Good Dog

Dog Meets Wife

How a deaf bird dog made a breakthrough in international relations

Illustration: John Cuneo

My wife doesn’t come from dog people. In the Andalusian pueblo where we met, her hometown, most dogs exist to work—as herders of sheep, trackers of boar, defenders of real estate—and when they aren’t on the job, they are simply fed, housed, and tolerated, like any other farm animal. They do not sleep on couches, ride shotgun, meet up for puppy playdates. They are not family.

My dogs always have been. I didn’t have a pup at my side when I met Concha only because I’d recently lost mine to a vicious pancreatic tumor. Suttree had been with me for over a decade, an exceptionally devoted friend and cohort, and it felt far too soon to try to replace him. (It still does.) Months after he passed, I’d expect to hear him snuffling eagerly at the door when I came home, sixty pounds of spotted spaniel glee overjoyed to see me. When I talked to Concha of Sut’s adventures and misadventures, recalled how heartening his presence had been, my composure would sometimes crack. Concha’s consolation was generous but a little awkward. I was talking about a dog? Not a person? “Can’t help it,” I finally told her. “I’m dog people.” She met this admission with her lost-in-translation look, face drawn into a puzzled, faintly skeptical squint—precisely her response when I’d tried to explain dry counties.
“Dog people,” she said. “I do not understand this. It seems very strange to me.”
“I know. It’s just that where I’m from, dogs can be—”

She didn’t get it until she traveled with me to South Carolina to meet her future in-laws, and as a matter of course their dog, Ludwig, a stone-deaf Llewellin setter my mother rescued from the breeder’s cut ten years ago. The pup nobody wanted—what good a bird dog who can’t hear a whistle?—had breezed merrily into the fold, an affable addition to a nest long since emptied of children. Whenever my thoughts turned homeward, Ludwig was there to round out the tableau. Even living on the other side of the Atlantic, I couldn’t imagine life without him.

Concha could. When she first met Ludwig, she treated him like a piece of furniture, something to avoid bumping into or stepping on. She didn’t refer to him by name, but simply as el perro, and she ignored his entreaties, perhaps not even recognizing a nose to the hand as a gesture of good faith. Ludwig learned quickly that if he wanted a chin scratch, an ear rub, or just a kindly dog-people vibe, he would have to look elsewhere. But tuning in to the daily rhythms of the house, Concha began to discern just how integral el perro was to domestic life—how familiar, in the Spanish sense of the word (“of the family”). Concha watched him accompany my mother as she went about her gardening and assorted home-improvement projects, witnessed the delight, on both sides, when the dog welcomed my father home from work. After a couple of days, Concha began to scrutinize Ludwig rather than shrug him off, as if she might be open to persuasion. On day three, I even caught her pat Ludwig on the head—speculatively, and only once, not a proper head scratch by any measure, but a step in the right direction.

The next morning she walked up on me talking to Ludwig and I figured I’d blown it, all that progress for naught. Topping off a bird feeder in the yard while Ludwig looked on, I was just chitchatting away, the way dog people do. How must this have looked to someone who wasn’t dog people? Here I was, a reasonably sensible human being, talking to an animal, and a deaf one at that. Worse, I wasn’t simply talking to the deaf animal, but querying it: How had he been getting along? Couldn’t he do something about that rotten seed-hoarding squirrel?
“You talk to him?”
Startled, I fumbled the feed bag. “What’s that, sweetheart?” I said, as though I hadn’t heard her question, didn’t understand perfectly well its implications.
“You talk to Ludwin?” she said, softening the Teutonic handle with a Latinate twist.
“I know. It’s kind of—” Hang on. Had Concha just referred to the dog by name? I looked up. Ludwig was nosing her hand, and she wasn’t pulling away.
“It is like he is a compañero,” she said, smiling down at the dog. “Ludwin is your compañero. No?”
    compañero n. companion
“Sure,” I said. “If you like.”
“It does not matter if he hears you. He is here and you are here together. Compañeros.”
“Yes,” I said. “Exactly. That’s exactly it.”
Concha put her free hand on my shoulder. “You and Suttree…,” she said. “You were compañeros.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes.”

Ludwig made a model ambassador. You might reckon a deaf dog even needier than most, but just the reverse was true: Because he often didn’t even know we were there, Concha and I could go about our business while he went about his. He is gentle by nature, unobtrusive, and unless he’s been out tromping through pluff mud, his handsome tricolor coat is invariably bright, clean, and plush. He invites goodwill.

Disability might have denied Ludwig the stately pursuit of upland game, but from day one he has made do with backyard quarry—squirrels, pigeons, grackles. You can take the bird dog out of the hunt, but good luck taking the hunt out of the bird dog. Afternoons on the porch Concha and I watched him point and flush. However inelegant his prey, the quest itself is a thing of beauty. On point he locks in, a tightly wound spring: tail stiff, body rigid, weight canted forward. Doing what nature wired him to do, he is a picture of precision and control. Curiously, his ears figure in every point. As radar they are useless, but still they cock forward, shiver with anticipation.

“Ludwin!” Concha squealed one afternoon after he broke point and the birds scattered. “He is amazing!”

It’s true Concha never quit looking a little alarmed when Ludwig hopped up into my father’s lap of an evening, but by the end of the week she had come to understand why a dog might do that, and why you might let it. She had come to understand how this worked, what the two species were getting out of the deal, just how wondrous unconditional companionship can be.

I knew her conversion was complete when, toward the end of our stay, I caught her talking to Ludwig. From down the hall I could see the two of them, Concha folding clothes for the suitcase, Ludwig seated on the floor watching her. I couldn’t make out what Concha was saying, exactly, only that it was Spanish and that it was tender, playful, and occasionally inflected with the interrogative. I didn’t say anything, didn’t let her know I heard her. But later I gave Ludwig a good chin scratch, piled on praise he could not hear but could surely sense.

It may be a while yet before we get a dog of our own. Even as Concha is learning how to let dogs in, I’m learning how to let one go. But I have a feeling it will happen one day, and when it does, I know just whom to thank.

Charlie Geer is the author of Outbound: The Curious Secession of Latter-Day Charleston. He lives in southern Spain.