A shaggy serenader slowly changes his tune

Which one of your dogs howls? - Loud!" my neighbor Helen asked, when we met on our morning walk.

"You mean sings? That would be Toot."

Though his name suggests that we recognized his musical proclivities before we named him, we didn't. Toot started life with us as "Tutu," a small gray stray that materialized in our yard almost a year ago. His coat was so thickly matted from midriff to tail, above his skinny legs, that he reminded me of a tutu-clad ballerina.

As soon as I could lay hands on him, about a month after my senior dog, Lucy, adopted him, I snipped the felted fur away. As the frightened, half-starved little mutt transmogrified into an exuberant member of our household, his name correspondingly transformed to "Tootie" or "Toot."

Tootie weighs about 12 pounds. Though he's Lucy's junior in size and years of service, he holds his own around our place. Like Loose-Goose (one of senior dog's nicknames), his vision is seriously impaired by a thick fringe of fur that hangs down over his eyes.

But where Lucy's ears jerk her whole head up at the whir of bird's wings or the snap of a twig, Toot is all nose. Running full tilt after quarry that probably passed by hours earlier, his legs go out from under him wherever the animal zigged or zagged. His nose stays on course, but his feet can't.

That nose was a boon in the garden this past summer. I'm perennially plagued by rabbits and groundhogs. Tootie has yet to grasp the difference between raised beds and the paths between them (maybe next year!), but his enthusiastic embrace of pest control compensated for an occasional trampled cabbage.

Though gardening season's over, I still catch sight of him trotting along on his daily rounds. He also ably assists Lucy at keeping me informed about pedestrians, trucks, and motorcycles passing by up on the highway. And he warns me when the meter man and UPS van try to sneak down the driveway. But it's his singing voice that's making Toot famous around here.

Helen's right about its carrying power. My neighbors Meg and John live about a quarter mile down the road and can hear him clearly from their porch. John writes songs and sings them while Meg accompanies him on the accordion. Since Tootie likes hanging out at their place, I've suggested that he's auditioning for backup vocalist.

I can't remember exactly when Tootie made his musical debut. One evening as he started in, I looked out the window to see him, seated on the pillow of a porch chair, gazing out toward the wider world as if at an audience. His high, quavering, mournful arias remind me of the songs of humpback whales - eerie and otherworldly.

For months, he always sang just as it was getting dark. I live on a hill above a railroad track, and the trains run on a regular schedule, so I thought for a while that something about them set him off.

When I figured out that the train and Toot's singing didn't coincide, I decided that it wasn't a sound, but a mournful feeling that descended upon him at dusk and prompted him to sing. I imagined scenes from his former life - before he came here to steal Lucy's food and my heart. Had some sweet reward in Tootie's youth come at day's end? A loved one returning from work? A daily dole of canned dog food?

I once read that there are some who believe that humpback-whale songs aren't songs so much as oral history - a cetacean passing down of the story of its race. I have no idea whether that's sentimental claptrap. But I like to think that that's what Tootie's songs are - the story of his lost home and on-the-road travails - and that Lucy understands them, even if I can't. I especially like believing that now, because his songs - and schedule - are changing.

Toot still sings every day, often more than once. At any hour, too - occasionally (startlingly), in the middle of the night. His songs begin with - and mostly consist of - an extended series of baleful phrases. Lately, though, he's ending them with a series of happy little yips.

Perhaps he's serenading senior dog, on the almost-eve of his first anniversary with us, with his own little ode to joy - his "Amazing Grace," at the end of an odyssey.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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