Who's A Good Boy?

Here’s a fun fact they don’t teach you in your freshman psychology courses: You know all about Pavlov and his dogs, right? The bell ringing and the salivating, and the whole foundation of classical conditioning? Well the thing they don’t tell you is that Pavlov, that sadistic son of a bitch, cut the dogs’ lips away from their mouths to better collect saliva. He also frequently removed their esophaguses and cut holes in their throats so that food never reached their stomachs.

He wasn’t a psychologist; he was a biologist studying gastrointestinal secretions. The whole classical conditioning thing was an accident, the result of a secondary observation made in the lab.

Some more fun facts about Pavlov: he sold dogs’ gastric juices on the side to make a little cash to fund his research. Turns out, those juices were a folk remedy for dyspepsia. So what did the bearded old bastard do? He tied a bunch of dogs to a wooden beam so that they couldn’t move and put a bowl of meat in front of them. Well, the poor dogs would get hungry and start creating gastric juices that flowed into a tube system. Did I mention that they didn’t have esophaguses either? Just fistulas in their throats so that the meat slid on through, never filling their bellies.

Picture this, if you will: a Russian lab with dogs lined up immobile along a wall. You can hear them whining softly as their stomachs churn with hunger. Their faces are fixed in a permanent grimace, teeth showing through the scar tissue of their faces. Surgically implanted tubes and vials extend from their mouths, throats, and stomachs, collecting the juices and secretions that are formed by their hunger. A researcher enters and their tails wag expectantly, but he’s only there to gather up their secretions and package them for sale.

It’s an image that has been stuck in my head for a while now, ever since my dog started talking to me.

I adopted Tuck from the shelter two years ago. Tuck is, to put it kindly, of indeterminate origin. His ears don’t ever do the same thing two days in a row--sometimes sticking up, sometimes flopped over, sometimes a mix of the two. His fur is shaggy and patchy, like it never really knew what length to grow to. Despite his physical quirkiness, Tuck is the happiest dog you’ll ever meet. He’s always smiling, and his tail never stops wagging. He’s my best friend, and he’s a good boy. Yes, he is!

Sorry, I got off track a little. I haven’t slept in three days, so, you know, my mind has been wandering.

You want to know about Tuck talking to me. That’s why you’re here.

It started just a week ago. I opened the back door to let Tuck outside before bed, part of our nightly ritual. Instead of bounding outside like he normally did, he just stood in the doorway and whimpered.

“What is it boy? Is there a mean raccoon out there again?” I ruffled the fur on his head and grabbed my flashlight. I made a thorough sweep of the yard, but I didn’t see anything that would prevent Tuck from doing his business unmolested.

“See, boy? It’s okay.” Tuck looked up at me as I motioned him out into the yard. He looked back outside and whined loudly. His eyes were pleading, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t want to go outside.

“Go on,” I said. Slowly, and with his tail between his legs, he walked out into the darkness. It was unusual, that’s for certain, but Tuck was a shelter dog and sometimes they have weird reactions to normal things. It’s just part of the package.

I was getting ready for bed when I heard a loud yelp from outside. I ran to the door, but couldn’t see Tuck anywhere.

“Tuck! Here boy!”

Tuck came running to the door, and when he got back inside, he was his normal jovial self. He gave me a hearty tail wag, licked my hand, trotted right over to his bed and curled up to go to sleep. I looked him over for any signs that he was hurt, but saw nothing. So, I went to bed, hopeful for a full night of uninterrupted sleep.

The sleep thing was probably a pipe dream to begin with. You see, even though he goes out before bed, Tuck still has a tendency to wake me up in the middle of the night to go out again. He’s got a small bladder, and I’ve accepted that fact. He’s not the subtlest about his intentions, and usually he’ll sidle right up to the side of the bed and bark at me to get my attention. It’s effective.

I’ve grown used to it in the two years I’ve had him, and most of the time I’ll get up and open the door and be back to sleep all in less than five minutes. Some nights I don’t even remember having let him out until I hear him scratching at the door to be let back in. It’s all pretty normal behavior.

