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If Dogs Could Think and Speak

Insights from a canine friend and a novel

By Marco den OudenPublished about a year ago 14 min read

My wife and I first met Rufio on our first trip to Australia in 2015 when we went to visit our daughter and her fiancé. We had seen pictures before, of course, but meeting this rambunctious Keltie cross was a treat. Rufio was a happy dog who loved people and who loved to go for walks. I learned early not to say the word "walk" because Rufio would fairly jump out of his skin with excitement.

I loved to take Rufio for walks. I took him often. Usually we would walk from their house in Ocean Reef down to the shore and take the path for two kilometers to Burns Beach. We would always stop at various parks along the way where I'd let him off leash to have a run or fetch a ball.

My wife and daughter with Rufio on the trail to Burns Beach

One time we were walking along the trail when I caught sight of the tail-end of a very large dugite (a poisonous snake) slithering over the path and into the bush. I pulled back on Rufio's leash to keep him from getting too close.

Another time we were in one of the parks when we encountered a curious bandicoot. I had to grab his collar to keep him from going after it. He wouldn't have hurt the critter, I'm sure. But he might have given it a fright, though the bandicoot seemed remarkably unafraid.

Rufio and the bandicoot

Rufio accompanied us on a few trips to the Margaret River region. On our first trip there we stayed in a rented vacation home a short walk from Surfer's Point. Rufio was off-leash for most of the time and loved our hideaway in the bush. The picture in the header was taken there.

Rufio and the family overlooking Surfer's Point

And when we washed the car, he loved to chase the water spraying from the hose, snapping at it and trying to eat it.

I wrote here previously about how a walk with Rufio calmed me down after we had witnessed a fatal accident. The experience left me jarred and agitated and walking with Rufio was what I needed. If Rufio could have talked, I wonder what we would have said on that walk and others.

Back in 2015, Canadian writer André Alexis came out with a novel called Fifteen Dogs. And the book does just that—hypothesize dogs with human intelligence and even the ability to speak.

The book is an apologue, a story that conveys some moral lessons and uses animals as its protagonists. The most famous apologues are Aesop's Fables. But they can be long or short and the most famous of modern apologues is George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Fifteen Dogs starts with an unusual bet. The Greek gods Hermes and Apollo are having drinks in a Toronto bar and talking about human intelligence and happiness. Apollo is not overly fond of the human race as such. He sees them as dour and generally unhappy. The source of this misery is their intelligence or ability to think. Hermes disagrees. He has always liked humans and finds them fascinating.

As they leave the bar, Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had human intelligence. "I wonder if they'd be as unhappy as humans," answers Apollo. "Some humans are unhappy; others aren't. Their intelligence is a difficult gift."

Apollo proposes a wager, a year's servitude, "that animals - any animal you choose - would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence."

They also decide that they won't be able to decide whether one of the animals is happy until its death. Does it die happy? Hermes gets Apollo to agree that if just one dies happy, he has won the bet.

The bet is on. They pass a nearby veterinary clinic and passing through its walls (they are gods, after all) Apollo confers human intelligence on fifteen dogs at the back of the clinic.

The fifteen dogs are listed at the beginning of the book in a Dramatis Canes. They include a variety of dogs, large and small, old and young, and of various different breeds.

As the dogs wake up, they discover their new intelligence, and one of them figures out how to unlatch their cages. They escape en masse from the clinic. And so the story begins.

Now these are dogs. They still have dog instincts and dog memories of their past. But now they have something more and it is unsettling to some of them.

The fact that the bet won't be fully resolved until the creatures die makes for a very powerful and poignant tale. The immediate aftermath of their escape sees three dogs left behind at the back door of the clinic. Agatha, an old labradoodle is too old and sick to join the others. She had been left at the clinic to be put down. Two others had been at the clinic for minor ailments. They stayed with Agatha. In the morning they are discovered by clinic staff. The two sick mutts are treated and released to their owners where their new-found intelligence does not go well.

One of the by-products of intelligence is an awareness of time. A day spent doing nothing while the master was away used to be tolerable, but now became unbearable.

