An insight into a dog’s world

16 08 2008

As you can see from the pictures posted previously, there is a new dog living with me and Jackson. She’s not really mine, I’ll get my own one day, and probably before then also a cat. We’ve both been training Panther Paws as she seems to have missed out on this in the past. Luckily she’s dead clever and picks things up pretty pronto. However, not only are we speaking English to her, when she’s heard German for the last couple of years, she also can’t really understand us. I’ve always thought that my pets and other animals can understand me, being a veritable Doctor Doolittle, or perhaps a Horse Whisperer but less rugged looking than Robert Redford (did anyone else cry their eyes out when they read the BOOK, not the film, the book?). So I’ve always thought my cats could understand ‘hey baby waby woo. What have you got there? Is it your toy? Where’s your mouse, do you like that catnip perfume rubbed around your ears? Or that Panther Paws understands ‘Get your head out of the laundry basket NOW, you panty thief!’. Although for some animals it’s best they don’t understand because I do have a first hand account of someone over-hearing a Ken Loach-type child stroking a cat murmuring ‘oh you little tosser, you little fucking knob’. Gritty social realism still exists in England. 


With training a dog then, you have to associate the sound of your voice and a hand signal with a specific action. So it doesn’t matter if this is in German or English, but the tone, the intonation, hand and raised eyebrows can convey the meaning. Eventually the dog will associate the sound with the instruction and if a treat is given each time, the Pavlovian effect will kick in and if your dog is like ours it will probably drool all over the floor. 


Anyway, apart from proclaiming that the best dog ever now lives with us, this is leading onto a short film we watched last night as a special feature on the DVD for If. It’s called Thursday’s Children and was directed by the same director of If, Lyndsay Anderson. At first we sat appalled thinking that this short documentary was another 1950s special education film, instilling the values of good, solid and divided gender roles in little children. The voice over by Richard Burton starts narrating with lines such as ‘Rosie is playing with her dolls. She is bathing them and Brian fetches the water for the baby’s bath’. Then there were shots of the children around a mocked up dining table with newspapers, and the little boys smoking pretend pipes. We clapped our hands to our foreheads and rolled our eyes in despair at the stifling gender roles of the 1950s. We soon lowered our hands in slight embarrassment as we realized that this was in fact a documentary of what was probably one of the first schools of its kind for teaching deaf children. Their education enabled them to firstly associate pictures and actions with words, then read words, read lips and eventually make sounds extremely similar to those in the hearing world, despite never having heard such sounds themselves. 

The slow and patient work of the teacher and the tenacity of the children was quite humbling to watch. It made me quite cross at the same time though, momentarily remembering how bad the state of schools are at present, and the clear reluctance of a large swathe of children not to learn despite having the best opportunities available to them since ever before. As with speaking to animals, and indeed those with hearing ability, the deaf children of the film at first lack any understanding of what words even are, the associations and connotations and as the narrator described, would have no ability to cognitize the world around them, make sense of their experiences, and even lack emotion as we understand it, other than perhaps the most primary ones. As the film develops the children are shown how to associate the words with pictures and actions, and then through the use of a rubber ball, pick up vibrations from the teacher’s spoken words with their hands until they can make the sound and vibrations with their own mouths. Eventually come words, sentences and amazingly, interaction with each other and their teacher, expressing feelings and demands. 

Schooling for deaf children has changed hugely since the 1950s and I’m quite sure Thursday’s Children helped advance the recognition for specialist education and eventually mainstream integration, and as I found out today the film won the 1954 Academy Award for ‘Best Documentary Short’. I’m glad also that stories of ‘Little Sambo’ are also now off the curriculum; tales of Sambo and Mambo told to the children were at an age before political correctness arrived but are nevertheless uncomfortable to watch today. Having heard all sorts of horrors from my parents who were also schooled in the 1950s – left-hand writers having their hands tied behind their backs and forced to write with the other hand, young girls lining up in assembly to have the backs of their legs slapped by the headmaster (many of whom were ex-Army officers, holding the correct ‘discipline attitude’), suet pudding – I’m glad I had the luxury of being taught in the 1980s and 1990s. I think that probably was the best time to be at school, maybe the 70s can be included there too, but I’m sure before then the discipline, rigour, fagging/scumming (how British!), the leather slipper did not contribute to ‘the best years of your life’. Now, well I think metal detectors at the school gates explains enough.


Of course, I am not suggesting that training a dog is any way similar to teaching deaf children – I was just interested in the formulations of language and the processes by which we all come to associate written words and spoken language to our lived experiences. I speak both English and German and it’s interesting to think about how arbitary the sounds of words and their written forms are at first, sounding quite like gibberish, and how they can eventually be learned so as to generate understandings beyond the simple – eg Hund = dog – towards more complex understandings of meaning and feeling. 


Weirdly one of the production crew of If had the same name as my old headmistress (see, times have changed since the 50s!), and the song sung at school assembly was also the same as our ‘unofficial school song’.

All together now!

“He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent TO BE A PILGRIM.”


I was recently surprised to learn that English state-funded schools, since the 1944 Education Act, must hold Christianity as their dominant ideology with a statutory obligation to hold collective (Christian) worship. Hmmm….