Tag the Destroyer has a new bad habit. He goes to the side yard and barks. Bark bark bark bark. Pause. Bark bark bark bark. Pause. Bark bark bark bark. It's a strange pattern. He ignores our cries of rage and despair.
Tag's getting deaf. He no longer barks at the loathsome package delivery trucks, or at dogs who insult us by being walked past our house, or the serial killers who carry the mail, because he doesn't hear these outrages taking place. But I think his conscience nags at him – I haven't barked at anything in days! – and he resolves to be vigilant. He'll go out in the yard and lurk near the street where he might detect a disturbance.
Even if he doesn't, he sounds off. Bark bark bark bark! Pause. Bark bark bark bark you get the idea. Luckily, his conscience usually only nags at him on warm afternoons. He doesn't hear if we call his name or yell “Shut UP!” He can sort of hear it if we clap our hands, and he'll fall quiet and try to figure out if that was real or not. For a moment.
This reminds me of Clea, a dog I once knew.
Clea was a large dog. When I met her she was antique, and had gone very white, and very deaf. I think she was the elegant ruins of a German shorthaired pointer. She belonged to my father's second wife, Vera (a renowned mountain climber).
Clea seemed somewhat feral, grabby, greedy, not eager to please. But Vera said that Clea had once been a beautifully trained dog. In those days, dainty and precise, she had had exquisite company manners. She knew and heeded common commands, like sit and stay, and also knew and performed fancy tricks, like barking four times when you asked “Clea, what's two plus two?”
What had happened? Apparently, as Clea went deaf, she decided that if she didn't hear you tell her to do something or not do something, she didn't have to obey. Even if she knew what you wanted. You didn't want me to grab the bread off the table? You should have said something. You did? Well, I didn't hear you.
Clea wasn't conscienceless. She still considered herself bound to protect the home from intruders. Due to her deafness, she never detected any intruders. But periodically she would stand on the top deck and bark threateningly, so intruders would know she was on duty. The house was on a hillside, and the deck projected out impressively, so intruders over a great area would hear Clea's fierce warning.
Clea would utter a series of barks, and then pause, listening in case anyone dared to bark back. No, apparently they didn't. Excellent! She would bark some more, pause, bark some more.
This was interspersed with Vera calling, “Clea! Clea! Be quiet! Clea! Come in! Clea!” Which Clea didn't hear. Finally Vera would fling on a robe and rush out on the deck to drag Clea indoors, still barking defiantly into the night.
(Why not close the door onto the deck? Um, Clea had other problems sometimes found in old dogs, and night-time deck access protected the rugs and floors.)
So Tag's strange barking pattern is familiar. If his hearing worsens, we could get him a vibrating collar – no, not a shock collar, a vibrating collar – such as people use with dogs who were born deaf. When yelling doesn't work, you can catch the dog's attention by spooky action at a distance.
Tag's a good-hearted dog and doesn't use his poor hearing as a loophole. Barking in the side yard is a mild inconvenience. And it's a reminder of how feeble his hearing is getting, and what that's like for him.
Gradual hearing loss can feel as if people are paying less and less attention to you. We still speak to Tag all the time. “Who's a good dog?” we ask. “Who's the foulest, stinkiest dog in the whole world?” “Who's been eating grass and puking on the rug?”
But if Tag doesn't hear it, he doesn't know it, and it seems as if we've stopped talking to him. We seem less interested. Life gets lonelier. We have to remember to get his attention, rub his belly, pat him, scratch his forehead between the eyes, hug him, wrestle with him. That's what the strange barking signals. Not intruders, but the intrusion of time.