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Why My Dog Barks at Dirt

Ajax, a beagle, is the sweetest, stupidest, most stubborn dog I have ever known. He’s pretty typical of hounds, which don’t always make the greatest pets. His consciousness revolves around three things: Love, Smells and Food.

When he was a tiny puppy, Ajax liked to lie splayed flat on my chest, his legs out to either side like a baby, his nose tucked under my ear. Outdoors, he would shadow my heels so closely I’d literally lose sight of him. I’d turn this way and that, thinking he’d run off, only to just avoid stepping on him.

As he grew, Ajax developed golden eyes, a massive head, plus

fifty pounds of muscle and bone. He would still lie splayed flat on my chest if he could. Instead, he gets on the bed and curls up on top of whatever body part he can appropriate: a foot, a leg or an arm, inching ever closer to my nose with heaving sighs and soulfully attempted kisses.

True to form, Ajax has a deep indifference to human commands. You say “Sit,” he says “What’s in it for me?” You say “Come,” he says “Hold on, I’m not ready yet.” But reach toward a piece of chicken, he sprints to your side. Beagles obey a higher authority. The Nose.

For a hound, everything on earth speaks in smells. Ajax walks on the grass, nose to the ground, loudly proclaiming his discoveries. He is the only dog I’ve known who barks at dirt. Dirt speaks to Ajax. It tells him its secrets, whom it has hosted last: what rabbit, what mouse, what human has passed. Concrete and asphalt are no different. Nose to the sidewalk, the scent compels him to follow, woofing.

A beagle has about 225 million scent receptors – a human has 400. Their brains have an olfactory lobe that is about 40 times bigger than a human’s olfactory lobe. A beagle trained to identify smells can recognize as many as 50 different scents. It’s no wonder they’re governed by The Nose and not by man.

The woof, or sharp bark, is how Ajax speaks to a scent. The baying that hounds are infamous for, Ajax produces when sighting another dog. A burglar, Ajax would be happy to greet with wagging tail and kisses. But show him another dog and he’s a foghorn. Ajax considers it his sworn duty to announce his preeminence over any other canine in the immediate vicinity, perhaps an unfortunate result of his having been seduced, early in life before he lost his testicles, by an older female.

But all that aside, it is food that sends Ajax into the greatest paroxysms of joy. The mere sound of pellets in the bowl gives rise to ecstasy. Ajax races to the kitchen and spins in circles, leaping round and round. Then, as I carry the bowl to the spot where he eats, Ajax races ahead of me, skids to a stop at his water bowl, and again spins in leaps and bounds. Finally, he settles to a trembling sit, which he holds until the bowl is placed before him – a condition of his actually getting to eat.

Strange as it may seem, spinning is not evidence of a frenzied or spasmodic disability. Rather, it’s the result of my refusing to allow Ajax to jump up. I can’t stand it when dogs jump on people and consider it the height of canine rudeness. When, early in his puppyhood, Ajax demonstrated his remarkable ability to leap clear up to the rim of a plate to peruse its contents, he was quickly taught that jumping up was unacceptable.

When it comes to commands that involve their food, hounds get smart very quickly. The downward-facing hand is the sign for Down, and hovering over his nose, it sent Ajax's leap sideways. Thus the leap became the spin, highly kinetic but acceptably horizontal, and mealtimes brought on the whirling dervish.

These days, Ajax is all I have left of family life. He and I argue from time to time, as any old couple will. Sometimes he insists on lingering near dead or rotten things. Sometimes I insist on giving him a bath. But for the most part, we are lovingly reconciled to each other, walking slowly down the block, turning the corner, sniffing the evening air.


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