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  By: Peter Mayle

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The Art of Communication

I am, so I’ve been told, an ornament to any household, an amiable companion, a patient listener, a sage, a source of continuous entertainment and a mobile burglar alarm. But I have discovered over the years that these virtues are not enough for some people. They are almost always female, in my experience, and they share several characteristics all resulting, I suspect, from being exposed to too many fairy stories when young. There is no better example of the breed than one of our local landmarks, Madame Bilboquet, a large lady of a certain age who is devoted to good works and vintage port, which she considers to be tres anglais.

She wears billowy clothing in pastel colors and smells of dried flowers that have been kept a little too long in a drawer. Her handbag tastes of talcum powder. She collects porcelain figurines of stout pigs and ruminant cows. She writes letters on paper that has bunny rabbits skipping along the bottom. You know the sort. Her heart’s in the right place, no doubt, but she has this unfortunate tendency to gush.

I can tell what’s coming when she fixes me with a moist and sentimental eye and smiles. If I don’t take evasive action, she will pat the top of my head in that dainty, hesitant way people adopt when they pick up a dead sparrow. Then she sighs. And it starts. “Isn’t he sweet?” she says, in the voice she usually reserves for her wretched rabbits. “I wonder what he’s thinking.”

Most of the time, it’s about sex, or where the next meal’s coming from, but of course she’s not to know that. I’m tempted to put an end to the matter by plunging into a noisy investigation of my undercarriage. But I don’t. I humor her. One never knows with Madame Bilboquet. She has been known to keep biscuits in what she calls her reticule. So I adopt my most soulful expression and brace myself for the inevitable.

Sure enough, after another gusty sigh, out it comes, the missing ingredient. “Don’t you wish he could talk?”

I ask you. There she is, a grown woman, spouting drivel that would embarrass a poodle and we all know what little toadies they are. The fact is I have no need to talk. I can make my feelings and wishes perfectly clear to anyone who has the most rudimentary powers of observation. The management understands me. The neighbors understand me. We had one of the local tax inspectors around here the other day. He’s no Einstein, but even he seemed to understand me. He left in a hurry, actually, with one leg of his trousers slightly damp, but that’s another story.

Anyway, I may not talk, but I like to think that I am one of the great communicators. I have a manly and distinctive bark, an eloquent sniff, a squeal of horror that serves to discourage any attempts at grooming. I have, so I’m told, a most expressive snore. And my growl is a model of menace, a profound rumble that strikes terror into the hearts of small birds and hesitant salesmen. Unfortunately, it gives me a sore throat, so I use it sparingly.

You will have noticed that these abilities, while impressive in their octave range and variety, are all based on sound. And, let’s be honest, most dogs can make a noise when it suits them, although perhaps not always with perfect timing and sense of pitch. Noise, in any case, is not always the way to get what you want. Ask any politician. He’ll tell you that well-directed flattery and, if you have a strong stomach, the occasional bout of baby kissing will produce more satisfactory results than shouting. So it is with dogs and people. Charm succeeds where yapping fails. Take it from me.

The key to it all, in my opinion, is what sociologists call “body language.” The supplicant paw, the vibrating tail, the fixed and loving gaze, the shudders of rapture—these speak louder than words when used by an expert. And I like to think that I’m an expert; heaven knows I’ve had plenty of practice.

Let me give you an example, which happened only the other day. It had rained all morning, and the management had decided to go out and have a long lunch. This is frequently their reaction to unpleasant weather. Inconsiderate of them, know, but there it is. And so I was left in the house with the other dogs—dear old souls in many ways, but somewhat lacking in pioneer spirit. Reluctant to join in, if you know what I mean. I think they probably suffered from too much training during their formative years and never recovered.

As I always do when cooped up and left to my own devices, I made a tour of the premises—checking the kitchen for any edible traces of sloppy housekeeping, testing doors and electrical wiring, rearranging rugs, and generally making myself useful. And then, on a whim, I decided to have a look upstairs, where overnight visitors are locked up. For some reason, this has been designated a forbidden zone. Heaven knows what they do up there, but it’s been made clear to me that I’m not welcome.