The remaining twelve hightail it to a retreat, a coppice in High Park. A new language distinguished from the simple dog language of barks, snarls and yips evolves. A language spoken as variations on the old dog language but with nuances. One of the dogs, Prince, wholeheartedly embraces the new language and becomes a poet, speaking flowery phrases. Some of the dogs admire Prince's brilliance, others despise him for it.

Four of the dogs decide that this new way of thinking goes against what it means to be a dog. They decide they want to ignore their new-found talents as much as possible and embrace the old ways of doghood.

Atticus, a mastiff and the largest of the dogs, takes aside Majnoun, a large black poodle and they discuss the issue.

"Some of us," said Atticus, "believe the best way is to ignore the new thinking and stop using the new words."

"How can you silence the new words inside?"

"No one can silence the words inside, but you can ignore them. We can go back to the old ways of being. This new thinking leads away from the pack, but a dog is no dog if he does not belong."

"I do not agree," said Majnoun. "We have this new way. It has been given to us. Why should we not use it? Maybe there is a reason for our difference."

And here the story takes on an air that led me to believe it would evolve as a variation on William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the famous story of British schoolboys who become stranded on an island. That tale is a devastating account of the descent into tribalism, dominance, and cruelty by the strong over the weak. A cruelty that ends in murder.

The four dogs indeed set out to purge the group of the ones embracing the new way.

Majnoun is attacked by the four and left for dead. But he does not die. He is found by a human, taken for veterinary treatment and over a period of six months, recovers.

Majnoun's is the most powerful and interesting of the stories. His new owners are a couple, Nira and Miguel. He is closest to Nira and spends much time with her. He starts to understand English beyond the ability of ordinary dogs. And he learns to actually speak English. The first time he uses it with Nira, it is a simple answer to a question she asks: "yes". And her initial reaction—she faints. After she recovers, another word from Majnoun has her flee in terror.

Slowly she comes around. But Majnoun has decided not to speak to her. They develop a silent language. She ask questions and Majnoun nods or shakes his head. Somehow they communicate a lot with this silent language.

Partway through the story of Majnoun and Nira is an interlude when they encounter another dog from the pack, Benjy. Benjy is a very clever and very manipulative beagle. As a small dog, he was a submissive in the old pack that remained after Majnoun was attacked. But he didn't like his role and how he used his wily and conniving nature is both a lesson in street smarts and vengeance. A friendly pooch to all appearances, Benjy is a nasty piece of work, in some ways more evil than the original four alpha dogs that organized the purge.

Benjy tries to ingratiate himself into the trio of Majnoun, Nira and Miguel but Majnoun, as the larger dog, ejects Benjy for his mischievous conniving.

Benjy next encounters Prince the poet. Prince had survived the purge through the intervention of Hermes. But now an exile, Prince was wary of developing another lasting relationship with a human master. He had managed to develop relationships with various humans who feed him and occasionally take him in for a while. But he is free to come and go.

Benjy ingratiates himself into one of these homes with a couple named Clare and Randy. Like Benjy, this couple are opportunists with little moral character. They adopt Benjy and give Prince the boot. But the relationship between the three explores some new territory and brings in a comic element. Benjy, as a dog, determines that Randy is the alpha male, the leader of their little pack. But Randy is a masochist and likes to be dominated in the bedroom, complete with whips and chains and all the accoutrements. This is very confusing to Benjy who loses all respect for Randy. Clare and Randy eventually become Benjy's undoing.

Returning to the story of Majnoun: after a few years, a quarrel develops over status - Majnoun acknowledges Miguel as the leader of their little "pack" - which causes a rift and Majnoun leaves. But Zeus himself intervenes and persuades Majnoun to reconcile with Nira. And he does, speaking directly to her in English.

Their remaining years together are brilliantly and lovingly described - conversations both philosophical and intimate. Majnoun asks about her relationship with Miguel. He does not understand the concept of romantic love at all. But it is clear that he is, in fact, deeply in love with Nira, though not in a sexual way. It is not simply the love of a dog for its master as Majnoun sees Nira as an equal. The lives of the three become deeply intertwined, though Majnoun and Nira have agreed that he will not speak aloud in front of Miguel, who just thinks of him as a clever dog.

