Here’s a little piece of information that might blow your mind. Our pets don’t speak English, any more than we speak dog, cat, or bird! They also have their own unique way of communicating through body language, and this is something that us humans just can’t replicate (despite what some trainers would have you believe).
Most animals have evolved with their range of visual and vocal communication as a means of keeping in touch with their group, letting other individuals know where the sweet resources are, and diffusing conflict before it becomes a physical confrontation. What else do you need to survive? You can speak to your mates, find the goodies, and stop the baddies before anyone gets hurt – that is survival 101 sorted!
Can you imagine how confusing it is for our pets when they try to let us know something, using their perfectly clear language, and we completely blow them off! Maybe they’re showing stress signals to let us know they’re unsure what we want or frightened by something, and we insist on repeating ourselves (usually at a higher volume) or making them stay somewhere they feel scared. Or perhaps they’re trying to alert us to a potential intruder (like those pesky piwis that fly over the yard) and we scold them for their efforts. They’re doing what they know, and we sure aren’t helping them out!
As if our ignorance of our pets language isn’t enough, we like to think we know so much about the topic that we can successfully imitate their body language in a way that they will understand. Many trainers advocate pinning dogs down, “tapping” them with a foot or curved hand to imitate a bite, and many other unnecessary acts all with the assumption that this is how our pets naturally communicate so this must be the best way to get through to them.
Last time i looked in a mirror i looked nothing like a dog, or a cat, or a bird, and i respect the animals i work and live with enough to know that they can see i’m not the same species as they are either. At best our efforts to mimic them are confusing, and at worst they’re downright cruel.
Rather than trying to get in touch with our inner-animal, we can use scientifically-based methods to show our pets what we want them to do (through shaping, luring, targeting, etc) and provide rewarding consequences when they succeed. This is how we can bridge that language gap! Better yet, we can also learn about the species we keep, and learn to recognise what their body language means. That way, if they are happy we can encourage them, and if they’re scared we can be their advocate and make them feel more comfortable. That’s our responsibility to the animals in our care – to be clear and to work hard to provide them with physical and psychological well being.