So up the stairs I went, and what did I find? The door had been left ajar and the delights of what is grandly referred to as the “guest suite” were available for inspection.

Well, once you’ve seen one bathroom, you’ve seen them all. Stark, uncomfortable places that reek of soap and cleanliness. But the bedroom was a different matter altogether—wall-to-wall carpets, cushions galore, a large bed. And rather a fine bed at that—not too high, with an ample supply of pillows and an inviting expanse of what I later found out was an antique bedspread. It looked like the standard issue white sheet to me, but antique linen isn’t one of my interests. I incline more to the fur-rug school of decoration myself.

Nevertheless, the bed had a definite appeal—as it would to you if you normally spent your nights in a basket on the floor—and so I hopped up.

At first, I was a little disconcerted by the degree of softness underfoot, which reminded me of the times when I’d accidentally trodden on the Labrador. But once I adapted my movements, I found I could explore in short and rather exhilarating bounces, and I made my way up to the head of the bed, where the pillows were kept.

They were poorly organized, in my view, laid out in a neat row, which may suit the reclining human figure but is not a convenient arrangement for a dog. We like to be surrounded when we sleep. I think it may be a subconscious desire to return to the womb although I personally wouldn’t want a second visit. As you may remember, I had to share with twelve others, and I have no pleasant memories of the experience. Even so, the instinct to surround oneself remains, possibly for protection, and I set to work dragging the pillows to the middle of the bed until they formed a kind of circular nest. And there I settled, in great comfort, and dozed off.

Sometime later, I was wakened by the sound of a car and the barking of the two old bitches downstairs. The management had obviously gorged enough and had decided to return.

You may not know this, but people who live with dogs like a full turnout when they come home after an absence. It makes them feel loved and appreciated. It can also make them feel slightly guilty at having left their faithful companions all alone. This, in turn, can lead to what they call “treats” and what I regard as conscience payments to make up for willful neglect. However you look at it, the fact is that it’s usually worth presenting yourself at the door with bright eye and jaunty tail and generally behaving as if life had been an arid desert without them. As it happens, I could happily have spent the rest of the afternoon on the bed, but I bounded downstairs to do my duty and lined up with the others as the management made their entrance.

All was well until that evening, when Madame went up to put some flowers and a decanter of insect repellent in the guest room for visitors who were arriving the next day. She is fastidious about these little touches and has been known to agonize over such details as the choice of water—fizzy or flat—to leave on the bedside tables. She wants guests to be comfortable, you see, which I feel only encourages them to stay. The other half, in contrast, is all for giving them the earliest possible au revoir, which just goes to show that marriage can be a question of give-and-take. Anyway, there was Madame upstairs in the honeymoon suite.

I heard distant cries of alarm, put two and two together, and assumed that my adjustments to the bedding were causing some minor distress. Consequently, I was in the basket faster than a rat up a drainpipe and feigning the sleep of the innocent by the time she came down. There were three of us, I reasoned, and so there was a fair chance that one of the bitches would be sentenced to bread and water while the true culprit escaped. Wrongful arrest and imprisonment is very popular these days, so I’ve heard, and I was hoping that this would be another chapter in the annals of injustice.

With eyes tightly shut and ears tuned in to the hurricane warnings, I listened to Madame as she waxed indignant about footprints on the bedspread, ripped and rumpled pillows, and one or two other small imperfections that were going to disqualify us from winning House of the Year award.

I heard her coming over to my basket, and I ventured a half-open eye. Madame’s accusing figure stood before me, brandishing the evidence, shaking the offending bedspread in front of me and carrying on as though I’d thrown up in her best hat (which I did once, but there were extenuating circumstances). I attempted the nonchalant and puzzled reaction, but what I’d failed to take into account the size of my paws and the traces of mud that remained on them after the morning walk. Taking hold of one incriminating paw, she applied it to a large and well-defined footprint, and that was that. Dead to rights, guilty as charged, and serious repercussions on the way, I felt sure—unless I moved quickly.

