By Suzanne Engelberg, PhD
I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe that some things are true even though I don’t fully understand them. That belief has been strengthened by experiences with my Final Refuge dog ChiCha.
Like many dachshund mixes, ChiCha can be pretty yappy. When she joined our family I quickly discovered I don’t have a high tolerance for yap. I also don’t have a high tolerance for interrupting what I’m doing to help someone do something they can do themselves. Unfortunately, most of ChiCha’s yapping was to tell me to put the covers over her—something she could easily do herself. We spent our first weeks together arguing about it—ChiCha insisting I put the covers on her, and me refusing until I finally gave in so she’d quiet down. (By the way, that’s a perfect description of how to train a dog to bark incessantly—require increasingly longer bouts of barking before delivering the reward.)
I began to wonder if I’d be forced to choose between life as a butler to my tiny foster dog, and life with a constant background of jarring high-pitched mood music. One evening when I was particularly low on patience, I looked at ChiCha and calmly but earnestly offered her a deal. “ChiCha, if you will bark only one time when you want something, I promise to stop what I’m doing and come help you.” From that moment on, whenever she wants something she only barks once. The change was that sudden—one day she was doing the typical doxy yapping, the next day she wasn’t. I was so surprised! Now when I hear her bark, I immediately stop what I’m doing to see what she wants. Occasionally if I’m in the middle of something I ask her to wait a moment until I finish. More than half the time she actually waits! Usually she wants me to put the covers on her. That task feels different since our agreement. Sometimes I’ll even put the covers on before she asks. It’s one way I let her know how much I appreciate her extraordinary response to my request.
That change was pretty remarkable, but it was not the only one. About a week later I sheepishly admitted that I was irritated by the high pitch of her single bark. I felt like an ungrateful jerk. My new foster dog had inexplicably understood and responded to my verbal request, yet I still wanted more. Nevertheless, I looked at her peering out from under her covers and said, “ChiCha, I really appreciate that you only bark once when you need me, but that high pitch is still pretty annoying. Could you please bark a little lower?” I felt pretty silly asking that, and had no expectations she’d comply, but the next time she wanted something she barked lower! She doesn’t do it every time, but close to it. Before my request she never barked low at all! Recently she’s been experimenting with a quiet growl instead of a bark. I try to consistently reinforce it so she’ll always growl instead of bark, but often I’m so engrossed in what I’m doing that her growl doesn’t really register. (I have another dog who growls a lot for other reasons.)
And there’s more. I discovered that either ChiCha or her sister Mali was peeing on the edge of the puppy pad instead of in the middle of it, so the liquid spilled off the pad and onto my wood floor. It was damaging the floor and my patience. I had started using two pads side by side, hoping a larger absorbent area would help. it didn’t. I couldn’t tell which of the dogs was the culprit, so I asked them both to please pee in the middle of the pad instead of on the edge. About an hour later there was a dachshund-sized spot exactly in the middle of the pad! For about a week that little circle regularly appeared in the center of the puppy pad. (The small size of the circle tipped me off that Mali was the one with the bad aim.) Now when those little wet spots start to appear closer to the edge than I like, I repeat my request to use the middle of the pad. ChiCha responds nearly every time. (It would be a lot more impressive to tell you she does everything I ask every time I ask her, but I don’t even have that kind of success with humans. Or perhaps ChiCha does respond every time, but sometimes her answer is “no.”)
With these extraordinary events (plus a few with my dog Danny), I’d like to believe I’m living my childhood fantasy of communicating with animals. The reality is I still have lot to learn. I’m not able to get my point across to Mali or my other dog Kai. And there are times when the dogs look like they’re trying to tell me something important, but I have no idea what that is. I’m working on quieting my mind enough to hear them, but there’s a lot of chatter in my head. I’m sure some of it is crowding out what my dogs are trying to tell me. I’m determined to keep practicing until I can hear them. After all, animal communication is not magic.