I think that’s why I reacted the way I did on that first night. Even a slight variation on normal behavior can seem unsettling.

I awoke suddenly in the night, feeling like something wasn’t right. The green light from the bedside clock illuminated a radius three feet around my bed, and cast the room in a sickly tint. It took me a few seconds to process what was happening around me, but then I noticed what was wrong.

Tuck stood at the foot of my bed, looking across the blankets at my prone body. He didn’t bark or wag his tail. He just stared.

“Jesus, Tuck! You gave me a scare. What is it, boy?” Tuck continued to stare at me, unmoving.

“Do you need to go outside?” I asked, pulling the covers aside and rising stiffly from the bed. The floor felt cold under my feet and goosebumps formed on my arms. I shuffled over to Tuck and made a move to pet his head. He lowered his ears and growled quietly, maintaining eye contact the whole time.

“Whoa, okay. It’s okay. Here, I’ll let you out.”

I opened the door and Tuck disappeared into the dark yard. I waited up for an hour, listening for the sound of Tuck scratching at the door to be let back in. He never did, and eventually I fell asleep.

When I woke up the next morning I was wracked with guilt. Tuck must have felt threatened by something I did, and here I was leaving him outside all night in the cold. I walked outside with a handful of treats to apologize, only to find Tuck curled up in the far corner of the yard, wide awake.

“Hey, boy, I’m sorry,” I said as I approached him. He lifted his head slightly at me and then laid it back down. I didn’t want to upset him more, so I put the treats on the ground beside him and went back inside.

Tuck eventually made his way back inside, but he avoided me that whole day, even when I ate my lunch. I can’t say that I wasn’t upset about it. You don’t realize how much you rely on your dog’s love until it goes away, or at least until it seems to. That companionship, well, it keeps you sane.

That night I let Tuck out as usual. This time he did not seem afraid to go out, but he didn’t seem excited about it either. There was no wagging or wiggling, just a dutiful march out into the yard. When he came in, he walked by me and to his bed without so much as a glance.

I awoke that night to the sound of Tuck growling softly. He was standing beside my bed, utterly still in the green light. Tuck’s face was so close to mine that I could feel the vibrations from his growls through my blankets.

“Wha-what’s wrong, boy? Did you see something? Have a nightmare?”

The low growl continued as Tuck stared into my eyes. Tuck had never shown any aggression before. It scared me into action, and I jumped out of bed and opened the door for him to go outside. He didn’t move from my bedside.

“Come on, out!” I said, sterner than I had intended. I didn’t mean to yell at Tuck, but I couldn’t help it. The adrenaline coursing through my body was too much. I walked back over to the growling dog and pulled his collar gently toward the door. His legs moved in stilted, jerking motions—like he’d forgotten how to use them—as he followed me out. When Tuck had gone through the door, I locked it behind him.

The next day, I called the vet as soon as they opened.

“He’s been behaving so strangely. I can’t really explain it. He’s not aggressive or anything and he’s not lethargic. He just...doesn’t seem to react to me the way he normally does, and some of his movements...”

“Well,” said the vet tech on the other end of the phone, “it could be that he’s not feeling well. Humans aren’t always good at picking up on dogs’ communications. Have you noticed any changes in his stool? Has he been vomiting or scratching?”

“No, nothing like that. He’s just not himself.”

“Hmm, well keep an eye on him. If he seems to have trouble breathing, loss of appetite, loose stools, or vomiting, bring him in. Otherwise, there’s not a lot to be done. We could run some tests, but honestly, they’d be a waste of your time and money.”

I sighed. It was silly to be calling the vet for this. I was overreacting, I assured myself. There was nothing physically wrong with him, after all. He seemed perfectly healthy, aside from the odd stiffness in his walk the previous night, which by light of day had ceased entirely.

That night we repeated our nightly ritual without incident. It cheered me somewhat, even if Tuck was still distant. I fell into a fitful, troubled sleep.

