My nephew Ryan and his wife Aga are getting a new puppy. A golden retriever. They live in Chicago. They found a good breeder in Utah. They recommended the breeder to Cathy and Joe, my sister and her husband in Maricopa.

Cathy and Joe had golden retrievers before. Ginger, then Portia. In time, the dogs died, as dogs do. It’s always a painful loss. Cathy and Joe didn’t have plans to replace them.

That is, until Ryan and Aga told them about the special breeder, with the special golden retrievers.

So Joe and Cathy reached out. The breeder asked Joe what he and Cathy would like in a dog. A girl, he said. And a dog with a big vocabulary.

Their previous dogs were friendly and well-behaved. They also had big vocabularies. They knew sit, stay and many other words. Many more words than your average dog. Graduate-level canine lexicon.

Their new puppy doesn’t have to know all the words. Somewhere between a junkyard dog and Chaser the border collie.

Chaser was a girl. She had a 1,000-word vocabulary. She was tutored by John Pilley, a retired psychology professor in South Carolina. He had taught at Wofford College, a good name for anything involving dogs.

Chaser learned to fetch any one of 1,000-plus toys, balls and Frisbees. Each by its own name. (Yes, each Frisbee had a different name.)

Pilley published his findings in 2013. The New York Times later wrote: “…Chaser was taught to understand sentences containing a prepositional object, verb and direct object.”

That’s more than I know.

The quote came from Chaser’s obituary. She died in July 2019. She lived to 15, a good run for any dog.

Pilley died the year before. His wife Sally and daughter Robin cared for Chaser in her final year.

I’m sure Chaser missed Pilley. I’m sure she was sad. Maybe she even understood the word “sad.”

I believe Maggie does. She’s my dog, a Shih Tzu mix. It so happens she’s a very good girl. She definitely understands that, if you say it right. Something like this: “Maggie is a good girl!” — with the emphasis on good.

She wasn’t formally trained. She’s like the dog who dropped out of high school and went on to become a self-taught genius. OK, a bit of hype on the genius angle, but to my wife Cindy and me, Maggie’s a “smart little cookie.”

Her vocabulary is not standard doggerel. Sit is a suggestion, not a command. Stay works if there’s something not worth chasing. And “no bark” doesn’t work if she spots another dog within 20 feet. Then we just pick her up and point her in another direction. Easy enough. Maggie weighs 9 pounds.

Homer, our Old English sheepdog, had a different issue. He was deaf from birth. We got him as a special needs case. You could yell “sit” all you want. Homer would stand there and drool. But he knew a sign language. Simple gestures. Some we made up. Some we got from a magazine.

A wave toward us, palms up, meant come. A one-hand wave downward meant sit. Two hands waving emphatically downward meant lie down. A finger wag meant bad dog. Homer could be a handful.

A handclap meant good boy. He got a lot of applause.

One thing you couldn’t do, if he took off, was call him back. He did that once. He gave chase to a coyote. We found him around the block, staring down the coyote. He got a good finger wagging for that.

Homer died some years back. He had cancer.

Maggie used to take off down the street when she was a puppy. She stays put now, except for walks. And her buggy trips around the block. It’s a baby buggy just for dogs. We usually go by Richard’s house. If he’s out and about, he’ll drop whatever he’s doing and give her a treat.

Maggie loves that. She lets out a happy bark. But if Richard’s not around. I’ll say: “Richard’s not home. It’s sad. Very sad.”

So now she knows sad.

Here are a few other entries in Maggie’s dictionary.

Walkies: Any outdoor venture involving a leash. She hears that word and she runs around. It’s a dog’s way of saying: “Let’s do this!”

Jiggly tags: Connoting the noise dog tags make when I put her collar on, as in “jiggly tags!” This is often a substitute for “walkies!”

Food: As in, “Does Maggie want food?” She wags her tail at that. She likes the attention shown by the service — even if she sometimes snubs the actual food.

Scooter walk: A walkie in her dog buggy.

Lifties: Whereupon she gets lifted up to a bed or a couch. She’ll rotate in place to get into position.

Down-de-down: Lifting her off the bed or couch. She wags her tail for this one. Another signal for “Let’s do this!”

A tail wag is one way to make a point. The imploring look is another. Say Maggie has to powder her nose, she approaches with an expectant gaze. You reply: “Does Maggie want to go out?” She runs for the door, signaling “yes, yes, yes!”

If she wants a lap sit, she’ll park herself at your feet. And stare. It’s not talking. It’s mental telepathy.

I get the message. After all, she is a good girl.


Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at


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