by Suzanne Engelberg, PhD

Suzanne and (L-R) Kai, Mali (ODH foster), ChiCha (ODH foster) and Danny

Suzanne and (L-R) Kai, Mali (ODH foster), ChiCha (ODH foster) and Danny

[Our guest blogger this week is ODH foster mom Suzanne Engelberg. Suzanne is a licensed clinical psychologist who has had nearly 20 years experience providing psychotherapy for children, families and adults.]  

Sometimes I’m amazed that my dogs and I live together so happily.  As two different species, we don’t really speak each other’s language, and we have completely different cultures.

Our main challenge is that we communicate in ways that make sense only to our own species. For example, I never move my ears to tell people how I’m feeling, yet my dogs do it all the time.  For instance, ChiCha, one of my two ODH foster dogs, can put her Dachshund ears straight out to the side like Sally Fields’ cornette from the old Flying Nun TV show.  Barbara Handelman, author of Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook, calls that “airplane ears” and says it might mean that ChiCha has mixed feelings about how to act in that moment.  Kai, my own 8-year old Shih Tzu mix, looked adorable when he used to lay in my lap with his ears pressed against his head like a seal.  Now I know he was telling me he was scared and hoped I wouldn’t hurt him.  (I suspect he was hurt by previous owners.)

Tongues are another opportunity for miscommunication.  My dogs lick their lips to try and calm a situation.  Sometimes they are trying to calm themselves, and sometimes they are trying to calm me.  Until I learned what it meant, the lick-their-lips strategy wasn’t very effective with me– humans don’t communicate with our tongues so it never occurred to me that dogs do.

Occasionally our language and cultural differences lead me to communicate things I don’t intend.  My four-year old Lhasa Apso mix Danny is usually pretty cooperative, but for a while he refused to come inside when I called him.  Instead, he’d stop a few yards from the door, looking confused.  I didn’t know what was wrong until I learned that to a dog, my physical stance was intimidating.  Friendly dogs never address each other head on—they always stand a little to the side, or face slightly away.  They are even careful not to walk up to another dog head on.  Instead, they take a curved route, or cut a path a foot or two to the side of the other dog.  Because of our cultural differences, I didn’t realize that facing Danny directly and calling him in a strong, firm voice was confrontational.  No wonder he looked confused and wouldn’t come to me!  He is much more responsive now that I stand sideways and call him in a friendly voice.  In fact all my dogs come more readily to me now that I’m speaking their non-verbal language a little better.

One type of communication dogs and humans have in common is turning our heads away when a situation is too intense, or when we want to let the other dog (or person) know we are not a threat.

Unfortunately, humans usually misinterpret this as distraction or lack of interest, rather than a sign that the dog (or person) is approaching emotional overload. (How many times have you heard an angry adult tell a child “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”)  Although I can’t always tell how I’ve intimidated or overwhelmed my dog, at least now I understand when he tells me I have.

Despite the frustrations, I actually love that my dogs and I have different perspectives and different ways of communicating.  It reminds me to be thoughtful about what I do and how I do it, and to appreciate how hard my dogs work to understand me.  After all, they weren’t born knowing my language any more than I was born knowing theirs.  I’m confident, though, that as long as we’re willing to learn, we’ll remain one big happy inter-species family.

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