I talked to my dog when at home as there was no one else to talk to anyway.
“That’ll be for me Leo,” when the phone rang and it usually was. His friends didn’t phone anyway, they called in. He understood, he had me well organised, after all it had been nearly fifteen years and to a dog that’s a long time. The equivalent of about 90 human years and he realised he had to make concessions and indulge a younger bloke like me.
People who say animals are dumb are dumb themselves. Anyone who has a pet knows they communicate; it’s just a matter of patience and observation to understand their language. There are many people sillier than some dogs.
Everywhere I went with Leo he made friends, though it’s a wonder he didn’t get one of us into trouble. He kept forgetting to take his lead when going into town but if I remembered and tried to clip it to his collar he’d grab it and race off, gripping it resolutely. Even when I managed to attach it he insisted upon walking himself by carrying my end in his mouth, or if I were still desperately clinging to one end he’d pull me along the street, teeth gripping the other. People stopped and said something original like: “Look, the dog’s taking his owner for a walk” or “That dog’s taking himself for a walk.” Times like that I knew I was not in charge.
When it came to work he loved a job and helped by following me back and forth as I shifted and carried. He got a great thrill bringing in the morning paper and the mail. Little things to us are significant to dogs. It is important to them and their psychological health to feel useful and needed. The smallest demonstration of affection goes a long way and is reciprocated many times. He often came to my office and took up station under the desk.
Despite all the training lessons in the end I adapted to him, watching carefully for my next command. It is not hard to understand a dog or for him to understand you. The key is subtlety. They are watching and listening even when looking away.
Does he want to go out? Watch the eyes. There’s a flicker of movement toward the door, I needed to be sharp not to miss it. “Can I go out?”
Next level of communication with the same message was the open jaw, appealing expression and wildly wagging tail while facing the door.
Third level was urgency “If I don’t get out in a minute there’ll be an accident.” That was signified by whimpering and a kiss on the arm. After that you get what you deserve for not being receptive.
A scratching paw on the flywire – asking to come in after playing with his friend. He was also scratching himself. Plainly he’d been given a flea. That’s friendship for you, how many of your friends would give you one of their fleas? If I hadn’t heard his knock he would have resorted to calling my name – a single woof.
“Did you have a good time, Leo?” The reply was as good as an emphatic “Yes”. He’d look me in the eye, swing his tail around and around and head to his bowl for a drink.
The ears indicate attention more than language. They will perk in response to “Good dog” and droop for the opposite. Facial expressions are readable but the tail is the key to the language.
An inclination of the head is a sign of attention. Depending upon circumstances if lowered could mean shamefacedness or belligerence – or ‘doggedness’. I never wonder where that expression originated. Leo taught me the meaning of doggedness.
The tongue also has language. Flicking in and out to signal “Hello” from a distance or hollowed and protruding to indicate, “Well, I’m waiting”.
Did you hear about the Russian dog whose master died at their apartment outside Moscow? The two had been inseparable and the dog was distressed. He wouldn’t eat, drink or leave his master and stayed by his body all day, silently grieving while family came and went. At the end of the day he walked onto the ninth-floor balcony and jumped off.
We’ve all heard of dogs saving people so it was good to hear the favour was reciprocated when people saved a buried dog from the rubble of the Kobe earthquake of ’95.
Leo taught me many things including patience, perseverance and to drink a glass of water before eating. We became inseparable. Once, early on, I couldn’t manage him along with my enormous workload and sadly asked the kennels to find Leo a new owner. I cried, devastated – until I heard his bark down the street. That was it … no more partings.
Leo was wilful but stuck it out with me through thick and thin. Two and a half times overland across Australia, me driving, Leo navigating. Living in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth – jet-setting from Perth to Adelaide to join me. Afterwards he used to look at aircraft with a distant expression, as if remembering a frightening odyssey.
Leo was named after Leonidas the Spartan hero. He was a three month old puppy from Shenton Park Dogs’ Home and defended me without hesitation. My lion-hearted hero and I had many good years together and made the best of them. He died eleven days before his fifteenth birthday and now rests in the hills on the farm where he loved to chase rabbits.
After more than two decades Leo has never left me.
© Colin Nichol 2021
Colin Nichol was born in Mosman Park and spent much of his childhood in Fremantle. For nearly six years he was a leading WA DJ, compere and station programme director at Radio 6PM
He moved to England and became a DJ aboard Radio Caroline, the pirate radio station which changed the face of broadcasting in the UK. Colin later worked with Radio Luxembourg and the BBC before joining the British Forces Broadcasting Service, working from Gibraltar and Malta.
When he returned to Australia he worked with Radio 6KY and is currently the subject of a WA State Library documentary which outlines his role in introducing Rock and Roll to WA (youtu.be/phNkzZxBgmk). He became the president of the Hi Fi Club and is listed in the Pirate Radio Hall of Fame and local Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.