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The daffy deftness of a dancing dog

You can't, so they say, teach an old dog new tricks. That, in my experience, just isn't true.

But what about a young dog? Can you teach it old tricks?

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In the case of our dog, there's no need to. All the old tricks seem already built in, and then some. "Trailing clouds of caninity has she come."

Dogs are funny - mainly because they are so intense about silliness.

Fallen tree branches - mere woody litter - are to Muff the raw material of a kinetic inventiveness that would make a dancer gape, a professional clown weep. At the moment, the dog-walking woods are full of them (branches, not clowns), having been subjected to the boisterous tail-end of hurricane Mitch and the chop-happy ministrations of some anonymous rogue forester.

It's the forester who has done the most damage. He has slashed and chain-sawed a haphazard route through the trees, and he has not cleared up after himself. This is perfectly in line with modern woodland management in which dead branches and trunks are left where they fell among the leaf mold, to become habitat for beetles, insects, lichen, moss, and little fungi as fanciful as coral. No doubt it seems splendidly natural to humans with environmental attitudes. But to dog-walkers it can be an obstacle course, while to a dog it spells opportunity.

Muff surges forward like a four-legged, one-tailed tidal wave, channeling through the thick slipperiness of winter leaves corroding into the mud-squelch. Her nose suddenly levers up a branch eight feet long and bristling with extensively whippy offshoots. She shoves it along zig-zaggingly, like a soccer kid showing off his dribbling skills. She grasps it with her teeth - and then I have to watch my back! There is no stopping for anyone or anything. She leaps with it in the direction of my nose, expecting me to grab it and tug and swirl till we are both dizzy.

She's relentless, this cosmic shower of a dog. John Macleod, on his morning constitutional one day, watched with a bemused expression as Muff attacked a branch. "It's hard to tell," he remarked, "if she loves it or loathes it."

And then there's the flat plastic ring. Ingeniously propelled, it flies like a Frisbee and then runs along the ground like an escaped wheel. Muff's lightning intent is to capture it before it stops - to kill it before it keels over.

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When she was a pup, we bought three of these rings in different dazzling hues. The yellow one she abandoned in a stream. The green ring was stolen by one of the German lady's two mongrels and reduced to doubly chewed fragments within seconds. I forget what happened to the pink one.

But we bought her another yellow one, and this has become a permanent part of the morning-walk equipment. In the long open green space, I only have to reach into the bag I carry it in, and she's off, racing for the horizon. To make it roll satisfactorily, I have to flatten it out carefully. I must dispatch it hard but accurately to avoid sending it into the bushes. So the dog often leads the field, wondering why the ring is not yet ahead of her.

At last it chases and then overtakes her. She twists and lunges and grabs - the enemy is dead! What ensues depends on mood. She may drop the ring and wander off for a nonchalant nibble at a piece of bog grass. Or she may rush at me with it, demanding a tug of war.

But the best thing is when she decides it's performance time. In Madrid recently, at the zoo, we watched the dolphin show. Magical - but nothing compared with Muff's flinging-of-the-yellow-ring routine.

I know there are theories about animals' play: that it is just practice for life in the wild, survival-learning, and so on. But I remain untheoretically sure that animals play for the pure giggling, madcap joy of it. Biologically induced behavior patterns do not explain (but rather render prosaic) the Muff dance as she nudges her nose into the large hole of the ring; tosses it up like a pancake out of a pan; pretends that someone else sent it into orbit; then twists round to catch it before they do.

Such ineffable daftness has more than once had me laughing rather loudly in the park, particularly when the ring lands like a lapsed halo right around her neck so she can't extricate her head, or when she somehow gets her leg and her jaw entrapped in it.

Common sense would tell her to let go with her teeth, but she always refuses, and so has no choice but to run on three legs. But then common sense is not what dogs are about.

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