This Side Up

Selective hearing

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I looked down from the dinner table and as soon as I did, his tail twitched. Ollie had been watching intently. He had slipped quietly into the room, but I could feel his presence and now he knew I had his attention.

In a whisper, barely audible, I said, “sit.” I could have pressed a button on a robot. Without as much as a blink and without taking his eyes from me, Ollie sat down. His tail was now swinging back and forth. Clearly, he knew in a matter of moments he would get a treat.

I didn’t rush it.

“Lie down.”

Ollie didn’t hesitate. He let fore forelegs extend in front of him without wavering his gaze. What training, I thought. Ollie has come such a long way from the totally non-responsible dog rescued from a North Carolina kill shelter. Finally, it seemed he was controllable.

The following night, I put to test exactly how intently Ollie would follow directions. Could he lip-read my commands?

OK, I know you’re thinking this is crazy, but if dogs are trained to follow hand commands along with verbal commands, might they also be paying such close attention that they are also following one’s lips? I put my thesis to the test and making certain not to utter a sound, mouthed “sit.” He looked at me blankly. I hissed the “s,” and immediately he sat down.

Ollie can’t lip-read, but I was excited he is finally following commands, albeit “come” still eludes him.

I was in for a rude reminder of who’s in control in January when it seemed winter was behind us. The sun was warm. The ground had thawed. It was a tease as we were to discover, however, at that moment it was bright, cheery and spring like. We slipped on Ollie’s electric fence collar and his cow bell that enables us to find him, even if it’s in the yard, since, he’s not good at coming when called. He bound off the porch, the picture of free exuberance to conduct his customary yard patrol. He’s learned to respect the boundary of the electric fence, avoiding the driveway where it leaves the yard and the seawall. The rest of the yard is enclosed with stockade and chain link fence. Ollie has make his escape on several occasions, digging under the chain link fence. We’ve reinforced weak points with cinder blocks, bricks and logs. It’s worked, or rather, it had worked.

This wonderful morning suddenly became weirdly quiet. I strained to hear the cowbell. Nothing.

It only took me a moment to discover what he’d done. Remarkably, he had rolled back a cinder block and dug under the fence. He was gone, but I could softly hear the bell a couple of houses away. Carol and I went into our alert-catch mode. I grabbed a leash and keys to one car. Carol got in hers. In my haste I forgot my cell.

I spotted him immediately and as luck would have it, he was in a fenced yard with a narrow opening. He was so focused on pursuing a scent, he didn’t see me moving to head him off. It looked like this was going to be a short-lived escape.

Then as I closed in, he looked up and bolted. I grabbed his tail, but it was hopeless.

The chase was on. He appeared on Shawomet and heard the bell on Symonds. I asked people jogging and walking their dogs. Reports confirmed a beagle-like dog with long legs (he’s a coon hound) wearing a cowbell. Believe me, people look in disbelief when they hear that.

I was encouraged. Then all of a sudden he appeared out from the brush on Point Avenue, running straight down the road. I followed. We were doing 20 mph when he dodged off in the direction of Mill Cove.

It’s then I saw Carol coming in the opposite direction. I gave her Ollie’s whereabouts and headed back to the house to get my cell phone. We crisscrossed the territory extending the radius to the west side of West Shore Road. The trail had gone cold and after 40 minutes I headed to the office to have Tim Forsberg put out the word on Facebook. Carol called police.

A half hour later, she was on the phone. He was in the salt marsh alongside Point Avenue. I headed home to get my fishing waders I found Carol standing beside the road with Peter Appollonio of Foster Street. I met Peter three years earlier while reporting about flood insurance premiums and their impact on Conimicut homeowners.

The bell was audible but the underbrush was too dense for any visual identification. Thank God for the bell. I fought my way into the tangle of briars and caught a glimpse of our hound as he headed for the muddy flats of the marsh. When I got there, he was gone again. I reconnoitered with Carol and Peter. Ollie had crossed into the marsh between Shawomet and Point. I circled around to the Shawomet side while they stared at Point.

I found him on the banks of a small pond. He was black with mud, panting and still focused on whatever he was chasing.

It was time to take charge. “Ollie,” I said in a centurion voice, “sit.” It was the one command that always worked. It had to work now. He looked up. Wow, I thought, this is going to work.

I issued the command again. I could hear Carol on the other side of the marsh laughing. But, I was going to have the last laugh, or so I thought.

Ollie didn’t wait. He split and once again the trail went silent. I went back to driving the neighborhood, pausing to talk with walkers and to listen for the bell.

Then came the call. Peter had him on Ellery Street. There they were, both of them covered with mud. Peter had tackled him.

Ollie was as congenial as ever and willingly jumped in the back of the car. Carol drove down to also thank Peter.

The cleanup followed. Buckets of water to wash off the worst before bringing Ollie upstairs to the tub. He looked sheepish. He knew we weren’t happy. He stood in the tub as I poured pans full of warm water over him.

Then without thinking, I said, “Sit.”

He wagged his tail…he knew all along what I had been up to.

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