Of course dogs are essentially non-verbal; they don’t have language the same way we have. They do, however, have the ability to learn to associate certain sounds, words, with things and actions. We can easily teach them to “sit” and they quickly learn what “walkies” means. Studies have also shown that dog owners can often recognize differences in their dog’s bark: if it means danger, play or aggression. As I have considered before, dogs also use other sounds, such as whining, to communicate their needs to us. So dogs do avail themselves of sounds to communicate, but they don’t connect and combine these sounds into the complex system we call language. While we primarily use language to communicate to our dogs, it is doubtful whether dogs consider sounds as either their or indeed our primary means of communication between our two species.
To a certain extent the warning against anthropomorphizing when trying to communicate with your dog is an important one. You often hear people in the “know” about canine behaviour berating dog owners for talking to their dogs. We have all heard a story about this or that silly dog owner who, wagging their finger, tells their dog “Naughty boy, Fido. I have told you once, and I will tell you again, that you are not allowed to pee on the carpet. If you do it again you will have no dinner”, or some such. Indeed, Fido most probably does not understand that his owner is disappointed at repeating his prohibition, what this prohibition is about and the future threat regarding it. Yet, and surely all dog owners are guilty to some extent here, we persist in talking to our dogs as if they understood language as well as children, at least.
Indeed, language comes so naturally to us that we find pretty much impossible not to talk to our dogs, even when we doubt how much they understand. And you know what, I don’t thing talking to your dog is wrong at all. In fact, I would say, talking to your dog is essential to communicating with them. The reason is precisely because language is so natural and important to us humans. If dogs are non-verbal, most humans are hyper-verbal. Indeed, for most of us it is virtually impossible to formulate any thoughts without language. (Grandin’s thesis in her book is that autistic people think far less in language, and more in pictures than the “normal” human, and therefore think more like animals that most of us do.) What I am getting at is that we have to talk to communicate, because we cannot think without language. We have to verbalise our intentions to make them clear, even to ourselves.
Poor Fido in the example above, while he does not understand specific prohibitions or threats, most probably has a “guilty” look on his face, “because he knows he’s been naughty”, according to the anthropomorphizing owner. Actually, of course, Fido is looking glum because he understands some of the intention behind his owner’s words, if not the particular details. He gets the disappointment, the anger and the threat, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is looking extra worried because he cannot work out what and why and when. That is what we need to remember to clarify to our dogs in ways other than language when we talk to them.
Nevertheless, dogs do read our intentions very well. They know when we are angry or pleased, and other more complex things too, like when we want them to stay or come. Cesar Millan calls it “energy”, others explain it through body language. Whatever it is, us humans usually channel it through words. When I tell my dogs to stay, I consciously and unconsciously project my intention through my body and some sort of “vibes”. I raise my palm to them, and I am sure my body also assumes a certain posture. I expect that my dogs read my body and my mood as much as the word “stay” that I have just uttered. However, and this is the key for me, I need to say the word in order for my body to project that intention. I can probably replicate the stance, but to really feel that I want them to stay, I need to say or at least think the word. This is why I think that talking to our dogs is important. We rely on language to form our thoughts and intentions.
So I talk to my dogs all the time, and I am sure that our canine-human relationship benefits from it. I tell them when they are doing something right and when they are doing something wrong, of course. But I also tell them why they need to wait just a little bit longer for that walk they are really keen to go on. I am sure they don’t understand that I just need to finish paragraph I am writing, and it will be ten minutes, and then we’ll go, but I am pretty sure that they understand that they need to wait some time because my attention is needed elsewhere, as they go back to their beds with a sigh. They may have not understood the words and the specifics, but they have sure got my intention. And I needed to verbalise that intention in order to communicate it to them successfully. Whatever you may think dogs are not mind-readers. They are very good readers of emotions and thoughts as they appear in our body language, and so much of our body language is mitigated through our – verbal – thoughts.
While we have to avoid excessive anthropomorphizing, we shouldn’t forget the human in the human-dog relationship, because, surely, if we forget our own nature we are likely to run into just as many problems as if we forget our dog’s nature. When living with and communicating with dog we have to heed their needs, of course. If Fido is to understand exactly what his owner wants from him, his owner needs to take care to supplement his verbal communication with practical, well-timed non-verbal pointers. However, we also need to understand ourselves and the way our own minds work, if we are successfully to communicate with anyone else at all, let alone our dogs. We need to talk to think, and our canine companions benefit from the kind clarity of intention that only verbalizing our thoughts can give us humans. If we don’t know what we want ourselves, how could we expect our dogs to know?
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