Saturday, March 21, 2015

HOW DO OUR DOGS TALK TO US?

This morning I am sitting in a friend’s kitchen in The Bahamas. Their dog Boss, who sleeps with me when I am here, is not feeling well.

I can tell this, not because he came up and said “Uncle Jim, I don’t feel well”, but because of his actions. Last evening he just wasn't his ebullient self. He was a little…quieter. Boss is usually pretty full of himself, and this was remarkable. At time for bed the dogs here all go out front for last call. Boss, who usually goes charging out into the yard to scare off any bad juju, was reserved. He went out and barely left the porch.

We came in and Boss went directly to his little bed. Now picture this: Boss is a 70 pound Potcake. He could sleep anywhere he wants-but he curls up into a tight little ball and crams himself into a bed at least one size too small. At the foot of my bed I have a large yellow dog crammed into a tiny circular doggie bed. And there Boss usually sleeps.

But at 2AM Boss got me up to go out. That was unusual. Then he wandered about aimlessly, finally walking back into the bedroom and curled up again.

Where he stayed. Through my getting up, shower, some early reading and writing. He was not interested in going out.

Now we are in the kitchen. He is curled up in another bed, and will not go out. His respiration is very rapid and shallow, he whines when his abdomen is palpitated, and he is just not right. So we will be calling the Vet, and likely make a Sunday trip in to have him checked.

I am sure Boss will be OK. Boss is not, however, the reason for this post. Instead, Boss’ morning is an illustration of one of our challenges in dealing with dogs. That challenge is communication.

Boss can’t tell me what is wrong. That is one of the reasons I respect Veterinarians (and Pediatricians) so much: none of their patients can tell them what is wrong. They have to observe, infer, poke, prod, and sometimes even make educated guesses.

Apart from illness we have lots of trouble with dog-human communication. It’s not usually on their part. They are sending messages all of the time. It is we who are failing to receive the information. We are missing the message. As Benjamin Hoff says in The Tao of Pooh, “Lots of people talk to animals…Not very many listen though…that’s the problem.”

Lack of listening is the single most common source of the conflicts between dogs and humans that I face in my training, my rehab work, and the court cases that I am involved in. People don’t recognize the messages their dogs are sending.

Last time in “Mind the Gap” we talked about letting dogs make choices, particularly in approaching people. We talked about sending the message that we are not threats, and respecting a dog’s space. A dog that wants to maintain space is sending a message. When we disregard that message we get stronger signals, which may lead to a bite. And then we have the audacity to blame the dog for “snapping with no warning” when the dog was clearly speaking to us. The dog was trying to communicate; we ignored it.

Lack of communication leads to all kinds of trouble between canine and human. Dogs tell humans “I am afraid”. Humans ignore the message and needlessly stress dogs. Dogs tell humans “Please get away from my person-you are a threat” and humans label the dog vicious. Dogs tell Police Officers “HEY! You are on my turf! I don’t know you and you are doing scary things!” Police Officers, with completely different agendas, answering calls for help from the people there, misjudge the message. With little knowledge of how to communicate with dogs, they react with actions more suited to threats from humans and tragedy strikes.

We are communicators. We, as humans, are storytellers. Storytelling is, according to some anthropologists, the essential quality of being human.  But animals communicate too. Our dogs may not be able to tell us about the time they went to band camp and…. But they do communicate. They tell us their needs, their feelings, their worries and concerns-all in the moment. It is up to us to listen and receive the message, and then use that communication to modify our actions.

Boss will be fine. Boss sent a clear message. I noticed – and understood – “I don’t feel well and need a bit of help here. Maybe you need to call Dr. Grant and let us talk. He has stuff that makes me feel better.” Dr. Grant checked and Boss had simply strained an old back injury. He is back to his normal self, still curling up in a bed three sizes too small.


Our dogs are speaking to us. We have the responsibility to listen.