Scenes from a dog’s breakfastGEORGE JONAS
My wife’s dog, a black Labrador named Holly, sits at my feet in the kitchen.
"You sound just like my grandmother, may she rest in peace," I say to her. "What's bugging you?"
This is just for show. I know what's bugging Holly. It's Maya and her clattering machines. The black Lab hates them. The treadmill and the elliptical are noisy, and they intrude on Holly's walking time. If it weren't for that obnoxious equipment in the home gym, Maya could be dangling Holly's leash by now.
"Don't be like that," I say to Holly, just to needle her. "Your mistress needs the exercise."
Even as I utter them, I know my words will aggravate things. They do. Holly immediately sits up and looks back at me, the picture of pained indignation.
"Oh, yeah?" she says. "And taking the dog for a walk isn't exercise? I don't clatter enough for her, I suppose …"
Holly knows her name, of course, but refers to herself only as "the dog." It's logical, because that's how she hears us referring to her, as in, for instance: "Did you let the dog out?" All pets respond to their names, but as a certified working dog, Holly knows the name of her street. She knows the names of several streets. She knows without fail when she's the subject of a conversation.
"You mean, she understands English?" someone asked once. Well, no, it doesn't mean that; it means she understands when people talk about her. The two aren't the same. If people talked about her in Turkish she'd probably understand that, too, even though Turkish is Greek to her. Hidden in the ineluctable mist of great canine mysteries are all the things Holly knows and we don't.
In the morning, as I flip the switch under the coffee pot and glance back at the doorway, I'll hear a quiet "Any breakfast for the dog?" before I see a black muzzle enter the frame and stop politely so as not to crowd me. Holly knows that I want my space first thing in the morning. She won't intrude on it, but a girl needs her breakfast, and well-trained as I may be, reminding me can't hurt. So she's just a muzzle in the doorway and the rhythmic thump of a wagging tail hitting the doorpost, until the unmistakable sound of kibble being poured into a dish brings the rest of a 70-pound Lab into evidence, with a positive twinkle in her eyes. "Ah, a dog's breakfast," is what the caption would say, if it were a cartoon, but it isn't. It's just a regular morning in Holly's kitchen.
Holly is a service animal from California, brought into the household almost three years ago to ease into retirement another black Lab, Daisy of blessed memory, who was a service animal from New Jersey. A guide dog by training, Holly's job is to help Maya who can't see, just as Daisy did before, except as Daisy got old she couldn't see too well herself, giving new meaning to the expression "the blind leading the blind." But even when she could no longer see well, after years of guiding Maya, Daisy knew where all the shops were and could show them to Holly.
"Shops are no problem," I heard Daisy explain to Holly once. "They have dog cookies, always smell the same, and hardly ever move. Once you figure out where they are, you can find them even after you don't see very well. It's the cars that are a pain. Instead of staying put, they're always somewhere else. The car that almost collected us today, I swear to you, yesterday it wasn't there at all!"
Daisy thought that she and Holly were a good team because Daisy knew all about the shops, so it didn't matter so much if Holly wasn't sure, whereas Holly, being young, had no trouble seeing cars. It seemed like a perfect division of labour, letting life go on forever, but it turned out to be an illusion. Daisy is still with us, but on the bookshelf in a green jar. Holly kept looking for her for a couple of months, less and less frequently. Now she isn't looking anymore.
Holly sits with me in the kitchen these days, while Maya is running her heart out in the basement. Once in a while she will raise her head from my slipper and emit a little half-bark, to ward off some imaginary threat. Woof! "What's ailing you?" I say to her. "I can't believe you didn't hear it," she answers. "It was a noise, as plain as anything. It's gone now because the dog barked. You're safe. See, it's not a waste of kibble. Where would you be without the dog?"
George Jonas. "Scenes from a dog's breakfast." National Post, (Canada) September 21, 2011.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
Copyright © 2011 National Post
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