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Author of Mer le’s Door
in the time of the big light
It was also during this long light-ﬁlled time that Pukka learned something else, something that I wished he hadn’t learned. He learned to bark, and not merely in surprise, but avidly, frequently, and, as he got bigger, with a bawling sonorous bay that rattled every window in the house and sounded far more like a hound’s voice than a Lab’s. His learning to bark did not happen incrementally. It happened over the space of one weekend. I had gone to my niece’s wedding in Chicago and had left him for three days with the Landales and Buck, who, among his many shining virtues, has one fault: he barks uproariously when someone comes to the door. It doesn’t matter if he knows you; it doesn’t matter if you’re a family member; it doesn’t matter if he has just seen you only a few minutes before. He believes that people coming to the door must be announced. I am certain that in a previous life he was a town crier. Before I left for Chicago, Pukka’s reaction to someone coming to the house had been to walk to the door quietly, wag his tail, and wait for it to open. But on the day after my return, when the UPS man delivered a package, Pukka leapt to his feet and roared his head off. Although this was a wonderful conﬁrmation of the many scientiﬁc experiments showing that dogs learn best by observing other dogs, I was hardly pleased to have the very proof before my eyes or, more accurately, my ears. I don’t like barking dogs, or rather, I don’t like dogs who can’t distinguish between the UPS man and a burglar. Even when faced with such a potential threat, dogs can use methods just as effective as barking, if not more so, to let their people know danger is nigh. Subdued and considered warnings, however, aren’t what the majority of humans have reinforced over the ages, or at least they haven’t reinforced them since the time when hunter-gatherers became farmers and herders. As a farmer or herder, you wanted to know if a leopard was slinking toward your cattle or if thieves were about to steal your chickens. A barking dog was very useful in these situations. On the other hand, as a hunter-gatherer, you kept no livestock and owned almost nothing but your weapons. You were more interested in learning what animal was slinking toward you in the night rather than scaring
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it away. After all, it could be a juicy oryx or a big fat water buffalo — a windfall of protein with very little investment of energy on your part. In such cases, you wanted your dog to be silent and to tell you about who was approaching in some other way besides barking: perhaps no more than an undercurrent of breath murmured in your ear, or a nudge of its snout against your shoulder, or the dancing of its eyes and the pointing of its nose, all mannerisms Merle had employed to let me know that elk were nearby. Villagers, in other words, wanted alarm and bluff; hunter-gatherers wanted silence and observation. Merle, having grown up in the desert partly on his own, among coyotes and herders with guns, knew all about the wisdom of silence. Pukka, with little danger in his life, and also with what I considered poor canine role models, needed schooling. So began over a year of trying to convince Pukka that our house needed neither a security system nor a town crier. It was a task made especially difficult because of how much peer reinforcement Pukka was getting for barking. Buck was not the only barker. A.J. barked, and Burley barked, and Goo barked, too. They barked at people walking across the ﬁeld; they barked at the UPS man, the FedEx woman, the Lower Valley Energy man, bicyclists whom they didn’t recognize, and wandering deer and coyotes. Given how much they barked, it’s surprising that Pukka didn’t start barking until he spent a weekend at Buck’s, a circumstance that may have had to do with his admiration for Buck and his leeriness of A.J. and his crew. The initial instigators in all this barking, as far as I could tell, were two American Black and Tan Coonhounds who lived on the east side of Kelly, chained to two telephone wire spools by their person, a teenage boy in love with hunting mountain lions. The telephone wire spools were turned on their sides and doors had been cut in them, creating little kennels, and night and day, summer and winter, the two hounds were chained to their small shelters, unless they were out hunting lions, which wasn’t often. Bored out of their minds, and wildly jealous of every dog in the village who had its freedom and walked by them, the hounds bayed endlessly in frustration, hour upon hour, while the teenager was in school. I had spoken to the boy, offering to keep his hounds at my house with the other dogs during the day. “You couldn’t let those dogs off a chain,” he said ﬂatly. “They’d kill
in the time of the big light
a cat” — he meant a house cat — “just like that. Besides, they’ll just run away.” So the dogs bayed on and on, and one afternoon I walked down the road and across the creek, upset at what I was hearing in their baying. It wasn’t merely frustration; it was pleading: “We want to play with the other dogs. Let us off our chains.” No one was home — the dogs didn’t bay when their people were at home — and the two coonhounds erupted when they saw me approach. Leaping against their chains, they rushed me, bawling at the top of their lungs and looking ferocious. Their vicious behavior was why everyone in the village gave them a wide berth. But they weren’t growling in the least. I knelt before them and said, “Oh, you poor buggers. You just want to play, don’t you?” I made some kissing noises with my mouth, and the bigger dog, the male, pricked his ears, looked at me carefully, and then did a play-bow. Putting my hands on the ground, I play-bowed back to him. He wagged his tail exuberantly, and edging closer I cupped my palm low before him and let him smell it. He wagged his tail even harder; I stroked his chest; a few moments later he turned on his back and let me rub his belly, wagging his tail fervently. I would have taken both of them home right then and there, but they were not my dogs. Around the world, dogs are still property, and I could have been prosecuted for stealing them, even though people are rarely prosecuted for treating a living being as these two dogs were being treated, chained night and day, eighty degrees in the summer, twenty below zero in the winter. The recent passing of anti-tethering legislation in some municipalities may ﬁnally bring this deplorable practice to an end. The teenager left for college and took his hounds with him, but the damage to Kelly’s dog culture had been done. There had been no barking dogs in Merle’s time, in those halcyon days no dogs being perpetually chained. Now, having heard the chained coonhounds baying, A.J., Burley, and Goo decided that barking might not be a bad idea. Instead of being a passive observer, a barking dog could make things happen: he could make people move away; he could keep them at bay (baying dogs themselves having put this far-reaching idiom into the language); and, if the person was a dog lover, a barking dog could make that person kneel and talk to him sweetly, asking what was wrong, as I had done with the coonhounds. In all three cases, the dog was noticed,
