Our DisAsta by Sandy Cannon-Brown


I can’t help myself.  When someone posts a cute dog video on Facebook, I have to play it. I smile or laugh.  I relax, and relaxing is not something that comes naturally to a person who needs a plus sign on Type A. Yesterday my mood changer was a video of a golden retriever lying on its back in an exercise class doing the same bicycle leg movements as the Spandex-clad humans.

Dogs make me happy. I can’t pass one on the street without asking the owner if I may say, “Hi,” which is spoken with a stupid grin as I stroke a furry chin and coo.

My own dog, Asta (named after the dog star of the Thin Man series in the 1930s and 40s), is a 5-year-old standard poodle. She is uniquely colored with a cream-colored body and ears that are striped black and silver.  Her eyelashes are long, absurdly long – her signature feature. She is boisterous and energetic, adjectives that should be preceded by adverbs such as very or extremely. When she was a puppy, we had her on Prozac after a conversation with our vet that went like this: “Are all poodles this hyper?” “No, I’d say Asta is in the top one percent.”  Congratulations.

My husband and I were (okay, we are) workaholics.  We never found time for kids or pets. But when we semi-retired at 65, we decided we could raise a dog.  Omer does not like cats, so the pet had to be a dog, and one who did not shed. That requirement greatly limited breeds.  My family had a poodle, and although I was away at college and later far from home for most of her life, my filtered memory told me Brigitte was the perfect dog.  But life was different then. I lived in a suburban neighborhood in a small Indiana town where kids and dogs were let out to play and called in only to eat and sleep. Now, in a gated community, dogs must be well-behaved, and on a leash beyond their yards bounded by electrified, invisible fences.  (The architectural committee does not allow actual fences.)

Asta must be reminded about the invisible fence every once in a while.  She gets zapped; we cringe at what we’re doing to our baby. But it works.  For months, she remembers what happens when she leaves our yard.

Boundaries, however, do not keep her from barking.  She barks at squirrels and bunnies and other animals she wants out of her yard. She barks at dogs on our walks with whom she wants to play. She barks at the neighbors to announce her presence and to demand they come see her. She barks at anyone who comes to the house.  She barks to let us know she wants to go out, eat, or play. She barks to tell us we have ignored her for more than 10 minutes.

Many dog owners would say, “Oh for God’s sake, stupid people, dogs do not have to bark!”  True. We do have a bark collar, another Taser in her world. But we sometimes enjoy the conversations we have with a very smart dog. She knows many words in our language and we know several words in Poodle Bark, which – unfortunately – is a blaring language.

Regrettably, she ignores most of the words she understands if there is a distraction of any kind.  Because people are a distraction, they only see – and hear – an obnoxious dog. When no one else is around, and we’re paying attention to her, we marvel at her understanding.  Yesterday, I was working in my upstairs office while my husband was downstairs napping. I said, “Asta, go downstairs and take a nap with Daddy.” She cocked her head in the position that indicates she’s trying to understand, then went downstairs to our bedroom and jumped on the bed.  She knows the words “downstairs,” “nap,” and “Daddy.” I don’t know if she actually put all three together or just heard “nap,” a word that always prompts her to go to the bed.

If she comes in muddy, I’ll say, “shower,” and she goes directly to the shower in our master bath.  If you inadvertently say “people” or “coming” in a sentence, she starts barking and goes to the front door or jumps on the sofa where she can look out the front window.  We have a new gazebo that I have dubbed the “little house.” I tell her we’re going to the “little house” and she goes straight there from our back door (unless there is the slightest distraction).

She never jumps up on counters or the table to get food, and even refrains from getting into her dog-treat basket that she could easily reach.  Instead, she fetches a toy that holds a treat and brings it to us to fill. Conversely, if we hold up a treat and tell her to “go fetch,” she will bring us the toy that holds that particular treat.

Right now, she is lying at my feet as I type at the computer.  She will be an angel until I dare stand up, which signals I might want to play with her.   Or, she will stay put until I say I have to print something. She is terrified of the printer, and somehow just the word “print” alerts her that the monster machine is about to roar, and she runs downstairs.

She’s learned words in our language, so we’ve tried to learn words in hers. Our goal for the future is for both parents and dog to master sign language.  “Stay,” “sit,” “down,” and “come” are about all we’ve accomplished in sign. We’re working on, “Shhh.”

For now, we have a dog with a bark only a mother could love.  Apologies to everyone else.

Sandy Cannon-Brown is an environmental filmmaker. She has made two films, Beautiful Swimmers Revisited and High Tide in Dorchester, with writer Tom Horton and photographer Dave Harp.  A third, An Island Out of Time, about Smith Island will premiere October 13 at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum during the Chesapeake Film Festival. Sandy and her husband, Omer Brown, live in Asta’s house in St. Michaels. 


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