I GREW up with dogs, and considering I’m now a senior citizen, that’s a lot of dogs. With so many dogs and so many names, I thought of how pet names reflect culture, as well as cultural change.
For many Filipinos, dogs are just dogs roaming around with no names, or, at best, called Bantay, or Blackie, or Whitey. Dog-naming becomes serious when you consider them as pets… or family members.
We kept a long line of dachshunds, pronounced “Dutch hounds” locally, or called “hot dogs” for simplicity. (The breed name is actually German, and means “badger dog.”)
The mother of all mothers for a large clan of these dachshunds was Tootsie, who stayed in my maternal grandmother’s home. Members of Tootsie’s first litter were distributed to family and friends, including Sabra, who started a long line of Tan dachshunds of all colors (black and tan, literally), smooth-haired, wire-haired.
We had two or three named Lucky, given the Chinese penchant for inviting luck through every imaginable means. We had a Bruno who was actually female (don’t ask me how she got that name). We had a Fifi whom my violin teacher, Mr. Altre, loved because she would sit through my early-morning violin lessons—according to my mother, a sign that Fifi was appreciating my playing. Later, we found out that I had a hearing problem, which meant my violin lessons must have been excruciating for poor Mr. Altre, or for Fifi.
Fifi marked a fluffy phase in dog names. My Uncle Larry and some other relatives named their dogs after alcoholic beverages, like Whisky and Brandy and Vodka. I vaguely remember a Chablis. No beers.
We always had dachshunds, but there was a time when we also had a Rottweiler whose best friend was a terrier named Suechia (“little one” in Hookien Chinese). The Rottweiler was called Boomer because of his baritone bark, but his appearance and voice were deceptive. He was quite gentle, and it was always a sight to see Boomer standing with Suechia between his front legs. Never did he accidentally step on Suechia.
Since we kept female dogs only, my mother became an amazing dog matchmaker: She was able to find people who had male dachshunds. We’d go with her and our female dachshund to check out the prospective groom, and she’d go, “Guapo (Handsome), no?” And we’d bring out Fifi and two months later we’d have puppies. I think it was a good substitute for sex education.
My mother was also a dog midwife. She kept a record of when the dogs were “crossed” so we could prepare the “maternity ward” with old newspapers and all. The dogs generally had their litters deep in the night, and my mother would be there to help. The next morning she’d tell us how many puppies there were, and we’d rush into the “maternity ward” thinking of names for them. And she’d remind us: No names, because once you name them, you’ll get too attached and won’t give them away.
Give them away we did, and I’ll say Tan dachshunds found their way throughout Metro Manila and even down to Davao. One even made it to Los Angeles. The dachshunds were ways for us to bond with friends, who would sometimes tell us 10 years later, “Remember that dachshund you gave us?” The question would be followed by stories of the joy the dogs brought to their lives.
Our dogs generally lived to a ripe old age. The last dachshund we had was Tiny, who got to be 15 and got to see my two elder children. With my kids coming one after the other, I gave up on getting purebred dogs because they were too high-maintenance. Dachshunds are adorable, but they almost always have spine problems; they get paralyzed if they become too ambitious with jumping.
So I began to get Aspins (asong pinoy, or native dogs)—sturdy and very intelligent dogs. It was a time to be nationalistic, and the dogs were named Sinag, Tala and Kidlat (as in “Bolt,” the movie character). Sometimes I’d go international: We had a Munggil, which means “tiny” in Bahasa, although our Munggil is a huge dog.
As my children grew up, they began to ask for purebred dogs like their friends had. And I’d bargain: When you’re older. I did get my daughters, who live in Laguna, a French bulldog, and whenever I’d visit, I’d give my ear to Brusco for him to slobber on, and pretend he was telling me what my kulasas had done during the week. Brusco, unfortunately, died a few months ago, and I gently told my daughters: It’s not time yet for another one.
My son, who lives with me, is better with animals; he’s a dog and cat whisperer. When I moved to the Balay Tsanselor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, we didn’t have a dog. But after waiting six months for UP to put up a back fence, and a mentally disturbed man strayed in one day from the unfenced area, I decided to get a dog (government procurement procedures can take longer than a dog’s lifetime).
Tisoy came to us at already six years of age from a family that needed to move house and couldn’t take him along. He got his name because he is all white with a red nose. He’s a fairly large Aspin and is as gentle as Boomer, adopting kittens and puppies.
But one day, my son was reading a book on dog breeds and got all excited: “Look, Tisoy is a Canaan dog,” he said.
Tisoy does have a striking resemblance to a Canaan dog, a rather hard-to-find breed that started out in the Middle East.
Now, I thought, we can’t have a biblical dog called Tisoy. One day, while reading a report from one of my medical anthropology students, a name came about. Dr. Samuel-Auguste Tissot was an 18th-century Swiss physician who wrote what was probably the first self-help health manual in history. His book was translated from French into many languages, including Spanish, and an Augustinian friar, Manuel Blanco, did a Tagalog adaptation titled “Aklat na Pagamutan ni Dr. Tissot.” It was first published in the 19th century and reprinted several times into the 20th.
Quite unexpectedly, Dr. Tissot has been helping give an incentive for my kids to learn a bit of French. No sosyal intentions here; I just think French is a way to introduce my kids to the wonders of language, French being notorious for not pronouncing words like they’re spelled. For starters, the “t” in Tissot is silent.
There are websites that give dog commands in several languages, so instead of asking our Dr. Tissot to “sit” or “upo,” we can go “assis” (pronounced ah-see). “Down” is “coucher” (coo-shay), which actually means “lie down.” But the kids get to go beyond commands and into “salut” (salu) which can be “hello” or “goodbye.”
Dr. Tissot has been taking it all in stride, his white coat making him look like a doctor. At midlife, he’s seen it all, heard it all, so what’s an additional one like: “Dr. Tissot, go out now and wee-wee,” followed up a few minutes later with “Wee-wee na? Oui? Tres bien!” (Have you peed? Yes? Very good!)
I’m thinking that maybe Dr. Tissot might appreciate a companion, maybe a Pekingese, to help the kids with their Mandarin.
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