fbpx

On the front paw

By Scott Hunt

The Dog Grumbler

 

WE humans are the only creatures who use grammatical language as a primary means of communication.

Animals don’t talk and they all differ from us in this way.

Most of them share a superior olfactory ability to our own and communicate with smell.

Most use body language too, as well as it’s natural extension: ritual.

Animal trainers find it easy to teach a seal, elephant or big cat to climb onto something.

Having a quadruped stand on its hind legs is another popular “trick”.

Most animals associate height with status, so an invitation to stand taller is rarely questioned once it is understood.

Most animal trainers use sounds — although, not grammar— to convey meaning. Those sounds that work best within a species’ hearing range become the norm.

So, an elephant mahout says, “mutt”, a camel driver says, “hoosh”.

Dogs respond to the sibilance and vowel sounds of “sit” and “stay” and domestic cats, having twice a dog’s hearing range (mostly towards the high end), tend to respond well to “puss, puss”.

Whether we know it or not, most trainers use body language as well.

Horses perform remarkable feats of learning and response, largely guided by physical aids unnoticed by non-riders.

Like dogs, they also respond to tongue clicks.

But dogs differ from all the other non-human animals — not so much by the way we communicate our desires to them as by their primal need to interact with us.

This has led to the evolution of a creature whose specialty is understanding, pleasing and predicting the behaviour of humans.

They train themselves. More than any other creature, dogs are pro-active towards humans. They have always reached out to us.

And there’s more: dogs can and do “talk” back. They tell us things.

Especially if we are paying attention.

Sure, the cat does the loud fridge parade and we know exactly what it’s saying. It paws the door to leave and nuzzles us for physical affection, but there are no seeing-eye cats.

Dogs are alert to anything they believe we should be aware of and seem to understand our sensory limitations.

I know I’m not the only dog owner who can hear the difference between the bark that warns me of an intruder and the bark that warns the intruder to stay away.

I have twice seen a dog react to a lie told by a stranger and the older I get, the more I am inclined to trust a dog’s judgement of human character.

The older I get, the more aware I become of the fact that my dog is on the front foot all the time, repeating the rituals, building on our private non-verbal language, finding ways to serve and inform.

Trying to tell me things.

And the more I respond, the more confident she becomes that I will get the message — which is not always a good thing.

She makes a little grunt or nudges me with nose or paw as one might press a bell for service.

Then, satisfied she has my attention, she looks into my right eye, pricks up her ears and performs an impatient shuffle with her paws which somehow says, “haven’t you forgotten something?”

So, I go through the list:

You wanna scritch? Are you hungry? Is your water bowl empty? Is Mum due home? Has the postman been? Is the mouse back? Is it time for your walk? Is the roast cooked? Is it time we went to bed already?

She lets me know when I get it right. Sometimes, I don’t have to ask.

Sometimes I pretend not to notice, but I don’t get away with it for long.