Crossing the Cultural Divide
If you're a dog lover and have been on the internet anytime over the last few years then you've likely seen the image to the left. Knowing dog body language is one of the most important aspects of being a pet sitter/dog walker. We deal with dogs every single day of our lives and knowing how to communicate with them is important. Dogs tell us many different things and not being able to read their body language has led to many miscommunication between dogs and humans that have ended up with a dog being re-homed, in the pound, or euthanized. Dogs seldom, if ever, bite for no reason. Most dog bites occur because a human was unable or unwilling to listen to the messages the dog was sending.
In many ways dogs are smarter than humans. It is my opinion that dogs realize faster than people that we don't speak the same language and they have to show us or demonstrate to us the desires they wish to convey. When our hound dog wants to go outside he will run to the door and ring the bell on it. While we know what that means we often aren't ready to take him out or are in the middle of something and so he thinks we didn't get the message and his next step is to run to where his leash is, look at it, look at us, run to us and put his head in our lap or his entire front end, and run back to the leash. If that still doesn't work he will bark at the door handle and then bark at the leash. And if we are still not paying the proper attention to him or respecting his ask he will get a squeaky toy and roll on top of it, but this is also his universal message of pay attention to me. My point is Riley has many different ways to convey his message to us and he fully understands that we do not share a common language and so he has come up with other ways to tell us. Riley has crossed the cultural divide that exists between dogs and humans.
The fascinating thing about dogs is they understand us far better than we understand them. Dogs have shown the ability to learn up to 1,000 words. In a Yale study with two Border Collies, Rico and Chaser, Chaser was able to identify 1,000 toys by their name and could always pick out the correct one on command. According to the same article dogs understand human gestures better than any other animal and have theory of mind. Theory of mind is thought to be a high cognitive function where you understand another being possesses knowledge that you do not. Think about when you've played fetch with a dog and they have lost track of the ball. You point to where the ball is and the dog follows your point and fetches the ball. That is theory of mind at work. The dog looked to you and understood you knew where the ball was while they did not.
Dogs use all of this to understand us and there are still plenty of people that think they are nothing more than dumb animals or automaton creatures acting on instinct alone. This is why I focus on my interactions with dogs and crossing the cultural divide. Think of our greetings with dogs. Do you know the best way to greet a dog? If you're thinking that it's to stick your hand in their face and let them smell you then you are incorrect. Think about how dogs greet each other. No you shouldn't sniff a strange dog's butt, but you should approach from the side when you want to approach them or better yet stoop to their level, avoid eye contact, and let them approach you before reaching your hand out to pet them on the back or side and not the top of the head. Think of it how in the Western world we shake hands and in Japan they bow. Different cultures have different greetings and customs. Dog culture is no different and one of the keys of communication is to be respectful of other cultures.
A 2014 study found that dog brains and human's were remarkably similar in the vocal and emotional regions. It makes sense that our brains aren't that different. Both dogs and humans are vertebrate mammals. More and more studies are being done that are finding we aren't that different from our animal brethren. Especially those that have evolved beside us for the last 14,000 years. As a pet sitter/dog walker I have more interactions than most with pets of all kinds and it is important to learn to listen to them and understand what they are telling us about their hopes and desires and to think of it not as communicating across species but as communication across cultures.