A Pet Peeve

by Kenneth B. Lourie

I think my 7 1/2-year-old golden retriever, Bailey, has a hearing problem. He doesn’t appear to be responding to anything I say. As an example, at nighttime Bailey often lies down outside our back door, alone, less than 10 feet from the house, staring off into the distance - watching, listening, learning, catching the breeze, etc. - doing whatever it is dogs do. He is untethered and unleashed and basically has the run of a 10-acre-plus neighborhood (with a dead-end street down the middle), so he’s pretty free, in dog heaven, you might say.

So when I see him sitting/lying out back, after returning from whatever dog adventure he’s been on, I assume he wants to come inside. I open the back door just enough to stick my head outside and call his name. “Bailey,” I’ll say. No response. Again, I call him, a bit louder this time, “BAILey, come!” Still no response. In fact there’s no indication whatsoever that he even heard me. No ear twitch, no head turn, no lip curl, nothing. So I’ll step out of the house a few feet or so to make my physical presence felt and call his name, again, even louder, “BAILEY!” This time I seem to startle him, as if he didn’t know I was even there. Now when he sees me, he immediately gets up, wags his tail and promptly trots over to where I’m standing and then steps into the house. His reaction to actually seeing me is so much different from his nonreaction to my speaking to him that I’m wondering if perhaps I should change my command-type behavior to him and make my contact more visual.

Given his middle age, in dog years, it’s a bit uncharacteristic, though, that he would have experienced a loss of hearing so soon. Our last golden retriever, Brandy, lived to almost 15 years and I don’t recall her having this kind of hearing problem. Bailey is barely half that, having turned 7 in June. My main concern, however, is not whether Bailey’s nonresponsiveness is a physical problem, but rather whether it’s a learned behavior.

You see, we also have a cat in the house, Smokey, whose response to hearing his name called is quite different from Bailey’s, though the effect is very much the same. When I first see him, regardless of what he’s doing - eating, grooming, lounging, sleeping, sunning, etc. - I’ll greet him by calling his name. And he definitely reacts. Typically, his ears will perk and move in my direction; then he’ll twist his neck, if necessary, and focus his eyes on me.

Usually he’ll stop what he’s doing, at least for a moment, before ultimately choosing to ignore me and immediately return to whatever activity was so consuming him before my interruption. But I wouldn’t expect any more from a cat. So Smokey’s ignoring me is - to invoke a golf-ism - par for the course.

But that’s their charm, if you love cats, that is. Dogs, however, are a different breed, less intellectual, it is said (hogwash!), and more eager to please.

So how could Bailey, my true and loyal dog, my constant companion - who sleeps by my side of the bed every night, whom I feed and treat and play with regularly, whom I bonded with through 10 weeks of county-sponsored dog obedience classes and who wags his tail at the mere sight of me - possibly be ignoring me, his reason for living? He loves me. He must be losing his hearing. Why else would a loved one who lives with me not respond to the sound of my voice?

Lourie is a regionally syndicated columnist who resides in Burtonsville, MD.