One lesson I’ve learned in life is that everything is negotiable. No crime, however foul, is beyond redemption. You can steal the Sunday lunch, shred books, bite off the heads of live chickens, and pretty much despoil to your heart’s content as long as your conciliation technique is sound. It’s known as plea bargaining, and it has allowed far worse villains than I to walk away unpunished, with scarcely a blot on their escutcheon. If you don’t believe me, read the newspapers.

Punishment in our house, as in the legal system generally, depends not only on the gravity of the offense but also—and this is possibly more important—on the mood and general disposition of the presiding judge and the jury. There are days when petty misdemeanor can lead to physical retribution and temporary exile; on other occasions, all you get for the same infringement is a verbal warning and half an hour’s probation, with remission for good behavior. A tricky thing, justice. You can never tell which way it’s going to jump.

The atmosphere on this particular evening was fraught. I suspect it was not merely the nature of the crime but also the effects of an excessive lunch, which often comes to the surface in the early part of the evening: nagging headaches dyspepsia, bloats accompanied by short temper. The judge was going to go for the maximum sentence, in my estimation, and so I decided to hold nothing back. The full repertoire was called for. It was time for some advanced body dynamics, or what I prefer to call the “seven gestures of appeasement.” I pass them on to you in the hope that you never need to use them.


Roll over on the back, after the fashion of the cocker spaniel, and wave the legs helplessly. This serves to indicate remorse and to foil the first instinct of the angry human, which is to administer painful blows the hindquarters. You cannot smack them at floor level with any degree of force.


The tone of voice will tell you when the heat of the moment has subsided and it’s safe to get up and approach the judge and jury. This should be done with the modified shimmy—head down in shame, with the rest of the body wriggling in a frenzy of apology. Soft, contrite sounds are appropriate here if you have the knack of making them. Avoid barking or any baring of the teeth.


Sit. Raise the right paw and place on the nearest available knee. For some reason, most people consider this endearing, and the chances of a clip around the ear are remote.


Remove the paw and rest the full weight of the head on the chosen knee. In most cases, this will provoke an involuntary pat, and then you know you’re home and dry. If it doesn’t work, proceed with the rest of the program.


Establish the whereabouts of a hand. After making sure that it isn’t holding a glass of red wine, butt it with a firm upward motion of the head. I mention the red wine only because of an unfortunate accident that I was once blamed for, quite unfairly, which rather spoiled the magic of the moment.


By now, all should be forgiven, but it’s important to be seen not to celebrate too quickly. I always take the time for a few tender minutes of affectionate leaning—against a leg or an arm, whichever is most convenient. The appendage doesn’t matter; it’s the endearing gesture that is vital.

And that, nine times out of ten, should do the trick. Only in desperate situations, when every blandishment has met with grim rebuff and hideous threats persist, do I have to resort to the ultimate solution and unleash my secret weapon.

I should explain the history of it. Some years ago, one of my admirers presented me with a life-size replica of the traditional Christmas cracker in bright red rubber, with festive green sprigs of rubber holly at either end, a definite collector’s piece. It happens to be a very satisfying object to hold in the mouth; well-shaped and with just the right amount of give. You’ve probably never held the upper part of a squirrel’s back leg between your teeth. I have, and my cracker has a similar consistency. Firm but yielding, if you follow me. The other similarity to the squirrel is that my cracker squeaks when bitten. This amuses me, and for reasons that I couldn’t begin to explain, it makes people laugh. Never fails. And so, in extremis, when catastrophe looms, do I give up and wait for my just deserts? Do I cower under the withering gaze of disapproval? Certainly not. I fetch my cracker.


Even here, a certain delicacy of touch is necessary. Constant squeaking irritates the human ear, as I’ve noticed many times when the television is on, and so I sit with cracker clenched between the teeth, looking as forlorn as possible, and squeak at irregular intervals. And, what do you know, it always works. Always. Heaven knows why, but within seconds the storm clouds disappear and I am restored to grace, thanks to the squeak that turns away wrath. There’s a lesson here somewhere for mankind, and if you ever find yourself involved in litigation, my advice is to make sure you have a rubber cracker in your pocket.

From DOG’S LIFE, A by Peter Mayle, copyright © 1995 by Escargot Productions, Ltd. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Photographs by Cami Johnson,