And This Dog Can Sing

It is not that I am a liar, exactly; it is more that I am a teller of stories. It is this habit which caused some of my friends and family to doubt me when I tell them of my more remarkable experiences (even the ones which are completely true), and that consequence which has made me promise myself to exaggerate no more! I no longer sacrifice the “unimportant facts for the good of the story…” as I once read Mark Twain describe his habit of embellishment. Please believe me, now, when I describe this series of events — perhaps another witness would remember them differently, but what follows is an absolutely faithful retelling of occurrences as I remember them; I know perfectly well this diatribe will test the average reader’s profundity, but my promise to relay only the truth requires that I describe exactly what happened as I recall it, however tempting it may be to edit some of the more outrageous happenings in the hope of greater credibility.

My dog, Iggy, understood about 5 human words when I first met him, but has since learned around 35 more. This is not a magnificent feat I admit. I have read of poodles and border collies which have learned more than 300 words. My dog, though, is a bullmastiff, and while a smart example of his breed, bullmastiffs are not renowned for their obedience or tricks. Understanding 40 words is pretty good for a house pet, and I am proud of having taught him most of them. Some of them, though, he has learned on his own, with no help from me. It is not Iggy’s ability to recognize human words that makes him special, however. It is his ability sing human words which makes him so remarkable.

I found Iggy at an animal shelter. I had gone there to meet a particular dog, a lovely 3-year old female Labrador mix named Gracie, and while she was a good dog, she was not the dog for me. On the way out of the shelter, I noticed Iggy, and asked to meet him. After a few minutes of typical dog-human pleasantries, he rolled over and let me stroke his belly and linguinal area. I sat down cross-legged and pet him as he clearly was inviting me to do, and then he crawled, all 85-pounds of him, into my lap, and leaned up toward my face. I thought he was going to lick me, but instead he sang into my ear, “My name is Iggy Pup, and… I wanna… be your… dog.” I looked at the shelter worker who was in the room with us, to see if she had heard it, but she gave no indication of anything being awry. She only said, as I expect she says to most people who meet the dogs there, “He likes you.” I looked at Iggy, and he grinned at me, but did not say anything else. Suddenly, I was not sure I was in any condition to care for myself, much less a dog or any other creature. As happens to people when they encounter dramatic situations, I had countless thoughts in seemingly no time. Should I see a physician, a psychologist, or perhaps a clergy? Was this a religious experience, or some sign of mental defect? Perhaps this was just a psychological manifestation of my own desire for a dog like Iggy? I settled on the last thought – surely this auditory hallucination was just a symptom of my attraction to this impressive animal. I filled out the paperwork, paid the adoption fee, and took Iggy home. And I put out of my mind all thoughts of hearing Iggy speak, or sing, in English.

Things were not perfect right away with Iggy. While he was getting used to his new surroundings, he growled at us a couple times, and he is a large, intimidating dog. My wife, Pia, found him frightening. She is a resolute personality herself, however, and joined me in reading books about dog training. We watched countless hours of DVD’s and Animal Planet television programs. We read three books about the bullmastiff breed in particular. One of them made a point we both found just a little startling: “…you may note this book has no section on training your bullmastiff in ways of guarding or protection. This is because no such training is necessary, or advised. Years of breeding have established natural instincts which will be more than sufficient in this regard.” I had not set out to get a guard dog, and we both found this piece of information interesting, but just a little disconcerting. We agreed to work that much harder on training and socialization.

We established a schedule and walked him three times a day. It was on one of those walks that things changed between Iggy and Pia. When they got back from their walk, Pia seemed distracted, even upset, and Iggy was stuck to her side as though tethered while she walked around the house. When she went into the bathroom, he sat outside the door and did not move until she came out. She had been crying, a very rare thing for her. I asked her what was the matter and she explained.

They were walking down a trail not from our house (it was daylight, just 2 or so in the afternoon), and as they rounded a corner on the trail, a drunken man, a transient, came crashing out of the woods, oblivious to Pia and Iggy. Pia was startled and frightened, but Iggy’s reaction was as if from a textbook on bullmastiffs: He lunged ahead to the end of the leash, turned perpendicular to Pia, and used his shoulder to hit the man right in the knees. The man fell over backwards and Iggy pulled Pia forward in order to place both paws on the man’s chest. Then, for the first time since we had brought him home, Iggy barked. Pia described it as a “sound so deep, I felt its rumble in my body as much as I heard it in my ears. It was almost subsonic, like thunder heard from a long way off.” She called Iggy’s name and he climbed off the poor drunken man. “I am so sorry,” said Pia – “you scared us both.”

“Dude,” said the drunk, “Dude…” and then began to laugh uncontrollably. Seeing he was not injured, Pia walked on, stopping when they reached the park which was their destination. She sat down and gave Iggy a rub, trying to grasp what had just happened, and what to make of it.

Here, I interrupted her. “Honey, I know it was scary, but it sounds like the man meant no harm – he was just oblivious – and Iggy didn’t actually hurt the man, either. He didn’t even try to bite him, right?”

“No, the man didn’t know we were there, and Iggy didn’t do anything wrong, exactly — it is just I –“ and she began to sob, her back and shoulders shaking. I went to her and wrapped her in my arms, while Iggy nuzzled her knee. “It is ok baby, it is all over, I know it was scary, but it is all over now,” I tried to console her.

