There are four million Australians aged 65 years and over. My research shows about half these talk to dogs. That’s two million seniors having lop-sided conversations with pooches. Only 300,000 seniors go to church. So it appears, with the speedy and specific evolution performed by breeders, poodles are now more loquacious than prophets, and Jack Russells have become wiser and more consoling than Jesus.
I’m not surprised. Dogs are excellent conversationalists for those who have lost their place in the rough and tumble of everyday life. When you’re young, dogs rarely speak to you. But as the aged retreat from public discourse, a rattle of pooch-prattle rises to fill the conversational vacuum. As family and friends slip sadly into the great beyond or, sadder still, Queensland, the dog’s convo gets wiser, realer; it becomes the perfect replacement for all those silenced voices. A dog never contradicts, never disagrees, and always barracks for the same footy team as its owner. It’s a psychic mirror that can maul rats.
The crafty bastards start the chat in private. Soon the oldster becomes interested and begins to interact and is shortly transfixed by the doggie dialogue, hopelessly hooked on the verbal give and take. Then the dog takes it public. Next thing an old lady’s in a frock salon asking Twinkles if the aqua cardy suits her better than the spearmint. (Twinkles is colourblind, but so are a lot of men, and that never stops them fraudulently stating the aqua brings out the light in her eyes.) ‘‘You think so? Oh, you’re just saying that, Twinkles. They sparkle?’’
Dogs are just responsive enough that a needful heart can load them up with the Wisdom of Solomon. A lifted eyelid is taken as rapt immersion in the current topic. A wagged tail is a fulsome affirmation that Jenny up the road is a skank who’ll get hers. A volley of barks is the Gettysburg Address.
This goes to show dogs are precisely as intelligent as their owners. Which is an intellectual mimicry they share with Gods. A dumb owner will have a dumb dog. My mother’s labradoodle, Gwelf, could do The Age cryptic crossword unaided in half an hour if he had an opposable thumb. He doesn’t, so she helps.
And a dog can talk for you, too. It can broach unsavoury or difficult topics. I once worked in a vast warehouse for a vain widower who was always talking shit to his shih tzu. One day he invited me into his office where he was seated with the mutt in his lap. He took hold of its stunted muzzle and looked into its eyes. ‘'What, Maxy? What’ve you seen?’' Then he winced. Maxy was obviously breaking disturbing news. ‘'Anson’s been reading Penthouse magazine at work? Oh, no. Oh… Maxy.’'
It’s not fun to be accused of being a porn-hound by a dog you itch to kick over a silo. It put me in the doubly unreasonable position of having to pretend the dog talked and call the thing a liar. I eyeballed the little freak. ‘'You can read? As well as talk? You know Penthouse from Newsweek?’'
'‘Tourse I tan. I bery smart,’' my boss squeaked. Then, to my horror, Maxy led him right to my stash. This seemed miraculous. Maybe the dog was talking to him. I discovered later, on close inspection, the old boy had doused Miss September with a beef jus to aid the brute’s revelations.
Apparently dogs will talk about whatever an old woman wants to talk about, will worry about what she is worried about, and will free-associate on climate change or Wendy banging the plumber if these matters are currently bugging the old girl. Dogs are as conversationally compliant as potheads. They never run off topic or give vent to low canine thoughts.
I’ve heard countless convos between my Aunt Megan and her wall-eyed schnauzer Weenus, usually about ballet or Beethoven. Never this, though, “Oh, stop going on about mounting next door’s daschund. Yes, yes, I know you’d be a Lothario if I hadn’t paid a masked man to drug you and lop off your testes. But must we continually speak of your pilfered plums and your excruciating virginity?’' No. Weenus talks of higher things. The tremulous flight of the flute in the middle of Beethoven’s sixth. Nureyev’s stately arabesque. But Weenus, if you want my opinion, doesn’t know a damned thing about Nureyev. And would readily swap Beethoven’s flute for his femur.