We consider ourselves to be more intelligent than dogs, but most of us expect dogs to learn our language and we make little attempt to learn theirs!
Dogs are very social, and therefore are very communicative, but most people don’t really understand them, and therefore have a lot of problems with them. But actually, dog language and people language have a great deal in common. Dogs understand this and are very sensitive to what we are communicating – including things that we did not really want to communicate or don’t even know we are communicating.
They are especially sensitive to body language, which makes up a really large part of their communication system, while we tend to ignore it in favor of words. I know that it has become very popular in the last years to have all sorts of experts in body language and communication interpreting and analyzing what our politicians are really saying. But our dogs have been doing this forever! Dogs don’t lie, and you can’t lie to a dog either – we could learn something from that…
I don’t have to say much to Habibi – he knows exactly what I mean and what my intentions are. Before I move, he knows if we are going out now, or if I am just getting up to make a cup of coffee. He knows when I am getting my things together to go out whether he will be able to come along or whether this time he has to stay at home. He knows when I am happy, when I am pleased with him, when I am really annoyed, and whether I am pretending to be annoyed, without a word being said, and he reacts appropriately. And reactions like giving me a silly grin when he knows that I am annoyed to make me laugh are very effective.
Since I spend much more of my time with dogs than with people, and have been trying to learn their language for any years, I also find it easy to understand what he is communicating to me. We look each other in the eye, and I understand exactly what he means, although to someone else, these expressions look exactly the same. Dog language is so subtle and intricate that the slightest changes in posture and expression can make a huge difference. Also when they do use their voices to communicate, there are huge and subtle differences in “words” and tones – I know perfectly well when Habibi is “talking” about something happening outside whether he is just amusing himself (and dogs do like to bark to break up the boredom of nothing happening) or if there is really something going on that I have to check out.
I think that dogs get frustrated by our incompetence at understanding things that are perfectly clear. Habibi is quite tolerant, I haven’t caught any looks of scorn. But my first border collie was not very patient; she would bring a toy over and throw it in my lap, expecting me to react, and the look she gave me if I didn’t do so immediately was very clear: “How stupid can you be!!!! Don’t you understand something as simple as throwing a ball???” And she would scoop up the ball and dump it on my lap again, in the hopes that I would finally understand.
Habibi is more subtle. He comes over holding his toy and stands and looks at me. It is impossible to resist those penetrating eyes for long, but if I do, then he simply lays his head on my knee. “Come on, you can do it!”
I find that I communicate by preference with dogs. Communicating with people can be exhausting, especially when they just keep on talking and talking about what they have already said…my attention starts to wander. Dogs don’t have excess verbiage – they say what they mean with their bodies, and they really think you are stupid if you don’t understand it the first time. They may at times reinforce what they are saying with vocalization, but it is minimal – dogs that are very noisy and bark all the time are usually frustrated – no one tries to understand them, so if they make a lot of noise, maybe that will work! People just go on making a lot of noise…
Of course, dogs thinking we are stupid does not mean they love us less, they just have lower expectations.