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It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a dog!

THIS dog of ours has ambitions: ambitions to fly. If we had been initially perceptive, I suppose, we might have guessed as much. Those ears of his, though they don't actually stick out sideways like wings, do, in the Alert Position, have something aeronautical about them. They look as though they might lift a body free of gravitational requirements, given a chance. And that tail. Though to the uninformed it might suggest little more than a spring-like appendage of notable curvilinearity, it does have a hint of fin about it, now I give the matter thought. Streamlined to a degree, it might grace an eccentric flying machine.

He fell down the stairs into the kitchen the other morning - a flight of stairs, that is. But the occurrence was, in essence, more acrobatic than aerodynamic. The fact is, he wasn't entirely expecting it. It came about because he happened to be lying in the I've-Been-Forgotten-About-Once-Again Position on the landing, and my pre-breakfast approach prompted him to display such an abandonment of exaggerated canine delight, rolling over on his back, that he miscalculated things, and down he went. Neither he nor his pride was in the least shaken (and he is unusual among dogs in my experience for having very little pride to stand in the way of enjoying life). He bumped in a relaxed fashion down 10 of the steps on his spine and took the last three on an approximate arrangement of feet. I think he may simply have thought it rather a novel and speedy manner of arriving at his food bowl. He has no shame.

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No, that isn't the kind of flight he has ambitions for. Besides, these don't really show up indoors. Like most of us, though in varying degrees, no doubt, this dog has a private face and a public face. He is almost two dogs - indoor dog and outdoor dog.

Affection and all its attendant performances, such as sitting on feet, nibbling feet, getting under feet, and so forth, are in-house affairs. But the open air transforms him. Immediately there is business to attend to. No longer is it necessary to be nice to one's human beings. Much more significant events are afoot. They can whistle as much as they like, and cajole and order and plead - I, public dog No. 1 - have no time now for such minor noises. I - for instance - see a cat!

Now the odd thing about cats is that, again, the private and public attitudes are poles apart. In the house, the dog is perfectly content to let the house cat snuggle comfortable into his fur for many a dozing hour on end. But a cat seen along the road, or on a front doorstep, or watching for mice in the long grass! That cat is Big Game.

And around here there are hundreds of cats, all of them terrorized to their whiskers' ends by this lumbering great thug of a mongrel that keeps thundering across their territory. They run (cats never learn), and the dog follows spontaneously, a furious, tearing, crazy thing with only one apparent notion: Catch! catch! CATCH!!

But has he ever caught a cat? Of course not. He'd be flabbergasted if he did. What would he do with it? Fortunately, however, this age-old arrangement, this habit, of cats and dogs ends differently. Either the cat proves an escape artist and vanishes completely, leaving the dog in a state of frenetic bafflement. Or - as happens here frequently - the cat scatters itself erratically up a tree and, back humped, fur puffed, nostrils twitching, and eyes rounded, balances on the highest branch available.

It is at this point precisely that the dog has ambitions to fly. Ours, at least, seems to have deep resources of optimism on the subject. He seems utterly convinced that if he only runs fast enough at the tree trunk, and throws himself into the air high enough, he will sprout wings, and suddenly floating effortlessly on the air currents, he will approach the maddeningly complacent feline up there as a dog-bird, master of a new dimension, Flying Lord of the Cats. He leaps and yells and yells and leaps, high jumper extraordinary, but always falls back to earth again with a thud. Oh where, oh where, are my wings? he yells.

He's studying the problem. When we go down into the long grass, and there are no cats in the offing, he studies the birds. He's not fussy as to species. Magpies will do as well as redstarts; crows are good because they're slow; fieldfares and sparrows twittering among the bog sedge are also fine: They all, after all, know how to fly.

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He studies them by rushing at them. This makes them demonstrate for his personal observation the principles of the skill. They flap away a few feet above his head, not really startled, because they seem to know intuitively that, since the world began, a flying dog has not been often come across. He runs along under them, ears in Alert Position, tail cocked, head straining upward, urging lift off, gasping to grasp it.

To date his experiments are still on the drawing board of his dreams. His technology does not seem equal to his vision. But he never loses hope - aware, no doubt, that it springs eternal. We encourage him, naturally. If he learns, maybe his humans will get the trick of it too. And then the cats better watch out.

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