His Master's Voice
The other morning I had the occasion to stumble bedward around 7:00 AM. This is not unusual: I stumble many directions (often at the same time) and find myself creatively productive during normally accepted somnolent hours – less external distraction, higher output. I tend to work to the point of semi-consciousness, which is a fairly efficient stumbling enhancer, so when I hit the welcoming confines of Club Bed, I sleep pretty quickly. Quick sleep.
Well, unless I’m contacted by Riley or any of his vocal cohorts. Riley lives next door and when his master leaves for work, he shares his disdain at being a slave in a most audible manner. Riley barks. Riley is an Australian sheep-herder (heard, er?). As there are no longer any Australians about, nor any evidence of sheep (I’ve checked Ewe Tube – nothing), Riley has nothing to do.
So he barks. Now don’t get me wrong, Riley isn’t the only offender – I’ve got dogs on all three sides of me. And even though they have no idea what their counterparts look like or smell like, they all know the sound of each other’s voices. As doggedlies are wont to do, one will get going at some imaginary menace or another and before you know it, all of the crotch-licking little bastards are chiming in.
Which is a treat a 7:00 in the AM – crawling into bed when most people are getting up and crawling back into life. It’s positively uncanny: he knows whenever I’m about to record vocals or the instant I settle into bed. Yap. Yap, yap. As I lay there, head swimming with exhaustion and none too distant yapping I came to understand something: why dogs bark.
Of course the askance looks and condescending clucks, “Everybody knows why dogs bark – I’m missing America’s Got Talent for this?” And of course you’re not. I feel fairly secure that anyone predisposed to AGT wouldn’t be reading this in the first place, and that if they did, they would read it in the second place – at best. The pixelated word claims no primacy in the realm of the pixelated image. I’ll wait my turn. Ruff, ruff.
Beyond warning or establishing proximity, dogs in the wild (wolves, coyotes etc.) have little reason to bark. As they have no known language, they have little to say to each other beyond the tonal inflections they use to express joy, displeasure or distress. Canines are not historically noted for their oratorical prowess, though I’ve known a howler or two that would give Rihanna a run for her money. A deep growl doesn’t necessarily suggest deep thinking.
Hunters function more effectively in silence owing to the reduced probability of scaring prey away. Beyond confounding or driving dinner to a desired location, barking is a screaming give away, and one imagines a yapper being driven from the pack out of survival necessity. And to diminish annoyance. Us yappy types find ourselves marginalized fairly quickly.
It seemed to me in my doggy fog that canines probably didn’t get into barking until they started hanging around with humans. Barking offers decent menace to interlopers, growling even more so, and was likely encouraged in situations of peril by the tribes which were domesticated by them. Come on, they don’t feed us, or shelter us; just make us feel they appreciate it when we do it for them. Domestication is a two way street with often faded lines of demarcation.
In order to domesticate something, a level of communication is useful – if humans couldn’t express their desires or needs to each other, one imagines it doubly difficult to express it to an animal. Or field of wheat. And long before written logos, the grunt of early human became refined into words, then abstract expression of deeper significance, as ideas were shared and expanded upon. To build cities, even lesser encampments, ancient human needed fairly precise language to engage in engineering and architecture.
Dogs dig holes. They lay around and lick their butts and genitals. People think it would ever so exciting to talk to the animals. People get bored talking to people who do interesting things, lead interesting lives. Trust me, I know this. Dogs lick their asses. I’m sure their view on the issues of the day would be fascinating. “You know, my butt kinda tastes like dog food…”
Right. So, these animals with really nothing to say, no language to speak of and, being domesticated, really not much to do, spend hours of their days telling us about it. I listened to Riley that morning, as I have many mornings, and I realized he wasn’t barking to ward off any intruder – hell, most yappers would flee at the sight of one. He was talking the talk of an idiot, a creature with no appreciable intelligence convinced that others revel in their vocalization.
Now before I dig myself in too deep with this dog/human relationship, allow me to express: I have been master to many doggy slaves. As much as we love our little canine buddies (and imagine they love us) they exist as slaves to our dominion. They suppress their free will, or have it suppressed by another, exist in captivity, have identification papers held by their owner and have their movement completely dictated from without. Slaves.
And that’s fine. Humans have always embraced slavery and with pets our need to dominate is fulfilled as well our need to feel benevolent. “Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?” Yeah, benevolent slavers. “Yeah Massa, I’ll get your slippers for ya real good…Cracker asshole…Fucking kibble my ass…”
I’ve loved me a good number of dogs, convinced myself they loved me and buried every one of the little fuckers. (Actually, I think my final dog, Juno, resides in a can with my ex. Well her ashes anyway.) They aren’t great for long term relationships. 10, 12 years, then weepyville.
As humans, we tend to ascribe human feelings and emotions to the things we covet. That’s why we have such jealousy – we decide that our feelings are universal and the revelation that they aren’t is often devastating. To people. We attach so much to words, which is funny as we play so fast and loose with them. We become utterly indignant if someone close to us uses words we don’t approve of – if they lie to us.
