Several times a week, Mary Ann's soprano words will spiral up the stairs to my second floor aerie where I hibernate with my cranky word processor. "I couldn't hear you!" I'll shout downstairs. "Never mind," she'll answer in a louder voice, "I'm talking to Ticker." Ticker is our English springer who has been brought up in the English language, but I am still surprised that she seems to understand most of the words in general conversation. That may be a stretch, but I am convinced I'm right. Even when this sort of episode is repeated without any special emphasis on her words, Mary Ann continues to chatter away with Ticker and Mocha the cat. When the words from another room drift around my head, I wonder if I am supposed to respond or assume Mary Ann is still talking to the dog or the cat.
Most of the time, I will answer just for safety's sake. I don't want Mary Ann to think I am ignoring her. Since I am usually in the next room when I face this situation, I cannot observe Mary Ann's body language. Perhaps she signals her words in a subtle fashion, but I pick up no indication that she is communicating with Ticker and Mocha using anything but her voice. There may be some connection with the hour of the day. For instance, when Mary Ann utters the word dinner and makes a peculiar "tch-tch" sound, Mocha heads for the cellar stair door behind which Mary Ann has placed a plate of dinner. That makes more sense.
Then, there are the times when I'll talk about going for a walk, sometimes even whispering the word, as if I might sneak away alone for a walk along the empty beach without having to keep Ticker from dashing into the water and across Vineyard Haven Harbor. No, she understands enough to place herself at the back door before I can get on my coat. Ticker loves the car and makes every effort to go with us, whoever is driving. If anyone mentions the word "car" she will be waiting in the drive to open the door for us. To the contrary, if we have an appointment with the vet for the cat, Mocha runs outside and disappears unless we get the carrier ready long beforehand. She often misbehaves and tries to scratch the doctor when she is lifted to the exam table.
As I grow older, I have fallen into the habit of taking Ticker into my confidence and pouring out my soul to her, even on occasion sharing a few tears. I always feel better after a session like this with Ticker and she usually tries to lick my face in recompense although I can certainly do without that bit of misplaced affection.
What does Ticker think about all of this? The vet tells us that dogs do not have an emotional life or long memory for this kind of behavior. Mary Ann and I both suspect the training of vets has lacked a large component of dog reality.
Ticker is always alert on her walks with me. I can tell as we pass a small oak grove that she is saying, "This is good squirrel country. If I try harder this time, I'll bring you dinner."
"Leave it!" I say sternly. This bit of advice she seldom heeds, but so far she has not proved fast enough to catch my dinner. She speaks to the crow at the West Chop Light Station. That crow appears every morning and says hello from the high wire and then stops as we walk out of range. We do not share a language with crows, but we do understand their pleasure and displeasure - pleased, it remains on the wire, displeased it falls through the air in an aimless maneuver to scare us away from the carrion lying in our path.
Today, Ticker has appeared beside my typing chair making soft mewing sounds, somewhat akin to a horse's neighing at pianissimo without its body language. At 4:05 pm exactly, Ticker is asking for her afternoon run and ball-retrieving exercise. How do I know? This is a daily occurrence. Nothing will calm her until I reach into the dog box for one or two discolored tennis balls and we are off to the yard for a sore arm made worse for me and her physical conditioning kept sound. I have tried at least a dozen alternatives, including food, petting, scratching, and harsh vocal noises without effect. I can guarantee that the moment I leave the desk, head for the stairs and grouse under my breath, she will be waiting at the kitchen door. I could almost say with her hat and coat on, but that will be stretching anyone's imagination beyond the limit. I am sure I will return down our road one day to find Ticker, looking as proud as she can be, sitting quietly beside Mocha on our deck guarding three squirrels stretched out in relaxation on the top step.