Friday, July 21, 2006

Dog Language

See? I told you I would have trouble keeping up with this blog! I won't even promise to do better. I blame summer school, World of Warcraft, too many good books to read, full time temp work, volunteering at the humane society, and anime for my inability to find time to write in this blog. So there.

Tonight I only have a little time for a short but interesting story about my recent experience with dog/human communication. Let me set the scene first. My best friend, who I'll just call "S", was over one day housesitting for me while I was at work and our washing machine was being repaired. I'd just like to say, for the record, that it took Sears an entire month to finally repair our practically new front loading washing machine. More on this in another post, perhaps. Anyway, when "Uncle S" (as we call him to the dogs) comes over, he becomes Official Dog Entertainer because he's actually willing to go out in the hot, bug-filled backyard and throw a slimy, sticky, slobbery ball (albeit while wearing a rubber glove) for the dogs to fetch. Uncle S doesn't know a whole lot about dogs and is really more of a cat person, but I know he is at least interested in our dogs to some extent, since the vast majority of our visitors prefer not to play with two huge pit bulls.

Anyway, after I came home we set out to cook dinner since my husband and sister and cousin were all coming to eat, and while dinner was cooking we went out back and played fetch, but not for long. Within five minutes, since it's Texas and it's summer, we were covered in mosquito bites and extremely hot, and Dozer was panting as if he might keel over any minute, so we all went back inside. I got out the ice tray to put ice in the dog water bowl. The dogs don't particularly like to eat ice, unless it is frozen chicken broth, and in this case it was just plain, clear ice, so when I dropped some on the floor, neither dog went for it.

At this point I didn't want the ice to melt and get water all over the floor, so I shoved it toward Dozer hoping he would eat it. He ignored it completely; he was too preoccupied with breathing, which is hard to do when you have a red rubber ball crammed entirely into your mouth and you won't put it down! Anyway, seeing his rejection, I turned to Felanie, pointed at the ice, and said "Fel, since Dozer is too hot, why don't you go ahead and have that?" Felanie dutifully picked the ice up and chomped on it.

Uncle S commented with great surprise that my words seemed awfully abstract, yet Fel clearly understood what I wanted her to do. Never mind that seconds later, Fel dropped the ice on the floor and went off to find something more interesting to chew on; the point is that she had responded very accurately to a lengthy sentence that contained no trained commands. Did Felanie really understand all the babbling words I had said?

Of course, after I thought about it for a while, I realized that my body language had probably said far more than my voice in that circumstance. In fact, dogs are superb readers of body language (ours and other dogs). When I leaned over slightly and pointed at the ice, that was the cue that Felanie picked up on. Leaning and pointing means "I'm referring to this object" and my encouraging tone of voice probably led her to the conclusion that I wanted her to do something with it. And what else could she possibly do with a piece of ice except put it in her mouth? I don't think she understand a single word I said, except her name. If I had done everything exactly the same (same movement, same tone of voice) but I said "Felanie, do you like cheese as much as I do?", Felanie probably still would have picked up the ice, because that was what I was pointing at.

Yes, dogs are smart, but not in the same way humans are. We have complex verbal skills, but that gets us nowhere with dogs. Dogs read our body language and our general tone; they don't care as much about what we say as how we say it. A good thing to remember when we are interacting with dogs, don't you think?

And that's all I have time for tonight. Until next time!