Then we’ll turn right around and accept the words of people who have revealed themselves as liars if they say something we wish to hear. Is it not odd how a person we know to be mendacious or disingenuous becomes believable when they tell us we’re right, or that we look ‘fabulous’? Or how a person of dubious character who suggests a way to make a bunch of money, quick – no risk – becomes worthy of consideration? (Remember that when someone says no risk that you likely know risk.)
We clearly love the sound of the human voice. Talking, singing, humming, shouting, even screaming; we are utterly enamored with the human sound. And no sound/voice more than our own. We talk about anything, we talk about nothing. We talk to ourselves in a room full of people and to a room full of people when we’re by ourselves. We talk to strangers in line, to strangers behind counters, strangers who bring us things we’ve ordered.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that virtually every human who has a pet, talks to it as well. And not just saying “Sit. Shake. Roll over. Shut the fuck up!” I suspect that the vast majority of pet owners talk to their pets as if their pets can somehow understand them. Every one I’ve ever known (including myself) has. Dogs, cats, birds (not fish so much): pet owners talk to their pets like they talk to other people.
Curious how some people talk to them like they are children – in early childhood toddlers and dogs are about equally stupid – and others (my discipline) talk to them as they talk to adults. (I talk to children that way as well.) We talk to our dogs (and otherlings) about stuff we would talk about with people, if they were there. They become our surrogate warm-blooded contact, the only ones we can be sure won’t reveal the secrets we tell them. Our nasty little secrets.
We are safe in this because dogs don’t speak human. Sure, there are those that bark things that sound like words, but this is equal in significance to saying “Spurlank!” is Martian for something or another. As we have no workable context for a language that doesn’t exist, dogs have no context for language that does, beyond understanding the repercussions and rewards for performing certain actions upon certain commands. Dogs have no corresponding words for “Sit” “Shake” or “Shut the fuck up!”. How could they? They have no verbal language. They respond to tonal inflection and conditioning in captivity or tonal inflection and instinct in the wild.
It seemed to me, lying there trying to sleep, that what we hear from dogs, they hear from us.
Talking is articulated grunting. We force air out our oral blow-hole and shape it with our tongue and lips. Before we (as a species) spoke, we grunted. After developing languages, based upon regionally (familial) approved grunting, we spoke and grunted. Fortunately, we augmented our grunting instead of replacing it. Now we reserve grunting for difficult tasks, expressions of disapproval and sex, all of which we incorporate into talking as well. Sex, often with lots of talking beforehand, considerable grunting during, then not enough talking afterwards, 4 or 5 minutes later.
While humans can understand expressions of affection, (“Well, that was terrific,” and the always popular “Whadda ya mean 150 bucks?!?”) dogs, it seems reasonable to presume, just hear little barking, grunting sounds. Again, they are masterful at tonal inflection, but that is not linguistically based as proven by the universality of understanding offered by the subtle nuance of a deep menacing growl or advancing guttural bark.
When we talk to our dogs, I imagine they hear something akin to, “Yarf arf barf parf darf carf larf.” They are very adept at appearing thoroughly engrossed in our dialogue, but just as explaining quantum physics to a three month-old baby is pointless beyond the release that comes of blathering, bitching to Skippy about some loser at work is only cathartic to you, where not amusing to Skippy. He’s frankly more interested in what’s in the bag.
Dogs make so much noise when we’re away because their masters make so much noise when they’re together. Dogs living with humans who talk to them become convinced that talking to one’s self is perfectly rational behavior. And while stupid by human comparison (sadly becoming less so, and dogs ain’t getting smarter), any pet knows that the upright hairless ape that’s chattering at it is just chattering. A dog can’t understand it. A cat? Sorry. They don’t speak human. They are animals. They don’t know what a ‘chair’ is, just that they get screeched at when they get caught on it.
So with the dumb animal knowing the smart animal couldn’t possibly be talking to it owing to complete lack of understanding, the dumb animal must think the smart animal is talking (chattering) to itself. It is. Just not smart enough to understand that language is context based and animals operate from a different context from humans. So the dumb animal, beyond responding to commands as any slave would, thinks that smart, masterful animals talk to themselves.
So dogs talk to themselves. And each other. They yap yap yap and ramble away just like humans, blathering just to hear the sound of their own voices. And just like humans, very little they express is really understood. The joy, the disappointment, the menace: this we all understand to a degree. We possess the capacity for empathy, something dogs are masterful at. As they aren’t caught up in words, they immediately understand temperament, emotion, fear.
Our words mess us up. We get so caught up in trying to position ourselves well in conversation (made competitive like everything else in imperial politics) that we lose our capacity to truly care about what each other is feeling, what drives the expression. Competitive conversation makes us cold and aloof, like dogs barking at things they can’t see, or at each other, “Stay away. I’m rough! Rough! Ruff, ruff!!”
Sadly this is what our discourse has degraded to, our grand language languishing, the price of letting jocks dictate social policy and imbeciles define social discourse. We bark orders, snap at each other and growl under our breath like dogs being stupid, but never shut up and listen like dogs we imagine as smart enough to understand us do when we talk to them. They understand our feelings because they understand us. Just not our words.
Now when I have my special moments with Riley, I know what he’s really thinking, “I’m Ruff! Bird on Roof! Shut yer Yap!”