Am I Ready to Adopt a Pet - Part VI: Talk to Me

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Several weeks ago, we passed the halfway point in our personal inventory to help us determine weather or not we are ready to adopt a pet. Those of you who have stuck with the process thus far have become attuned to your personal needs and are aware of the environmental considerations explored in the first five questions.

Over the next five questions we will shift focus from ourselves to the perspective pet we are considering for adoption. The first of these pet-centered questions is:

Am I willing to learn a pet’s language?

Even if we are determined to insulate ourselves from “outsiders,” it is virtually impossible to go through life without meeting people who think, speak, look and act differently than we do. Considerate travelers visiting a foreign country or people inviting foreigners into their homes make at least a cursory effort to learn some perfunctory greetings and customs of their hosts or guests.

Could we do any less for a being of a different species we ostensibly plan to share our lives with for the next 10-15 years?

Yes. Many people assume that a companion animal comes to them with an innate understanding of their native language (verbal and non-verbal) and their social norms. The more rooted our anthropocentrism (human centricity), the greater the possibly of a potentially disastrous misunderstanding.

Consider the case of a shelter dog adopted by a couple with young children. During their first evening together, the dog inadvertently knocks down one of the children who begins to cry. Mortified, the child’s parents scold the dog who responds by cringing and bearing his teeth without growling. Interpreting this as a sign of aggression, the child’s parents immediately scoop up the dog, dump him back at the shelter and vow never to expose their children to another “vicious” rescue dog.

Had this couple explored what the dog’s gesture represented, they would have understood that bearing teeth without growling is a sign of deference and appeasement - about as far away from aggression as you can get.

Now, let’s flip the scenario. You are a well-intentioned human native of the United States who has asked permission to greet your neighbor’s dog. Believing that you’re showing nothing less than the utmost respect, you look the dog straight in the eye, lean down directly over her and extend your hand towards her face to sniff. The dog suddenly retreats from you, leans back on her haunches and flattens her ears. Surprised (and possibly offended) you withdraw your hand and look quizzically at your neighbor who gently informs you that facing a dog squarely and looming over them are often interpreted as signs of aggression. You’ve been schooled and will know better next time.

We simply cannot assume that human parlance works in the world of dogs - or cats, birds, or any other companion animals. Until we become at least semi-fluent in the language of our beloved pet, our decoding of their messages should be considered highly suspect. And we can’t assume that what we “say” is understood by them.

Resources abound to help us crack the inter-species language code. A particularly enlightening book is How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication, by Dr. Stanley Coren, a behavioral psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Through knowledge of canine evolution and domestication, illustrations and detailed descriptions, Dr. Coren heightens our awareness to, and understanding of, the canine postures and facial expressions we so often misinterpret - at our dog’s expense.

Similar resources are available to illustrate the content of a specific animal’s communication attempts and guide us in how to respond. Generally speaking, our body posture holds more sway for animals than the sounds coming out of our mouths.

Imagine how it might feel to live with beings who had no idea what you were saying, punished you for how you said it and banished you for responding “incorrectly” to a language you did not understand.

This is exactly what life is like for many of our loving and misunderstood animal companions.