The secret to becoming a dog whisperer

With a meaningful glance at Nooka, I shake my head slowly, thinking "no." Then I point at her blanket and snap my fingers for emphasis. The dog goes and lies down.

With a meaningful glance at Nooka, I shake my head slowly, thinking “no.” Then I point at her blanket and snap my fingers for emphasis. The dog goes and lies down. I smile at her and close my eyes briefly – enjoying my new role as dog whisperer. Actually I whisper to everything and everybody these days, thanks to a vile chest cold that has robbed me of the power of speech for the last three days already.

Living in the bush is like living in quarantine. It saves you from the risk of car accidents as well as the assortment of viruses that make their way around town. Swine flu – we never gave it any thought, other than wishing the media would shut up about it. Whatever happened to the bird flu, anyway, I had asked Sam last fall when all the hype was nearing hysteria. Colds and the flu just don’t feature in our lives; that is, until now.

The sore throat had felt funny at first because I hadn’t had one in many years and in the beginning, I thought it must have been caused by too much wind exposure. That illusion did not last long, once the cold symptoms multiplied like snowshoe hares. The downside to living in wilderness quarantine is that you can’t just pop down to the drugstore to pick up some cough syrup when it feels like you’re hacking your lungs out. A survey of our medical supplies showed an astonishing abundance of eye drops and bandages, a sprinkling of antibiotics and dewormer, but nothing useful for coughs.

So a different tactic was called for: how lucky that we have the internet. A search of household remedies soon revealed the humble onion to be held in high esteem among the cold and cough ridden. I’ve been concocting an aromatic, slightly nauseating syrup out of onion juice and brown sugar for the last two days but find the effect rather negligible so far, other than getting a bit of a sugar rush from it. Inhaling steam seems to work better and faster, though I do get nudged by enquiring dog noses all the time as I sit with my head stuck under a towel over something that looks suspiciously like a dog bowl.

It has a strange effect on our household, this recent speechlessness of mine. Things are so much calmer and (naturally) quieter. Although Sam has dodged the nasty virus, only bringing it in from town along with the veggies, he has taken to whispering when speaking with me. In our brief and hushed conversations I try to substitute as many words as I can with gestures and soon came to realize that my partner talks to me a lot without looking at me. Now, suddenly, he has to watch me intently as we talk, which somehow lends a deep intimacy and huge importance to such everyday topics as how many tomato plants to start for the greenhouse.

The dogs of course are used to hand signals, gestures and whistling as part of our communication with them. But normally, we tend to use non-verbal commands only as reinforcement, not as the constant way of talking with them. Which, I’m starting to wonder, may be kind of stupid. Except for song birds during mating season there is no species out there, I guess, that keeps up this constant torrent of babbling that we so proudly see as a distinguishing sign of being human. Other animals talk more subtly and easily pick up on body language; and obviously the dogs do, too.

Our pack of canines seems more clued in to me, listening maybe even a bit better now that I’ve turned my communication tactics around with them and only whisper the odd verbal command to reinforce a gesture. But I might also be kidding myself. After all, yesterday I did have to hurl a snowshoe in the direction of Nooka for emphasis when she ignored my whistling and urgent whisper.

Still, it is an interesting and strangely restful experience, having been struck mute. It makes you see the relationships with pets and people in a different light, turning you from an everyday person into a dog whisperer overnight.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon

River south of Whitehorse.

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