Bernie Sanders and The Samiotics of the Carolina Dog

Sam the dog seems to be getting better. Her bloodwork shows that the antibiotics have worked. Her recovery is the main message I wanted to convey for anyone who had been worried by my previous messages.

As you probably know, there’s no such word as “Samiotics”. The title is a mashup, a crude imitation of something academic, perhaps echoing Fareed Zacharia while messing around as in a Frank Zappa song. Sam makes lots of yellow snow in the backyard, and Zappa has a song about that.

“Samiotics” is a word I just invented, combining “Sam” (our dog’s name) with “semiotics”, the study of signs. I’m interested in Sam’s communication. Semiotics has the same root as semaphore, that old signal system used between ships, communicating silently using flags.

Did you know for instance that the peace symbol comes from the semaphore for the initials “ND” for nuclear disarmament?

Semaphore for “N”
Semaphore for “D”

Combine the flag positions of those two initials, and you get Bertrand Russsell’s ironic repurposing of a system used between naval ships during wartime to make a statement about peace.

So let’s turn to the study of samiotics, Sam’s communication. Don’t worry, while her vocabulary is pretty remarkable for a dog, it’s still pretty small.

1. “Good girl” means pretty much what it means to any other dog, largely communicated by our vocal tone and either pats or a treat: although we’ve been carefully avoiding treats lately while she’s unwell.

2. Any command must be prefaced by “Sam”, reinforcing her name but also making it clear that we’re asking her to do something, such as “Sam, come”. Her ears prick up when we say her name, so clearly she recognizes the word.

When I talk to her by name, Sam’s ears go up

3.“Come” means stop what you’re doing and come to the person calling you. I was never prouder than the time I had just released her off her leash, and noticed a big adult skunk lurking in a bush in our yard. The skunk was 60 feet away, Sam was 30 feet away. I said a stern “Sam come!” …. And she came. Talk about dodging a bullet! Thank goodness, I immediately leashed her and took her inside. The wind fortunately was in our favour, otherwise the story wouldn’t have been nearly so happy.

4.”Hurry up” means do your business. I learned this one from Irene & John Kirec who we knew back in the 1990s, through the Vizsla club here in Ontario. If you say this phrase every time your dog pees or poops, it will come to associate the phrase with the function. It’s Pavlovian I guess, and come to think of it, that whole concept of Pavlov began with a dog.

5.”sit”…. sometimes it works, sometimes it requires a few utterances.

6.”go home”, ah I love this one. Erika really taught it first. I’ve been using it and am astonished at what I see. We’ll be walking in the back yard, and I say this. She’ll sort of look at me, knowing what I mean. And if I come closer to her and say it again, she bolts for the house full tilt, sometimes crashing right into me. She may stop partway, so I’ll do it again: and she will again start galloping for the house.

7.“backdoor” is something I’ve been trying to teach her, when she runs to the side-door (our usual place of egress) and we used the backdoor instead. Sometimes she gets it…Let’s just say that we’re working on this one.

This list calls attention to the arbitrariness of signs. I could just as easily say “pee pee” as “hurry up” to encourage the bodily function. It doesn’t matter what word we assign so long as it’s unambiguous for the dog. What’s bad is when the word is confusing to the dog. Short words seem to be best, just as we see with humans come to think of it. I recall seeing something back when I was studying information theory (relevant to composition), that the possibility of error increases as the square of the number of items (a bad paraphrase of something I read back in the 1980s). “Samantha” might be her name but we stick to “Sam” when we command or call her, in the interest of intelligibility.

And speaking of vocal tone, I remember reading that baby-talk is actually useful. So we use it. When I say “good girl” and pat Sam, it’s accompanied by enough enthusiastic goo-goo baby-talk sounds to make you nauseous. Yes, we’re just normal dog owners, meaning that we love Sam, adoring her like crazy.

But wait, you probably noticed that the title is “The Samiotics of the Carolina Dog”….and I mentioned Bernie Sanders.

So yes…. While we were googling to find out what might be wrong with Sam –who is getting better after scaring us around Christmas & New Years—we found a few things.

Adjusting her diet might have been the single biggest game-changer. I am a bit obsessive about this, having gone head to head with a couple of doctors back when I was struggling to figure out what was wrong with me. One of the vets shrugged off my question (“what about her diet?” which is pardon my French ridiculously obvious when the animal has a liver problem) offering instead an expensive exploratory surgery. Diet can be the problem, and seems to have gone a long way towards making her healthy: along with the antibiotics that we were able to coax down her throat, with the helpful suggestion of another vet as I mentioned a little while ago.