It was early in the morning when it happened.

I awoke suddenly to the sound of barking next to my bed. Tuck was standing there staring at me, and--no, not barking.

His mouth was moving and sound was coming out, but it was...oh, god, it was my name.

“Adam. Addddam. Addddam. Addddammmmm. =” Over and over, coming from Tuck’s mouth like a mantra, low and long and deep.

I turned my face from his intense stare and looked instead at the ceiling. He continued to chant my name as I pulled my covers up around me. I’ll admit it, I froze. I didn’t know what else to do. Either I was dreaming, the most likely scenario, or my dog was standing inches from my face speaking my name. Either way, I figured the best course of action would be to stay where I was.

I lay like that for what felt like hours, staring at the ceiling with my dog’s breath coming in puffs next to my face as my name escaped his lips. Eventually, I must have fallen asleep.

By the time morning came, I had convinced myself that it was all in my head. I had dreamed it all, spurred by my anxiety about Tuck’s behavior. That had to be it. There was no other explanation.

Still, I avoided Tuck that day. His presence made me so uneasy that I couldn’t be around him without feeling my heart race. I didn’t even look at him when I went to bed.

That night I woke again to Tuck calling my name. He was standing next to my bed, his face inches from mine. I could feel his hot breath on my cheek as he spoke.

“Adddam.” I turned to look at him. He was smiling at me, his lips pulled back from his open mouth in what looked like a friendly expression. His tongue lolled from his mouth and hung limply on one side.

“No,” I said. “No. This isn’t happening.”

“Adddam. Adddam. You can pet me but you’ve got no hands. Adddam.” Tuck followed that statement with a high-pitched laugh, halfway between a bark and a yelp.

I pulled my pillow up around my ears, conscious of the fact that I had hands, but still he spoke my name. Interspersed with Tuck’s speech was a sound, something like a ratcheting click. I didn’t want to look at him, but I couldn’t help it.

Tuck was still smiling at me, but his lips were pulled back further. They revealed his white teeth and part of his jaw, like they’d been cut away. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Another click, and his lips receded further still, pulling up to the top of his nose, revealing bone and cartilage and muscle underneath.

“Adddam. Whoooo’s a good boy, Adddam?”

“No, no, no.” I started crying then, forcing my eyes from Tuck’s grotesquely twisted face.

“Adddam. You can pet me but you’ve got no hands. I ate them off, Adddam.”

I shuddered. This is madness, I thought. I’ve gone insane.

Tuck leaned over at me and snapped his teeth in my face. I squeezed my eyes shut and counted to fifty. When I opened them, Tuck was standing on his hind legs at the end of my bed.

“Gooodnight, Adddam.”

Tuck walked to his own bed, staggering on his hind legs, and collapsed in the corner.

I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.

The next morning I locked Tuck in my bedroom and called the vet.

“Listen,” I breathed into the phone. “He’s been talking to me, and standing upright. And his face. His face! It’s fine this morning, but he must have been in pain! Something is wrong!”

“Sir, this is a business. Every moment we spend listening to your adolescent pranks is a moment we aren’t spending with animals in need of care.”

The phone clicked on the other end. The police said something similar. The hospital gave me the number of a good psychiatrist, one specializing in delusions.

That was three days ago. I can’t leave the house without him. I just keep thinking about Pavlov’s dogs. About them chained up and salivating, and meat dropping through the holes in their throats, over and over again. I’m not going to leave my dog here to starve.

To make things worse, I can’t sleep. Maybe if I could, it would all make sense. The pictures in my head and the sounds coming from the bedroom. But every time I nod off, I hear him scratching at the bedroom door. I hear him talk to me.

“Adddam. You can’t leave me in here, Adddam. Adam. Aren’t I a good boy, Adddam? I’m so hungry, Adddam.”

I’ve been trying to keep it all under control. But he’s in there. My best friend is in there, starving and afraid. I can’t leave him; Tuck’s such a good boy.