Honey has made two new friends lately. Or rather, one new friend and one invisible one.
Her first new friend is a handsome and well socialized chocolate lab. They love to just hang out together or chase each other around the yard.
Her second new friend is a sweet and equally well socialized Boston terrier. Honey and this dog have shown no negative reactions to each other. But when the terrier invites Honey to play, my golden looks right over her head as if she doesn’t exist.
I have a few theories:
- Honey has decided that the little black dog I call Pumpkin Butt is beneath her notice,
- Boston terriers are invisible to Golden Retrievers, or
- Honey can’t understand the pidgin canine of this snorty pup with a pushed in nose and a stubby tail.
Something I read recently in Dr. Vint Virga’s The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human (an affiliate link) makes me think it’s the last one.
Dr. Virga talks about how the pack structure of wolves and their uniform appearance helps them communicate effectively with each other.
While dogs—without a formal pack structure, constrained by leashes or fences, and with all different kinds of manners and appearance—find it more challenging to understand each other. I like the way Dr. Virga described it:
…the traits we’ve chosen for each breed add a twist to how they express themselves. A boxer’s idea of wagging with glee—his full rump wiggling side to side—is different from that of an Irish setter, broadly sweeping her feathered tail. A Shelter eager to go outdoors spins in circles and barks in fits; beside her a Newfoundland licks his lips, pants, and soaks his bib with drool, while gazing longingly out the door. No wonder they look at each other befuddled and end up misreading the other’s cues. Comparably, wolves have it easy.
Dog park misunderstandings make more sense when you think of it that way, don’t they?
People have it tough too. I can’t tell you how many arguments my husband and I have had where after I got all hot and bothered he replied, “Yes, that’s exactly what I was saying.” We’ve got to be the only people who fight when we agree with each other.
Years ago I read about an American who moved to Vietnam. One day, while driving through a remote village, a child ran into the road. The man barely stopped in time.
The child’s mother, who was sitting beside the road, started giggling. The man lost it and started screaming at the woman for being so callous as to giggle when her child was nearly killed. Later, when telling the story to a Vietnamese friend, the man learned that giggling is a common reaction to strong emotion in that culture.
That mother wasn’t callous. She was horrified.
When people talk to each other, our words and body language express a lot. But our communication also relies on our culture and our experiences.
Maybe when we’re talking to someone very different from ourselves, we need to slow down and listen more carefully.
That’s a lesson Honey has learned as she has matured.
Honey was one of “those puppies.” The kind who jumped right in the face of every dog she met. As a puppy, she got away with it.
But as she grew older, she needed to learn some impulse control. Our trainer helped us teach her how to respond calmly to other dogs on leash and not rush into their faces.
A secondary benefit of that training, however, has been that when she is given permission to greet another dog, her greetings are much smarter. The time she spends waiting for the release to say hello, allows her to read the other dog’s body language. And Honey, instead of jumping all over another dog when we say “ok,” fits her greeting to the dog’s demeanor.
She’s learned how to listen carefully to a dog who is different from her. Perhaps someday she’ll even have a conversation with a Boston terrier.
How much better would human communication be if we listened more carefully to someone different from us? After all, if it’s good for the dog, it might just be good for us.
Your Turn: Does your dog communicate more easily with dogs more like them? And have you found it harder to communicate with people whose experiences and culture are very different from yours?
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