YOU CAN TELL it's July or August when the talking-dog stories begin to show up in the national media. There was a report out of Chicago the other day on one of these animals, a golden retriever named Megan that is alleged to bark "Mama" and "I want a bone."

In an earlier, more innocent age talking dogs appeared often on TV variety shows. There, live, before national audiences, they were coaxed into articulating "hamburger," "thank you" and other words, all of which, if you listened carefully, sounded like "Hrnghharrrgrrr." Eventually these acts fell from prime time and then faded out altogether. But they seem to be having something of a revival now on late-night comedy shows. Moreover, their owners generally claim for the dogs abilities far beyond talking: they are said to be able to count, to sing hymns, to understand and obey complicated commands or to take telephone messages.

To keep things in perspective, a few observations on these animals: despite what you may have heard, there is no evidence they really know when the punch line of a joke has been delivered; watch them closely -- they wait until the humans laugh and then join in. And although some of them make a show of gnawing open their fan mail and spreading it around on the floor, there is no record of their ever having comprehended a word of it.

The newly (and perhaps only briefly) famous golden retriever in Chicago spends its days at a company run by its owners, where it is entrusted with delivering paychecks to the employees. This can probably be taken more as a sign of the dog's limitations than of anything else: if it were truly human in its abilities and inclinations, it would most likely by now have cashed the payroll and headed for Las Vegas.