Lost in Translation

The relationship between humans and dogs has been an ongoing affair for over thirty-thousand years. It seems like we were tailored made for each other by God or by nature, or whatever your beliefs may be. Dogs are as much part of our history as we are to theirs. The story of the domestic dog is the story of us and vice versa.

When I think about the relationship between man and dog, it boggles my mind. How can two creatures who have nothing in common get along so swimmingly? Perhaps the answer lies in the basics of our shared primal instincts to survive and thrive, perhaps the need for companionship, or the sense of belonging to a pack/group. Whatever the reason, we have enjoyed each other’s company, mutually, for millennia and we both benefit from this symbiotic relationship in so many ways. The real question is, HOW? We don’t even speak the same language!

They say that the key to a great relationship is communication and as long as you have honest communication lines open then any relationship could thrive and flourish. Believe it or not, that applies to your relationship with your dog. But how do start and keep lines of honest communication with your dog when they can’t talk? Wouldn’t that be great though, if only dogs could talk? If only we could have a conversation with our pets. Wouldn’t it be awesome to get their side of the relationship?

The truth of the matter is that we already have those lines open. We are just not listening. Dogs are always communicating with us just as we’re always communicating with them. We talk to our pets all of the time even when we don’t realize it. I’m not talking about the verbal command or when you come home and dump all of your day’s frustrations on your dog in the form of a little story. Verbal communication means something different to your dog. The tone of your voice plays a bigger role in their reaction of what you’re saying to them. So it’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you’re saying it, that the dog reacts to.

A dog can learn to differentiate between sounds, that is true. You can teach your dog to pick up an apple, for instance, instead of a ball. The dog knows the difference and they can associate different sounds with different objects. They can even learn verbs and adjective sounds, but that is all they are to them, just sounds. To a dog, these sounds aren’t words. Dogs don’t have the brain capacity to string words into a sentence. It’s almost like talking to Siri on your phone or your Amazon Echo. Dogs will pick up a sound and associate it with an object or an action, and, if they really want that treat, they’ll do it.

Dogs are incredibly smart. It is believed that they have the mental capacity of a two-year-old child. So anything that a two-year-old is capable of doing, a dog can too. If you’re a parent, you can speak to your baby, and they do listen, but they can’t quite understand. The same goes for dogs.

However, that doesn’t mean that dogs can’t communicate. Dogs are constantly communicating with us. And I do mean constantly. They are continuously telling you things, we just have forgotten how to listen to them. Dogs already listen to us. At some point in history, we knew how to communicate with our dogs and we formed a relationship. Today, only a handful of people are able to do this with their dogs. Those people are usually behaviorists, trainers, vets, dog walker, mostly people who work with dogs. But the rest of us, we have no idea that our dog is even trying to tell us anything. We have forgotten how to understand our dogs and that is a cause for concern.

In the past, the relationship between dogs and humans was a mutually beneficial relationship. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Dogs have become, for lack of a better word, our “slaves” and because they don’t have the cognitive thinking necessary to protest, they tolerate the current situation as best as they can. Don’t think that because your dog wags his/her tail that they’re happy. Imagine if you only knew one word in another language and someone speaking that language spoke to you in their native tongue. Say they snuck in the only word you recognized, and bells start ringing in your head. Could you say, without a reasonable doubt, that you understood that person? Did you really communicate with that person? The answer is, no. All you did was picked up that one word. Without its context, it would be impossible to determine the meaning of the speaker’s intent.

It is the same with that tail wag. Understanding our dog’s body language is essential for all pet owners in order to have a good standing relationship with their animal. Before that happens, all that we have is an animal in captivity whose comfort and happiness only comes second to ours because admit it, it’s impossible to give a good life to anything when we don’t understand their wants and needs. And much too often we don’t take the time to understand them because it just isn’t convenient. I’m not innocent here. I fall into this same category. I never gave it much thought in the past. After all, they’re just dogs. Who cares? My point is that we should care. I thought if I am going to have a dog in my life he/she should be family and just like me, she/he should have a voice and I was going to listen to it.

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I first found out that odd huffing sound my dog was making was a dog’s laugh. Who knew that dogs were capable of laughing? It was a life-changing experience for me and it made me want to learn more about him. That’s when I realized that like most people, I just wasn’t really listening to my dog. He was just there for my entertainment, for my benefit. It never occurred to me that a dog can laugh and if a dog can laugh when he’s playing, they can be upset when they feel neglected. And that’s when I understood that we should all be listening to our dogs for the sake of their wellbeing and our families.

It is a fact that 77% of serious dog bites happen at home from your own dog or a friend’s dog. The sad truth is that if we, as a people, listened and understood our dogs when they “spoke” to us, this wouldn’t even be an issue. Dogs are constantly telling us whether or not they like what we’re doing to them. They give us so many visual signs that we often misinterpret. A dog will NEVER bite you without warning. I don’t care what you know. I don’t care who told you what. A stable dog will NEVER, EVER attack their owners without warnings. The warnings might be subtle, but they’re there and they include: licking their lips, moving away, nudging you with their snout, lifting up their paws, tensing their bodies, they may even softly bite you. These are some of the signs a dog will give you that we misinterpret as playful just before they bite you.

When dog bites happen, yes we get hurt, but that pain heals and goes away. Unfortunately, the repercussions for the animal are sometimes extreme. The dog is often thought of being aggressive and is often surrendered to a shelter where they are labeled as aggressive. Some people abandon the animal leaving them to wander the streets. And sometimes the dog is destroyed. All because we didn’t listen to them when they expressed themselves.

Unlike humans, dogs can’t use rational thought. They don’t understand the concept of cause and effect as we do. Dogs just react. You can train the animal to react differently to every situation, but why can’t we just take the time to learn to read our dogs? I know some of you might cringe at that. Especially us Americans who think there should only be one language in the world and that should be English. It’s a lot of work to learn something new. It’s so much easier to give that task to the animal. Let them conform to us, not the other way around. We own them, we are the masters. Aren’t we?

I hope that my readers don’t see it that way. I hope that I have reached a few of you because when I started listening to my own dog I suddenly realized I now have a friend instead of just a pet.

Understanding your dog is good for everyone and it could even save lives, both human and dogs. It is our responsibility as the pet owners to take on this challenge. Dogs are already doing their part and they’re eager to teach you. All you have to do is listen and learn.

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