Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Seeing-Nose Dog


Our dog "Noo" enjoying the bush 

Quadrupeds are not meant to trip. So it is a little unsettling that our dog, Noo, has started tripping over on our walks through the bush. That she is also barking at shapes and shadows, and has a tell-tale milky film over her eyes, is enough to convince us of the hard truth. At almost fifteen years of age, she is starting to lose her eyesight.

She is going deaf too, seeming to ignore our normal whistles and calls, and only responding to loud claps and yells. I haven’t clapped while walking since we were advised to do this in the Alaskan bush, as a way of alerting bears to our presence. I’m still not entirely sure it wasn’t a joke they play on visitors, as they also told us to sing and talk loudly, and to wear “bear bells”. When you’ve behaved in such a loony fashion while walking, a little clapping and shouting seems quite ordinary in comparison.

When I was young my sisters and I used to debate which would be worse: losing your sight or losing your hearing. As my eyes age and glasses become an essential part of life, I admit to tasting slightly the grief of that power fading. If I was unable to hear music or birdsong or soft conversation, that grief would grow terribly.

Yet somehow I cannot project such grief onto our dog, even as I holler and clap my way through our daily walk. She sheds the years every time we are out, bounding puppy-like through the bush. Although she may stumble over the odd stick or rough spot, I would still back her to find her way home blindfolded. Nose to the ground, scanning territory like an ill-disciplined minesweeper, she has her number one sense fully and joyfully in operation.


"Noo" reads the bush through smell and taste 
I am a pauper in this smelling game. Deploying my mere five million smell receptors from 1.75 metres above the ground, Noo puts her 200 million receptors right onto the subject. She also uses 40% more of her brain to smell than I do. So rather than mourning her declining capacities, or metaphorically putting her out to pasture, I really should engage her as my seeing-nose dog!

I fancy, for instance, that she could tell me a great deal about the cast of characters that have had this bush as their stage all night. Here a pademelon or a family of possums; there a goshawk or a frogmouth. And she’d doubtless fill me in on the plot too: a dispute in this tree; a scent marking on that bush; an owl's pursuit and kill over there; plus the ordinary munch, scratch, hiss and growl of everynight in our bush.

While my life with dogs did not start auspiciously – my first childhood dog was a neurotic people-biter – I have since had four long-lived, characterful and faithful dogs. They have sometimes been hard work, as most worthwhile things are. But time spent with them in the bush has taught me new ways of looking and feeling and smelling and hearing. And their joyful dedication to the present tense is something I am constantly striving to learn. 


Dog tired! Our 1980s dog "Wup" shares a rest with me during a bushwalk (photo - KDM) 

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