Pup Culture: Talking Dogs I Have Known

I used to look at Smokey and think, "If you were a little smarter you could tell me what you were thinking." And he'd look at me like he was saying, "If you were a little smarter, I wouldn't have to."
-- Fred Jungclaus

Ever see the Showtime series Episodes? It stars Matt LeBlanc as himself, years after his glory days on Friends, reduced to starring in a second-rate sitcom even its writers don’t like. A running gag is that LeBlanc’s show is consistently clobbered in the ratings by a show about a talking dog.

We never see the talking-dog sitcom on Episodes, but surely the inspiration for that imaginary series is the very real Dog with a Blog, a ratings powerhouse for the Disney Channel. The show’s title says it all: Stan is a dog who not only talks, but also blogs about life with his adorable Disnified family. Stan is the latest of pup culture’s talking dogs who prove smarter than their clueless humans.

The grandsire of these hipper-than-thou canines is Mr. Peabody, from the old cartoon show about "a dog and his boy." Mr. Peabody was a brilliant talking dog. Sherman, a nice but dopey little boy, was his biddable companion. This species role reversal is familiar to any dog owner who has ever asked, after being outsmarted by their pet, “Just who’s owning who around here?”

As a boy, I watched Mr. Peabody on a black-and-white portable with a coat-hanger antenna. In 2014 a new generation of kids, equipped with considerably better viewing devices than I had, were introduced to the chatty white dog in black horn rims when 20th Century Fox released a new Mr. Peabody movie. Apparently, post-millennials find talking dogs as funny as baby boomers did: The movie, featuring the voice of Modern Family’s Ty Burrell, grossed a cool $273,000,000 worldwide.

But it wasn’t until I was an adult that I met my favorite talking dog. She’s the title character of the 1995 Off-Broadway play Sylvia, by A.R. Gurney. In it, Sarah Jessica Parker gave a career-best performance. She played a stray dog taken in by a man who’s at a crossroads in his marriage. As the man comes to love Sylvia, and Sylvia comes to worship him, his wife feels increasingly threatened by the bond between dog and master. Parker didn’t wear a dog costume, just normal street clothes. With only her voice and body language, she conveyed the hyper emotion of dog love in ways both touching and hilarious.

This unlikely tour de force was a triumph for the playwright as well as the actress. “The wittiness of Gurney’s play,” wrote one critic, “and one of the secrets to its success, is in letting the audience hear what it longs to hear: the voice of the talking dog.”

I suppose we do long to hear that voice. But maybe it’s best we can’t. There’s something tantalizing, even a bit profound, in the idea that behind the soulful gaze of a good dog there are things ultimately unknowable to us.

Dogs have their secrets. And they’re not talking.