Greenpoint: An old dog finds her voice

Mia takes a rest alongside one of the goats she’s raised. (Margaret Hartley)
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Mia takes a rest alongside one of the goats she’s raised. (Margaret Hartley)

GREENPOINT When my kids were little they loved books about clever dogs. There was one about a dog who learned to speak after eating alphabet soup, one about a carefree puppy who accidentally thwarted a robber by untying his shoes, and another about a sorely misunderstood cow dog.

We’ve had some clever dogs over the years and some that were, well, not quite as clever. Sadie was the smartest. She could sense danger, fly out the back door and chase away a fox, coyote, weasel, hawk or any other beast that even considered preying on our chickens.

We had others who would fly out the back door — and have to be chased a mile through the woods before we could get them back home.

We’ve had some who understood every word spoken to them and others who clearly did not speak English.

Our current dog, Mia, did not come to us with much in the way of smarts. Like most of our dogs, she had been abandoned and dumped on a road near us, and she came to live with us at about 9 months old. She didn’t know much, but she is a mostly Lab mutt and we had heard from Lab owners that they get smarter as they age.

She certainly did not know how to walk on a leash, and she nearly pulled my arm off on our morning walks for the first several years we had her.

Rather than protecting our chickens as Sadie did, Mia actually killed a few of them the first weeks she lived here. She bit more than a few goats in her younger days.

It’s surprising that we forgave her and kept her, but we loved her. “She has a head full of stuffing but a very big heart,” is how we described her.

During her tenure here, an abandoned rat terrier came to live with us and was clever enough to teach Mia several bad habits, like barking at unknown objects. Unknown objects include things like neighbor’s garbage cans and lawn furniture.

The rat terrier — and Sadie — died years ago, and Mia has been with us a dozen years or more, growing just a little more clever every year.

At this point she would never harm a chicken and has even allowed some to sit on her head. She has raised her share of baby goats who had to be bottle-fed in the house. She still barks at unknown objects but, let’s face it, lawn furniture can be alarming. She still cannot be trusted off a leash, even to chase a fox, but I think she might be learning language.

Mia used to bark at all animals — dear, bunnies, foxes, joggers, chipmunks, groundhogs, bicyclists, visiting friends — with the very same woof and growl, her hair standing up on the back of her neck. We’d check out the window she was barking through and say, “Mia, that’s just the rabbit.” Or “Mia, don’t bark at Kristen.” Or “Fox! Fox! Fox!”

It all seemed to be the same to Mia.

But lately she has learned to vary her barks. A small, friendly woof for Kristen. A little more concern, but no panic for the bunny. A sterner warning for the deer. And a full-out danger warning for the fox.

It’s very handy for us that she’s learning to speak. We can dismiss her bunny bark and run outside to protect the chickens when we hear her fox bark. And since we’ve had a marauding fox visiting in recent mornings, I’ve been pegging her outside for an hour or so after our walks. Several times last week she ran off the fox with her danger bark. The chickens admire her newfound linguistic skills and congregate near where she’s pegged, drinking from her water dish.

I wonder if they’ve been feeding her alphabet soup.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on May 22. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or on Twitter @Hartley_Maggie. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are not necessarily those of the newspaper’s.

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