The big surprise, though is Sam’s breed. Erika saw something about a dog that had died. The picture caught her attention. The original story earlier in the year led to Tuna the dog becoming famous as her video went viral as she was attentive to Bernie Sanders, yet slept when Pete Buttigieg spoke. Tuna the dog reminded Erika of Sam. We had assumed that Sam, a rescue who has had multiple owners, must be a mutt, a mysterious mix of different breeds: and that’s okay of course.

We were in the dark because we figured we were Sam’s 4th owner, an assumption based on the original story we were told. As owner #4, we got Sam in March 2019 from owner #3, who had her for a year or two, getting her from owner #2 who had her for roughly a decade after finding her in a park without a collar, at an apparent age of less than a year. And btw, owner #2 gave her up because of allergies that developed, sad to have to say goodbye to their beloved family pet Sam.

Sam had been found in a park, so it was assumed that there was an owner #1 before them who had lost the dog, as they tried (placing ads, putting up posters) for over two weeks in search of that original owner before giving up and deciding to keep Sam as their own.

Ah but there’s another possible scenario that came to us with a little help from Bernie Sanders, Tuna and writer Chris Stedman aka @ChrisDStedman on Twitter. The combination of Sanders and Tuna was magic. All that traffic made it possible for Erika to spot Tuna’s picture.

Chris Stedman’s Twitter photo

The first sentence of Stedman’s piece says ”for six years I shared my life, on- and offline, with a 38-pound Carolina Dog named Tuna.“ The “Carolina Dog” is now a recognized breed, although until Erika saw that article, I had never heard of them before. They are an American version of the dingo, a kind of wild dog known to live in places such as South Carolina, Georgia, and as far away as Texas.

Sam was found loose wandering without any collar in a park in Florida. We wonder now if instead of thinking of her as a mutt rescue dog with another owner, maybe she was in fact a Carolina dog who had been born in the wild. It’s especially intriguing when you look at the characteristics of this breed.

We can start with the appearance. Sam looks a lot like Tuna, especially the way she sometimes holds her ears straight up, at other times dropping them down in response to people.

Sam is a lot bigger than Tuna. Does that mean she can’t be the same breed? I think that’s an interesting question. I recall the notions of what is “standard” from my previous dog Monty, an American & Canadian champion Vizsla stud. Monty died in 1993.

Monty aka Comynara Deacon’s Barat (photo: Alex Richard)

At shows or meetings one might hear comments about how this dog’s colour isn’t right, that that one is too tall to be a real Vizsla. Note though that there was a great deal of insecurity about the validity of the stock, because the communists in Hungary almost killed off the breed, given its associations with the aristocracy: a dog rich men took out on the hunt. I heard a story that at one time the worldwide population of ALL Vizslas was as low as 10 dogs: because of the Soviet-Hungarian purge. Now transfer that to a dog that is essentially wild. Can there even be such a thing as a “standard”? I wonder. Perhaps Sam is too big, perhaps Sam is a child of an inter-breeding between a genuine Carolina dog and something larger? Or is the idea of a standard simply impossible under the circumstances. The American Kennel Club says they’re 30 -55 pounds, and Sam is in that range.

Carolina Dog image from AKC. No this isn’t Sam but she looks a lot like this

Normally females are smaller than males but in fact we’ve allowed Sam to get chubby on the assumption that she’s old & sick (she has a huge lump in one side that we were told could be cancer). Yes we spoiled her but since the change to her diet and her infection in late December, she’s lost weight on her new food.

AKC says “Hesitant with strangers, they will sound the alarm when unaware of who’s at the door, but once they see their people, they are ecstatic.” That is exactly what Sam does. She is the ideal guard dog, barking at us until she can see that’s it’s one of us and not an intruder. She is a hunter once she gets into the yard. I know of at least a couple of times she killed smaller creatures outside. They’re known to self-groom almost like a cat, with nails that grow faster than other dog breeds. And that’s what we’ve seen with Sam, who will trim her own nails if we don’t do it for her.

As we had been doing a bit of painting in the room with the piano, furniture had been moved about a bit. Sam lay beside my bench rather than underneath while I played. The dropsheet was now off the piano, but my music was all still downstairs, so I had to play everything from memory.

Erika observed that I play better when I play from memory. I think Erika & Sam are my two best teachers, each making me play better & in new ways. So the repertoire included the thoughtful middle movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata, the Moonlight Sonata’s first 2 movements (while I know the third it’s hard to play such a thing softly), the 2nd Scherzo of Chopin, (again omitting the loud stuff that ends the piece, instead ending in the soft middle section) and Debussy’s 1st Arabesque. The room has been emptied a bit for painting and so it’s no wonder we noticed that the piano seems louder, the upper octaves carrying an extra ping no matter how softly I play. Yes the clarity of the sound is inevitable with bare floor space and bare walls to bounce the sound, even to human ears, let alone the canine ones.

Sam’s colour reflects her age.
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