he could talk. In this way we gave him a personality that evolved over time. Sometimes he'd be sassy, sometimes sweet. We found it advantageous at times to say things we ourselves wanted to say, but using the "dog's" voice as if it was actually the dog talking. In particular, this came in handy for mild insults. Insults like, "You stink." But Marco had a bit of a speech impediment, so the insult would come out sounding more like, "You steent." Hurling insults using the dog's voice allowed the human who actually muttered the sounds to remain blameless.

Marco liked to tell us stories about his life. At times these stories seemed hardly credible, but how can you argue with a talking dog? After Marco finished up his puppy kindergarten class, he became an instructor of puppy kindergarten himself. Or so he told us. He'd tell stories about his day and about which puppies were successfully learning their lessons. There were Spree and Oreo, who were average students. There was Alexandra, who was a Golden Retriever like Marco and therefore extremely intelligent. Byron was a wealthy black Standard Poodle who lived on a farm. When Marco was unable to go to work he hired a substitute teacher named Casey, also a Golden Retriever.

After teaching puppy kindergarten for 2 sessions, Marco decided to move on and get more education himself. You may find this hard to believe, I did too at times, but Marco's rich friend Byron actually financed an education for Marco at Harvard University. It sounds like an unreasonable commute from Winona, but Marco always managed to beat me home from work thanks to his pink flying suit. Byron bought that for him. Apparently he was a brilliant student at Harvard, taking classes like water aerobics, film appreciation, keyboarding, and pottery. He had an active extracurricular life playing the upright bass and the triangle in a jazz band.

In the beginning I was reluctant to use a voice for Marco. It seemed degrading that a human personality should be attributed to a dog. I was reluctant to misread the actual dog personality by substituting a human personification. But I had grown up doing this with our dog Missy and gave in to the temptation. I lagged behind with the impediments and inflections of his speech that would develop around the breakfast table while I was at work, but I caught on to that, too.

Marco understood the connection between himself and the voice that we claimed to be his, and would often come into the room if we were talking in "his" voice. "What am I saying," we'd speak in his voice when he came around to listen. Things got even more confusing when Marco would actually argue with himself, one person speaking one side of the argument and another taking the other side in his same voice.

It's hard to break the habit of Marco's voice now that he's gone. When he was still alive, though, he could speak to us even if he wasn't with us. So his death doesn't stop him either. His topics have changed though. Now he does the talking for Perry. He seems to have the inside connection to Perry's soul and offers us Perry's thoughts like, "Perry feents (read thinks) you steent."

I'm sure we'll continue to hear from Marco, but over time I bet Perry will develop his own voice. His personality will surely be different. It is obvious that he is a different dog in many ways. Perry's actual voice, the one he really uses himself, is quite expressive. When he's waking up in the mornings he grunts and sighs. When he yawns he sounds like Fozzie Bear. It may turn out that he won't need our human voices speaking for him at all. This morning when I was getting him out of his crate he yawned and the sound that came out of his mouth was, no lie, "Tom."


  1. Margaret said...

    Dis awticull is wid not too steenty. I white da way it tot about Mey a wot. Oh -- and Pewwy wants to doe ah-side.

  2. sessa123 said...

    I's ALL greek to me!! I know a joke about a talking dog, but I've NEVER gotten a dog to laugh when I tell it to one of them. Maybe they just don't understand OUR accents??

  3. Tom Smart said...

    Marco's favorite joke was to act repulsed and say, "Your butt stinks." Then for the punch line he would sniff it happily.

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