Q: My neighbour was keen to impress me with his success in training his new dog. He said to the dog, “Lay down!” The dog just looked at him. I did not want to hurt my neighbour’s feelings by telling him that you can’t expect a dog to understand such atrocious English. What should I have done?
J.P., Lane Cove, NSW
A: About a year ago, my wife and I were out walking our new dog, Specky, and she was weaving back and forth in front of us (the dog; my wife was walking perfectly straight). So I said, “Specky, stop meandering!” And my wife said, “She’s a dog: she doesn’t understand meandering.”
So I said, “Specky, stop wavering,” and the dog stopped immediately. From this, I can confidently conclude that my dog comprehends, roughly, a year 6 level of English. Maybe year 7, but it’d be English as a second language.
Once you know the intellectual proficiency of your dog, it’s a game-changer. I now know that my dog is smart, but she hasn’t yet read any romantic-era poetry about the meandering beauty of a babbling brook. And your neighbour also needs to know his dog’s academic level.
You should have said to him, “Look, your dog clearly knows that you mean ‘Lie down’, but it’s not going to dignify your ungrammatical command with a response. That’s why it’s looking at you with that disappointed expression, and why it’s punishing you by excreting in the long grass where it’s harder to pick up.”
If only dogs could speak, they’d explain it themselves: they’d say, “Listen. I know that you had my best interests in mind when you were yelling, ‘STOP RINGO! DON’T RUN ONTO THE STREET! THERE’S CARS COMING!’ but just so you know for next time, it should be ‘There are cars coming’, bozo, ‘there are!’”
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