How this part of the story ends is deeply emotional and deeply affecting. Majnoun might be just a dog, but I cared for him as much as much as I have for any human character in fiction. Only a heartless person can fail to be affected by this story in my opinion. (But I confess, I am very much a sentimentalist.)

Eventually we are left with just one dog left alive—Prince the poet. His story makes up the last chapter of the book. His back story is told—his birth and first master, Kim. A relationship he cherished and still remembers fondly.

As the years go by and Prince gets old and nearing the end of his life, his one true love is poetry. He never learned English but has an abiding affection for the elaborate and modified dog language that he and the pack had had. His great fear is that his poetry will be lost to posterity as he is the last of his kind (the dogs with human intelligence).

Prince is also the last chance for Hermes to win the bet, and Apollo does his best to scuttle this possibility. Suffice to say that Prince, now old and blind, faces a perilous quest to return to one of the homes that sometimes takes him in, a home with four kindly humans he knows will care for him.

Does Prince die happy? Does Hermes win the bet? Or does he die unhappy, giving the win to Apollo?

For the reader, who wins the bet is really irrelevant. What is relevant is the insights we have come to about both dogs and humans. And mostly about love and what it means.

We tend to take love for granted, whether the love of pets or humans. But the depth and beauty of a loving relationship, as well as the cruelty and vicissitudes of life are explored in a beguiling way in this wonderful book. There is much to think about.

We have often heard the story of the faithful dog who pines after the death of his master, the dog who sits on his master's grave, forlorn and lost. Dogs can and do love deeply. But humans often take this for granted. I am not a dog person, preferring the company of cats. But the book gave me a great empathy for the lives of dogs.

In my own life I often wonder how Rufio felt after the birth of our granddaughter. Once a primary focus in the lives of my daughter and son-in-law, he was now playing second fiddle to our granddaughter.

Rufio and our granddaughter shortly after she was born.

In 2018 our daughter and grand daughter moved back to Canada. Our son-in-law followed soon after. They were going to try life out here for a few years before moving back to Australia. They sent for Rufio and he arrived in early 2019. The family now had a new addition, our grandson. Rufio made the family complete.

Rufio and his family lived on a rural road in Surrey. A beautiful home on a big lot. Lots of room for Rufio to run around in. One morning, a few weeks after Rufio arrived on Canada, we got an urgent message from our daughter. Rufio had gotten out of the house at night and escaped the yard. He had been struck by a car and killed.

We were devastated. Not just because we loved Rufio but because we knew how much he was loved by his family. Our son-in-law found him lying on the side of the road when he took out the garbage that night.

They later heard from a man who had found Rufio mortally wounded in the middle of the road. He had carried Rufio to the side of the road so he would not be struck again. And then he proceeded to knock on doors to find his owner. He had knocked on the family's door, but our daughter and son-in-law had been in the office at the back working on a project and had not heard the knocking.

The man had given up his fruitless search and gone back to Rufio. He held him and talked to him and told him he had a family who loved him. Then Rufio closed his eyes for the last time.

One wonders what Rufio's thoughts were. Did he feel abandoned? Superseded by human children in the affections of his masters? Or were his last moments happy memories of better times? A fishing trip with his master? The trips to Margaret River? Fun times with the family?

Rufio and the family cooling off on a hot day.

The children are now back in Australia. They have a new dog, Baba, a Great Dane. But Rufio's memory will continue on with us. He was a good dog and is very much missed.

The thought of a dog with human intelligence and able to speak, like Majnoun in the novel, is a beguiling one. We often look to our pets as friends and confidantes. We talk to them and sometimes tell them our secrets, knowing full well that they do not understand but that they will listen and offer comfort. Would a dog with human intelligence and able to speak still be able to provide this solace? Would we develop the sort of deep love and affection that Nira and Majnoun shared? Or would it lead to mistrust and wariness?

In the end it would probably come down to the same things that define human friendships. Trust and affection. And whether we had a dog who was a Majnoun or a Benjy.

Links of Interest


About the Creator

Marco den Ouden

Marco is the published author of two books on investing in the stock market. Since retiring in 2014 after forty years in broadcast journalism, Marco has become an avid blogger on philosophy, travel, and music He also writes short stories.

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