Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Songs in the Key of Fetch

image of a pug dog

Fetch was not like other dogs. Whenever people were eating, he stared at their feet as though it were high noon at the OK Corral and he was Wyatt Earp; and if a foot so much as moved an inch, he barked frantically, whirled around several times, then resumed staring, determined not to be outdrawn.

Fetch was also tormented by the toaster oven bell. He heard that harmless ping countless times, and countless times he went barking mad at the sound, whirling ‘round and ‘round as though his tail were an evil monkey on his back. If Pavlov’s dogs had gone off like that whenever they heard a bell, they would have cost him the Nobel Prize.

Fetch responded with similar dismay to the sound of a letter being opened, the rip of aluminum foil being torn from its roll, or the gravelly crunch of garbage being pulverized in the disposal. Another of his demons was the sliding door between the television room and the back yard. Every morning when we let the dogs out, Fetch stood watch on the patio outside the door. While the other dogs, all pugs like Fetch, wandered off to the grass in search of a friendly spot, Fetch stared at the track along the bottom of the door until someone opened it to bring the dogs inside. As soon as the door moved, he barked heatedly, whirled around twice, then dashed off at warp speed, still barking, until he reached the far side of the yard, a distance of sixty feet. Not until he had completed this ritual did Fetch attend to the other rituals for which fenced-in yards and sliding doors were invented. His had to have been the most convoluted toilet preamble in canine history.

When Fetch began exhibiting these behaviors, we were at a loss to explain them. We ruled out separation anxiety because he didn’t bark when we left the house. We eliminated cognitive dysfunction syndrome because he wasn’t old when he started acting mental. We discounted Whirling Disease because he isn’t a trout. We thought maybe a Hindu dervish had sneaked into the pug gene pool when the lifeguard wasn’t looking. Either that or Fetch had donated his brain to science before he was finished using it.

Although we couldn’t explain Fetch’s behavior, we hoped to be able to change it. We tried flooding, a behavior-modification technique designed to extinguish a reaction to a stimulus by presenting that stimulus in large doses until it loses its effect.

First we shuffled our feet constantly as we ate. That approach not only was uncomfortable but also resulted in our spilling a lot of food. Worse yet, Fetch became so agitated by all the shuffling that he whirled into the side of the kitchen counter and almost knocked himself out.

Next we tried tearing sheet after sheet of aluminum foil off its roll. Apart from the cut thumb I sustained in the process, that strategy seemed to work. By the ninth or tenth sheet – I made sure Fetch wasn’t standing near anything before I began tearing – the poor dog was meeting himself coming and going. He stood there with his head cocked to one side and his tongue cocked to the other as if to say, “Why do you need all that aluminum foil?”

The next day, however, when I crinkled one of the sheets of aluminum foil while removing it from my stash, Fetch twirled about as excitedly as ever. Like Fetch, we were getting nowhere fast. We decided that the concept of flooding was all wet.

One day as I was opening the mail in slow motion and Fetch was still prone to whirling about like a gyroscope gone bonkers, I realized what was ailing him. The explanation was so priceless in its simplicity that I nearly stabbed myself with the letter opener. I was amazed that I hadn’t thought of it sooner. Fetch had a song stuck in his head, a song he didn’t want there and was trying to get out.

This condition affects most of the people some of the time and some of the people most of the time. I am convinced it can affect dogs, too. If you have spent a tortured portion of a day with “Flowers” or “I Can See You” or anything by Lady Gag Me stuck in your mind, you know Fetch’s torment firsthand. You also know that after a song gets stuck on autorepeat, there’s little you can do short of a self-inflicted lobotomy to get rid of the damn thing. It’s enough to send a body whirling around in frustration, and that brings us back to Fetch. His twirling, which could be triggered by a seemingly benign external stimulus, was simply an effort to dislodge that song. His barking was an attempt to drown it out.

We will never know what melodies overstayed their welcome in the mind of Fetch–whether it was “Stairway to Heaven,” “Freebird,” “Close to You,” or Mozart’s 41st that set him off. Sadly, he took those secrets with him when he passed away. I’d like to report that our efforts to “cure” Fetch were successful, and as a result he spent his last few years in relative peace. Actually, his last few peaceful years were a gift bestowed by his progressive loss of hearing.

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