No dog has ever said a word, but that doesn’t mean they live outside the world of speech. They listen acutely. They wait to hear a term— biscuit, walk —and an inflection they know. What a stream of incomprehensible signs passes over them as they wait, patiently, for one of a few familiar words! Because they do not speak, except in the most limited fashion, we are always trying to figure them out. The expression is telling: to “figure out” is to make figures of speech, to invent metaphors to help us understand the world. To choose to live with a dog is to agree to participate in a long process of interpretation—a mutual agreement, though the human being holds most of the cards.
What the interpreter must do is tell stories—sometimes to the dog in question. Who hasn’t heard a dog walker chattering away to her pet, as if she were serving as a kind of linguistic mirror: “You are scared of that police horse,” “Lola loves that ball!” Some people speak for their dogs in the first person, as though the dog were ventriloquizing his owner. There’s inevitably something embarrassing about this; a kind of silly intimacy that might seem sweet at home becomes a source of eye-rolling discomfort to strangers.
But most stories about dogs are narrated to other people, as we go on articulating the tales of our animals’ lives, in order to bring their otherwise incomprehensible experience into the more orderly world of speech. Taking pictures of your pet serves much the same function; it isn’t just about memory and the desire to record, but a way to bring something of the inchoate into the world of the represented. This is a part of the pet owner’s work. In order to live within the domestic world, the dog must be named, read, and in some way understood.
Love for a wordless creature, once it takes hold, is an enchantment, and the enchanted speak, famously, in private mutterings, cryptic riddles, or gibberish. This is why I shouldn’t be writing anything to do with the two dogs who have been such presences for sixteen years of my life. How on earth could I stand at the requisite distance to say anything that might matter?…
…This is the point where love, the very beginning of love, shades right out of language’s grasp.
— from Mark Doty, Dog Years: A Memoir