“It isn’t that, I wasn’t that scared – it all happened so fast – it is now that I am scared. I think I am losing my mind. After we got to the park we sat and I petted him, just to calm us both down, and he… he… Michael, he sang to me. In English… I mean, I heard him, but I know it isn’t possible… I am going crazy, but… I heard him, as clearly as I hear you when you speak.”

“What did he sing?”

“He sang ‘I would die for you.’”

“Like the Prince song?”

“Yeah, like the Prince song. I guess it would be ‘I would die 4 U…” and then she giggled. I joined her, and our giggles changed to laughs.

After the incident on the way to the park, things were much different. Our routine of walks, training, and affection had ended Iggy’s occasional growling, and Pia no longer had any fear of him. In fact, their relationship became so strong I sometimes jokingly accused her of stealing my dog. Iggy listened to Pia when she asked him to do something, and she practiced various obedience exercises with him every day, just as I did. Iggy went everywhere with us, and when he was home alone for a couple hours, we were confident (rightly so) that everything in our home, especially our cats, would be as we left them. Iggy became our sentry, and our referee. Though a guard dog was not something I had ever wanted or looked for, and was not something I felt we needed, I admit it was a nice feeling to know he was there to watch over things. If Pia and I occasionally quarreled, Iggy ignored it. If we raised our voices in anger, however, he whined and whimpered, and went through a series of classic canine calming signals: he would yawn, then turn in a circle, then lick his lips and pace, then yawn again. We still argued sometimes, but we made sure to do it calmly – and this calmness allowed us to settle things more quickly, which allowed for fewer secondary arguments, which caused fewer arguments of any kind. Iggy had become a marriage counselor, and a very good one.

As our routine solidified, and our love for Iggy grew, neither Pia nor I thought much about his verbal expressions of the past. We were satisfied with his daily behaviors and habits, and I think it was just easier to not think about the previous oddness. Then one evening, an hour or so after we had walked him, he barked at us while we sat watching a movie. He had never done this before, and rarely barked at all. He got up from his bed, crossed the room to where we were sitting and let out a loud “Rruufraouwww!” then trotted to the door and nuzzled it, making it clear he wanted out. This type of demanding behavior is not something we find acceptable and I gave him a small verbal correction, a simple “Hey!” – Not too loud, just disapprovingly. Iggy came and sat right in front of us, cocked his head, and – I do not know a better way to describe his expression – looked like he was trying to work out a calculus problem. His brow furrowed, his ears pricked up, and his lips curled a little, not in a growl, but in concentration. Pia and I looked at each other and she spoke first, “He just pooped an hour ago!”

“I know, and he has had plenty of exercise…” and then Iggy sang to us. In English. He slipped in out of key, and the actual tune was barely recognizable. His voice sounded like a tuba that had been filled with gravel, and his face looked pained, as if this was the most difficult thing he had ever done, but he sang loudly, and with passion: “I feel the earth… move… under my feet” and then he barked again. Pia and I jumped up, stuttering and sputtering – “Did you hear…?” “What the hell…?” And when we were standing, Iggy began using his body to push us toward the door. Like cultists enthralled by a modern prophet, we moved outside with him, too stunned to do anything but move where we were herded, onto the lawn, and away from the house. Then, as we got to the middle of our yard, the earth actually did move. The ground shook, dogs barked up and down our street (though now that we were safely outside, our dog was totally silent). Car alarms started going off, and we heard windows breaking, and things falling off our walls inside the house. Pia and I held each other as the ground shook, and Iggy leaned into us both, to steady us or to be comforted by us, I am not sure which — probably both. When the earthquake was over, the sirens began. Police, fire, and ambulances could all be heard. Added to the car alarms, the cacophony was deafening to us humans, but poor Iggy contorted on the ground trying to cover his ears with his paws. “C’mon buddy… let’s go inside.” I stroked his shoulders and the three of us headed indoors.

Books and CD’s lay fallen on the floor. A favorite floor lamp had fallen on its side. Our television had fallen from its stand, smashed to uselessness. The picture window in the living room had shattered, countless slivers of glass exploded onto the couch and chair where Pia and I had sat minutes earlier. Strewn amongst the glass were large chunks of lathe and plaster, fallen down from our hundred-year old ceiling. In the interest of forthrightness, I admit it is doubtful we would have died from the glass and plaster. It would not be accurate to say Iggy had saved our lives by singing a Carole King song to us. I am confident, however, that he saved us both from great injury. Pia and I perused the damage for a moment and then looked at Iggy, who was now sitting in front of us, looking like a normal dog. Pia said what we were both thinking: “Why does he only sing sometimes? And if he can sing, why doesn’t he talk?”

Iggy answered her, then. First he made a noise something like a growl mixed with a bark, but his ears were back and he was looking up at us with an expression of love and submission. We had rescued him, his look told us, and he would rescue us. If people approached Pia in a scary way, he would put himself in front of her. If an earthquake was coming, he would sense it and warn us. As he had sung to Pia, he would die for us, and as he had sung to me, all he wanted in return was to be our dog. Then his eyes narrowed into a look of total concentration and he sang to us in that same gravelly-tuba voice, “Every time I try to tell you, the words just come out wrong… So I’ll have to say I love you… in a song.”

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