Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tommy Talks Like We Do

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, I was in bed just waking up when I heard a faint knock at the front door. I quickly made myself presentable and worked my way through the house, passing Tommy in the kitchen, who was on high alertone ear pointed to the sky, brow furrowed, tail straight out behind him.

At the door I was greeted by my adorable neighbor, a 4-year-old Frenchman.

“Ilyas, what are you doing here?” I rarely get unexpected visitors but a 4-year-old Frenchman traveling solo was a first. I glanced around for his mom or dad but they were nowhere in sight.

“Does your mom know you’re here?” He gave me a distracted nod as he stretched around me to peek at Tommy, whose tail sliced through the air like a pendulum. Clearly this guest was here to see someone other than me. “Do you want to say hi to Tommy?”

His eyes lit up and he nodded, with fervor this time. I may have even heard him say “Mais bien sur!” But perhaps I imagined that.

During the first few months of life with Tommy, I took a beginner obedience class at the Pasadena Humane Society with Penny Scott-Fox. Tommy learned the basic commands: sit, leave it, down. (The down command took a while. Tommy’s body would lower as he followed the treat to the floor but then his rear would pop up. Penny called him a popper. Eventually, after many, many tries he stayed down.)  

Obedience class was great but it soon became clear Tommy needed individualized attention focused on behavior modification. At Penny’s recommendation I started working one-on-one with Janine Pierce of J9's K9s, and that’s when Tommy learned the command that made home life with him bearable: Go to your bed.

Tommy gets ecstatic when visitors arrive. Left to his own devices, he would jump up at their face, bite their shoelaces, slobber all over any exposed skin, and jump up again, throwing in a few nips for good measure along the way. (I’ll have much more to say about Tommy’s “nips” later.)

While many dogs jump up, and some even nip, it can be a real problem when that dog is a pit bulland he does both. I’ve done a lot of work with Tommy, but I have only one trick up my sleeve for managing him when a guest comes to the house.

“Tommy, go to your bed,” I stated firmly as I escorted Illyas toward the kitchen.

Tommy loves hearing this. He ran and leaped into the air and landed on his bed, turning to face us to wait expectantly for his treat. With Ilyas by my side, I went to open the cabinet, but Tommy couldn’t contain his excitement. He got out of bed and ran toward us.

“Tommy!” I said, much louder and firmer this time. I held out my arm and pointed to the bed with military command. “Go to your bed!”

Tommy turned and leaped into his bed again. And then Ilyas said, “How come he talks like we do?”

I wanted to be clear I understood his question. “You mean because he goes to his bed when I tell him to?”

Ilyas nodded. What a great question, and I have to admit my heart swelled with a bit of pride at the answer.

“Because I taught him to.”

Janine called it interspecies communication, and then she’d say “isn’t that cool?” And I have to say, yeah, actually, it is cool.

Lest you find my pride a bit immodest, let me assure you that for every prideful moment there are at least two to humble me. 


  1. Cute story! My dogs think "go to your bed" means "glance at your bed for nanosecond and then carry on with whatever you were doing."

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Paula.

    I'm guessing you haven't been as desperate to get your dog to his or her bed as I have been with Tommy. If desperation strikes, try throwing a slab of steak on that bed.

  3. A wonderful story.
    Dogs are such excellent linguists.
    When we lived in Morocco the animals responded to commands in both Arabic and English!

  4. Elizabeth, thank you.
    That reminds me of a friend's dog who used to respond to both English and Japanese.
    Dogs are excellent linguists!

  5. De la bouche des enfants! Sorry, couldn't resist. What a great story. Isn't always great to gain some new wisdom from little children? And you should be proud, Sue! You found a stray Pit Bull, saved his life and became his mom. And he goes to his bed because you taught him to do that. Bravo!

  6. Awwww... thanks so much, Liz. It is wonderful to get a child's perspective.

  7. I love it. Boz knows "go to your place," and he has four "places" so we have to point to the one we mean. But he's very good at it and loves his rewards.

    I knew a woman who boasted that her dog knew the name of each of his toys. She thought he knew at least 100 words. Maybe so. Tommy and Boz know whole sentences, so why not?

  8. Petrea, Boz is obviously brilliant! You've taught him well. And I do believe a dog could know 100 words. Like you said, why not? I'm sure I've only taught Tommy a fraction of what he's capable of.

  9. Penny now has her own dog training business, and Daisy and I proudly achived Canine Good Citizen with her last summer :)

  10. daisydog, congratulations on getting the Canine Good Citizen award! I love hearing about pit bulls doing that. Then they can be real ambassadors for the breed.

    Yes, I should've mentioned that Penny teaches on her own now. We've taken a class at Farnsworth Park. I'll write about that in a later post.