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not ignored, and up and down the main road of the village dogs began to bark. With this much peer pressure, it was enormously difficult to convince Pukka that I knew better than all of his buddies and that he alone among them should be silent. But I didn’t want to live with a barking dog, and so I tried to teach him not to bark. In fact, I tried every technique I could ﬁnd in the training manuals. I tried diverting him with other behavior — having him sit, for instance. Pukka soon learned to sit and bark simultaneously. I tried having him sit while feeding him raw elk burger for not barking, and I soon discovered that a dog can sit, eat raw elk, and resume barking all at the same time — at least Pukka could, strangled though his barks were. I tried the “going ballistic” technique, as some training manuals call it — yelling at the top of my lungs, “No barking!” This certainly frightened poor little Pukka, but had no lasting effect upon him except to make me feel despicable. Yelling is not my style — had it been, I might have lived happily with a barking dog — and I abandoned the going ballistic technique after a couple of attempts. I also found the offshoot of this advice — strike the dog sharply across its muzzle with an index ﬁnger — beyond the pale and did not so demean Pukka or myself. I tried talking to him sweetly, kneeling by his side, putting an arm around his shoulders, and saying, “You really don’t need to bark like those other dogs. It’s unnecessary and raises your blood pressure.” Hearing A.J., Burley, and Goo barking from across the ﬁeld, he would tremble, rumbling in his throat, and the instant I would stand up from our tête-à-tête, he would join them in barking. I tried giving him timeouts in the bathroom. He would remember them for an hour or so and then resume his barking. I bought two bark boxes, which emit a highpitched sound that dogs supposedly don’t like, and placed them at the front door and at the sliding glass door, where Pukka habitually would bark. Within two days, he learned to walk ﬁfty feet beyond each box and bark. When I placed the small rectangular black box on his collar, as it was meant to be placed, he was dismayed, but quickly adapted. He began to woof, just loud enough not to set the collar off. This was a step in the right direction, but hardly a solution. I didn’t want to live with someone who was constantly grumbling under his breath. At last the dog who began Pukka’s barking career helped me to end it. One afternoon I was watching Buck and Pukka play. Buck was lying on Pukka’s bed, where they had been mouthing each other and crying
in the time of the big light
out in delighted playful yelps. After a while, Buck grew tired of the game. Not so Pukka. He leapt at Buck and backed off, and when he got no response he pawed at Buck’s face, then bit his ears, Buck yowling in high-pitched annoyance, almost a plea, “Please stop. I’m trying to rest.” This only fueled Pukka’s exuberance: more biting, more pawing, more lunging, until Buck moved his head sharply against Pukka’s face, not striking him with his eyeteeth, but rumbling furiously in his throat: “GRRRRR! Stop it!” Instantly, Pukka backed off and lay down a few feet away. That’s all Buck had to do — emit one deep menacing “GRRRRR!” — and Pukka left him alone. I considered what I had just seen and ﬁled it away. Buck went home, Pukka had his dinner, and in a bit A.J., Burley, and Goo broke into a fusillade of barks when a cyclist went by. Pukka leapt up from the ﬂoor where he had been napping and raced out the dog door to join them, bawling, “AwRooo! AwRooo! Danger! Alert! Scramble for action!” Flinging open the door, I rushed after him, fell to all fours alongside him, put my cheek against his head, and said, “No barking.” Then I growled dramatically, “GRRRRR!” His shoulders fell. His tail went between his legs. He ducked his head and whined, pawing my face submissively and trying to lick me on the mouth. “We don’t bark here,” I said. “It’s pointless. It’s unnecessary. It disturbs the peace. And it hurts my ears.” He looked at me. “Grrrrr,” I added. He pressed his head against my shoulder: “Oh, please don’t growl at me.” “I won’t have to, if you don’t bark,” I replied sternly. Cowed, he lowered his head. Suddenly I saw his eyes brighten with an idea. Rushing through the dog door, he disappeared for about ten seconds before bursting back outside. He had a bone in his mouth. It was the one I had given to him at midday, and it was still ﬁlled with marrow. I had remained on all fours, and Pukka now leaned his shoulder against my upper arm and gently pressed the bone to my lips. His eyes looked into mine and said, “I’m sorry, and here’s my bone to prove it.” It’s difficult to be upset with a dog, and a young dog at that, who has developed such a reﬁned sense of statecraft. I had spoken to him in Dog, and he had responded in kind, making reparations with the greatest treasure he owned, his still-juicy bone. Taking it from him,
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I said, “Thank you, Pukka. It’s a lovely bone.” I sniffed it. “Mmm, it really is. And I’m touched that you would give it to me. Apology accepted, and please have it back.” I handed it to him, and demurely he took it. And that was that. I won’t say that he no longer barked. But getting down on my hands and knees and growling at him — talking Dog to him — worked better than anything else over a period of months to make him a quieter dog. He had his relapses, to be sure, but more often than not, when Goo, A.J., and Burley barked, Pukka would sit on the deck, rumbling softly in his throat as he gazed across the ﬁ “No barking,” I would remind him quietly. Another soft rumble: “I’m not barking, I’m rumbling.” And this, it proved, was his negotiated settlement with me: I was his person, but he had his peers — the canine culture surrounding him — and he would split the difference between the two of us.