The Rosetta Stone

For the first time in his life, Harley isn’t the center of attention. In the last 12 months, the members of the pack, his relative position in the pack and the rhythms of the pack have changed. He’s accepted those challenges and come out a better dog and companion in every regard.

During the last two months, however, he’s been asked to tackle a tougher task: learn a new language. In mid-August, Travis lost nearly all his sight to Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome (SARDS) during the course of about four days. From that point forward, Harley has struggled to understand Travis. It’s as if he’s started speaking a foreign language or picked up an accent Harley’s never heard before. He’s trying to communicate but what he means and what Harley is interpreting are two vastly different things.

Harley has learned the basics of Travis’ new language and has been patient and accommodating, for the most part. Travis uses everything in the house and courtyard as a bumper to guide him toward his desired destination. Everything—including Harley. He walks under his belly, through his legs, between his legs, under his chin, bounces off his chest, legs, jowls and hips. And occasionally, he gooses him. For the most part, Harley lets Travis pass through, jumps over him or just let’s him bounce off. Harley can conjugate the foundational verbs and build simple sentences. But that’s about it.

More complex communication, however, continues to escape him. Dogs are masters of body language.  It’s elaborate, sophisticated and rhythmic. Dogs use facial expressions, ear set, body posture, tail carriage and overall demeanor to express themselves fully.  All of these elements together relay meaning and intent. When one or more of these modes are in conflict, the receiver can become confused. Confusion isn’t a comfortable state for any dog and most will act to rectify the situation and return things to a perceived state of balance. How they do it depends on the personality of the dog.

Since his sudden blindness, Travis has been sending mixed signals. As with most blind dogs, his eyes are, frankly, a little creepy.  He has The Stare: His eyes are always open, pupils fully dilated to let in as much light as possible.  He rarely blinks, never makes eye contact and is often looking in the wrong direction. I can understand why Harley may be disconcerted by that look. It’s vacant, longing and sometimes desperate.

When he’s focused on a noise or scent or engaged in heavy concentration, Travis’s ears perk up and his head tilts a little to the left. This is often his state when he’s trying to make his way through the house or courtyard. And often he’s heading right toward Harley with a stern, thought-filled look. I often see Harley do a double take when he notices Travis’s approach. It’s as if I can see doubt crossing his mind.  He wants to trust that Travis intends no ill will, but he second-guesses himself in a split second and turns for a second look, just to make sure.

Most of all, Harley has struggled to read Travis’s new carriage. Travis is built low and strong, but his carriage has changed dramatically. Because he uses his nose as a tactile tool as much as a scent receptor these days, Travis leads with his head and neck extended, swaying side to side, level with his back or lower to feel his way through his space. His paws and nails barely clear the floor on his stride before he puts them back down again. His shoulders are hunched forward. In short, he looks like a Big Cat stalking its prey.

The eyes, the ears, and the posture all send a message he doesn’t intend to send: I’m stalking you and am prepared to take what you have.

The body language is inconsistent with the Travis he’s known for ten months. The calming signals are gone. Travis no longer walks in a curve when approaching him. His eyes are hard and pupils enlarged rather than soft and unchallenging. He doesn’t avert his eyes or turn his head when looking at him. He doesn’t yawn or shift his gaze to the ground and sniff an imaginary scent to displace tension. And I’m not sure Harley can know why.

From watching Harley prepare for and react to exchanges with Travis, I think it’s the perceived inappropriateness of the interactions that causes him the most distress.  For Harley, there is no reason why Travis should be walking in that stalking way directly toward him while he’s eating or by the spot where he’d just painstakingly buried his remaining rawhide. And most of all, there is absolutely no reason Travis should be climbing into his bed with that disconcerting gait in the middle of the night. (Harley has made noises of fear and shock I’ve never heard from him before, but to his credit, he has not struck or laid a tooth on Travis. Yet.)

Harley needs a Rosetta stone. I want desperately to convey key pieces of information—Travis is blind, he’s probably experiencing low-level pain from his liver cancer, and he’s probably suffering from some form of canine cognitive dysfunction.

I was relaying this story to a friend yesterday and she said “Why don’t you just tell him?” I was stunned and embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of it. Tonight, I had a short talk with Harley. I gave him those important pieces of Travis’ puzzle and asked for his patience and tolerance. I asked him to be gentler in his rebuffs of Travis.

After dinner tonight, Harley was lying in repose on his bed in the office as Travis shuffled unwittingly right toward him. Harley grumbled a bit and didn’t budge an inch. I spun around from my desk and leapt from my chair, anticipating something ugly. Instead, I saw Travis turn away from Harley and Harley ignore him. I immediately went to Harley and told him that he did well but could do better. I asked him to be even gentler.

Not more than 30 seconds later, I watched as Travis headed straight for him again.  This time, Harley let him get all the way onto the bed and step on his leg.  Harley didn’t make a sound. He waited as Travis realized his mistake and changed course. Again, I sprang from my seat—this time to praise and love on Harley. He’d done exactly as I asked. I wish I could have captured the look on his face: it was soft, and happy and joyful.  Ears laid easily back, eyes soft and loving, mouth soft and smiling. He was elated to have pleased me. And I was overjoyed that we’ve communicated so fully. Perhaps I’ve found a Rosetta stone of my own. Only time and Travis’ travels will tell.

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