when dogs start speaking english

Our trapper neighbour Rick had seemed like an unlikely convert of something as esoteric as intuitive animal communication.

Our trapper neighbour Rick had seemed like an unlikely convert of something as esoteric as intuitive animal communication.

Sure, he loves his huskies, but still I was surprised at his response when we told him that our dogs had barked in the morning but we hadn’t seen what animal caused the commotion.

“Couldn’t you tell by the sound of their barking what it was?” he asked.

“Um, well, no. How? Can you tell with your dogs?” my partner Sam wanted to know.

“Oh for sure, they sound and behave totally different for moose, caribou and bear,” said Rick.

“Oh yeah?” We quietly thought that maybe good old Rick was a bit bushed or was spending too much time alone with his dogs. It is rather lonely out here in the winter and, for months at a time, the only way of interacting with other humans is to wave at the odd passing plane.

But dogs that tell you whether there is a caribou or a moose passing by the cabin?

A bad case of cabin fever if there ever was one.

Or so we thought until a couple of years ago.

Despite myself, from the day we had that conversation, I started paying closer attention to our dogs’ barking and behaviour on the trail and around the cabin.

One nice thing about living out in the bush is that you get to spend lots of time with your animals, and that wildlife makes appearances on an irregular but pretty frequent basis.

Within a few months, I shame-facedly realized that Rick was absolutely right: the happily excited bark and relaxed manner of the dogs when a moose comes by is very different from the nervously aggressive noise a black bear is greeted with or the panicky bark and posturing when it’s a grizzly.

When wolves are around, our dogs remain wisely silent.

I felt quite pleased with myself for mastering this much doggerel until our old dog Leshi took dog-human communication to another level this fall by attempting to speak English.

Early in the moose rut, we had loaded all three dogs into the boat and went out for a day trip.

Stopping at one favourite moose hangout, we decided to call just to see if there was any reaction yet.

Not expecting much, Sam let out a rendition of a cow moose in heat and then we sat quietly, with the boat rocking gently in the breeze. After a while, Sam called once more and just as we were about to get going again, a twig cracked loudly.

We nudged each other and stared into the alders where the swishing of branches betrayed the approaching moose. Directing warning glances at the dogs to keep quiet, we then saw the young bull’s antlers poke through the underbrush.

The moose slowly stepped out of the alders, nose and ears twitching to locate that cow he just had heard.

The dogs tensed one by one as they noticed the moose who was now nervously stepping to the water’s edge, apparently looking right at us in the boat.

We tried to remain motionless while reinforcing silence among the dogs with more stern eye contact, when the moose walked into the lake and started swimming towards us.

Sam and I grinned at each other; this was pretty cool. How close would he come? The dogs were having a harder time controlling their mounting excitement and started fidgeting around while the bug-eyed moose kept a steady course straight for us.

When would he turn away? What if he tried climbing into the boat with us?

Maybe we should give him a subtle hint that we weren’t really prepared to become his girlfriend?

Just a few more watery metres separated the moose from us, when Leshi could bear it no longer and broke into a heartfelt “wooo, wooo, wooo,” at which the bull finally came to his senses, whipped around and with astounding speed thrashed back to shore, jumped into the alders and was not seen again.

The other dogs had also started barking loudly, but when it became obvious that the moose had disappeared, they settled down again.

Not Leshi. Long after we were back out on the lake, she still had her head thrown back and was wailing continuously. We thought she might have a mental breakdown of sorts until we finally realized that she was trying to talk to us. She was saying: “moo-moo-moose!”

Now I wonder if Rick’s dogs are that far yet.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.