Pip is an old dog and almost completely deaf, as I realized the other day when I walked up behind him, calling his name.

He still was looking the other way when I put my hand on his head, and he jumped straight up in surprise.

Unlike humans, who have a fit when startled this way -- you should hear me when I come out of the bathroom at night and see the shadowy figure of my husband in the hall -- our dog, when he landed, was glad to see me, as he always is.

He's not an adorably demonstrative dog, the kind who wiggles in ecstasy every time I come through with a laundry basket, but we know he likes us.

We can tell because when anyone else is around, he becomes wary and self-deprecating, inclined to disappear until life gets back to normal.

He behaves this way even when family visits, and he's nuts about the family.

Years ago, he developed a crush on our younger daughter and whimpers with delight whenever she appears.

Come to think of it, this is the demonstrative behavior I just said he doesn't go in for. I should have said he doesn't go in for it with us.

Not to take anything from this daughter's appeal, but I suspect part of our dog's adoration derives from this daughter's dog: a large, confident animal whose slick brown-and-black body is topped by a jowly head with tiny ears that suggest she puts them in curlers at night.

People always are praising this dog's beauty, though like Scarlett O'Hara, she isn't really beautiful.

It's just that passers-by are so caught by her charm they don't realize it.

What Mavis is more than anything is intelligent. She would ace the SAT if she had opposable thumbs.

She'd invent a way to keep passwords handy but private. She'd walk herself.

When the family visits, so does Mavis, and while she's getting older, too, and no longer literally bowls our dog over while zooming around the yard, she still gives him a virtual run for his money.

Our older daughter and her family also bring their dog, a mostly golden retriever or perhaps a Lab who is both needy and irresistible. He is perfect for his family in that he adores our 5-year-old granddaughter, who includes him in every game she plays.

He's a student, a customer, an audience member, a dance partner and a listener when she practices reading.

Harry, for his part, is perfectly happy in whatever role he is given, though much like Adam Sandler, Harry always plays pretty much the same character regardless of the script.

When all of us are together, bipeds and quadrupeds alike, Pip will linger awhile, inhaling the blend of smells. Then, as if overwhelmed by the olfactory onslaught, he'll slip away to a dark annex of my closet. Sensitive, that's what he is.

And also deaf.

We knew his hearing must be going because for several years, he'd ignore us when we called to him from a distance. We assumed at first he was being ornery, but we noticed that once he caught sight of us, he'd come as if something fierce were chasing him. Squeaky toys worked for a while, but now even those high pitches can't pierce the silence in his head.

I've wondered aloud if he misses the sound of our voices. It's my husband's belief that dogs accept small inconveniences such as deafness. It's the major problems -- hunger, isolation and fear -- that would truly hobble his fundamental happiness.

That makes me feel better about the dog, but it also reminds me that hunger, isolation and fear are thriving all around us.

Perhaps this, and not the dog at all, accounts for my sinking feeling.

Meanwhile, Pip is cheering us up, even as he stands in our path, obliviously obstructing our progress. "Pip!" we're always saying, nudging him with a toe. We try to sound annoyed, but Pip knows better.

Or maybe he's just deaf.

Write to Margo Bartlett at margo.bartlett@gmail.com.