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Talking To Dogs

 

My father used to yell at our Doberman Pinscher in German. It’s possible that he added in some Yiddish, but he made a point of saying that you should speak to a German dog in German. The rest of us spoke to her in English, though, and she seemed to be fine with that.

"Huh?"

“Huh?”

I have a habit of dropping into Hebrew or French for a word or two, rarely for a whole sentence, because I’m not fluent in either language. I don’t know why I do it. Maybe I’m just pretentious and annoying, but I like the way the different languages sound, with the hard square letters of Hebrew, and the rolling curlicues of French. Cricket can understand up to the number three in French, because that’s how I taught her to jump up onto the bed, Un, deux, trois, Jump! (See, I can’t even stay in French for four words!) With Hebrew I tend to stick to short phrases, like “Where is…?” or “Thank you” Or “Why?” And Cricket tilts her head and nods. She’s a savant.

"I understand everything you say. I just disagree."

“I understand everything you say. I just disagree.”

Butterfly has a whole different vocabulary. It’s as if the girls speak, or at least comprehend, two different languages. I can’t use the same words to communicate with both of them at the same time. I’ve noticed that they choose the words or signals they will respond to more than I do. It’s like they are flipping through a book of fabric swatches until they find one that speaks to them. Just because I repeat something a hundred times doesn’t mean they will pick it up, but I can do something just once, and it clicks forever.

"Mommy?"

“Mommy?”

I wonder if, given a chance, this is how people would be too, if forcing everyone to use the same language, while very convenient, is cutting off huge swaths of natural language.       What if I was born to speak Hindi and my whole life I will be missing pieces of my soul because I can’t capture them in English. Is that possible?

Butterfly responds best to touch. She calms when I pet her, she stills when I hold her in place for her insulin shot, she turns to look at me when I tug on her leash. She believes in eye contact and body language and leaves most of the English stuff to Cricket.

"I have Mommy's sock and that means I have Mommy."

“I have Mommy’s sock and that means I have Mommy.”

I tend to speak to Butterfly in a higher tone of voice, and fewer words overall. She responds best to facial expressions and body language. If I reach a hand out to her, she comes over to get scratches. She watches me very carefully. Sometimes I wonder if she’s partially deaf, but I think it’s more the deafness that comes from not understanding the words I am saying to her.

I tried to teach her “Down,” but she responds better to “Stop.” And I have to be right there, not across the room, for it to make sense to her. She understands when I pick up her blood testing kit, and she understands when leashes are taken off the hook at the door, but she doesn’t understand “sit,” maybe because it took her almost a year to build the muscle strength to sit on her back legs the way Cricket does, so when I was trying to build her vocabulary, she didn’t have any physical corollary for “sit.”

Cricket responds to tone of voice more than anything else. If she hears someone yelling outside, she barks. If I whisper, she wakes up from a dead sleep and assumes I was taking about her and planning an outing for her. If I, god forbid, say the word chicken, all hell breaks loose.

"Chicken!"

“Chicken!”

She learned her commands as a puppy. She knows sit and stay and down and turn, but she also knows walk, go, outside, shoes, leash, food, toy, platypus, chewy, poop, bath.

Cricket and her platypus.

Cricket and her platypus.

Those are the obvious things, but I’ve also noticed that she can understand context, even when her usual words aren’t in use. Even without the words “poopie butt” or “bath,” she can figure out that I’m planning to wash her in the sink, and she runs under her couch to safety.

"You can't catch me!"

“You can’t clean my poopie butt!”

My therapist’s Golden Retriever is six years old and just now studying to be a service dog. She needs her license so that she can help her dad, but this means that she has to learn a whole new set of signals, different from what she learned in her obedience classes way back when. This has become a problem. She is a very bright girl, but she is getting confused. Her poor forehead crinkles and she can’t decide if she’s supposed to sit, stay, turn around, or leave the room.

"Help me, please."

“Help me, please.”

No wonder dogs use smell and yips and nips to communicate with each other; they must think that the human world is a tower of babel, with all of our different languages creating utter confusion. For dogs, the smell of “female, spayed, eats a lot of chicken,” is the same around the world.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

128 responses »

  1. I love Cricket’s safety area!

    Reply
  2. Hi again, Rachel. Just an FYI, I recently “moved” my blogs from WP.com to WP.org, so I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to check out my new blog site now at http://www.lauriemerritt.photography/blog/. Take a look, and I hope you enjoy some of my posts.

    Now getting back to this article of yours (yes, I call it an article), I have saved it for current and future reference. We recently fostered and adopted a black lab mix, about 6 yrs old, and an amputee w/ a prosthesis. (Story- http://www.lauriemerritt.photography/photography-2/this-dogs-tale/.) He’s definitely a talker, but you’re right about the fact if might be movements or signs vs. verbal that trip his actions and emotions. So, thanks for this!!

    Reply
  3. I used to see Doberman


    I have fond memories

    Reply
  4. Reblogged this on nicoleholt732 and commented:
    I loved this.

    Reply
  5. As all animal communication begins in the Energy, and physical language comes next, animals find it easy to adapt and proceed (so to speak lol). Great piece of writing Hon. X

    Reply
  6. Love your post on doggie speak. Beautiful dogs!!! I have a Great Dane that is convinced he can speak, he is always talking to us. He also knows how to tell time and has placed himself on a very rigid routine. Breakfast at 7AM and 7PM (on the dot) with a tromp outside at 9PM right before bedtime.

    Reply
  7. Thank you for checking out my blog Rachel. Definitely enjoyed perusing yours as well. This article is perfect and so true. I talk to my cat the same way I do with my kids, there’s a tone you give each. I am more ‘blunt’ (spanish/irish side). My boyfriend has Sammy (15 yr old Sheltie) but Archer the crazy cat is mine, BUT Archer does prefer BF for the ‘soothing’ personality where as Archer and I have the crazy mentality. As they say, your dog/cat will mimic you – but we respond to each differently.
    I loved the photos – they definitely show their personalities. I can’t wait to get a dog as well – but we can’t add while Sammy is going through his ‘old age’.

    Reply
  8. I love it! My 2 1/2 year old Morkie also understands the word platypus…he also knows all his toys and if I ask him to get Birthday Cow he knows exactly what toy I mean. He’s teaching his new sister, a rescued poodle mix, the ropes and what our movements and signals mean. it’s been fun to watch her copy her brother 🙂

    Reply
  9. Animals are pretty smart. I think with smart ones, the more you talk to them the more they understand. The more you connect actions with words the better it is for them. I remember a long time ago one day my cat was doing something I didn’t want her to do, so I said, “Nuh-uh!” And she stopped and looked at me with the usual, “Why not?” She walked away from it, and as she was walking away I thought to myself, “What was that? I just told my cat ‘Nuh-uh.’ and she stopped. Pretty smart cat. Not so smart cat-mommy.” It just came out before I could think of actually saying a word like “No” or “Stop”. I laughed. She was smart.

    I now imagine that if everyone had the chance to be exposed to all languages we would all find the one that really spoke to us and we could excel at it. 🙂

    Reply
  10. This is a delightful, so delightful, post! Excellent images. I can imagine that you are so blessed to have these two beautiful dogs; each with their own personality. Have a great day.
    T

    Reply
  11. I talk to my cats as if they’re children. It’s hard to tell what they understand since cats are professionally disinterested in what we say, but I do know that my boy, Leo, is highly sensitive to my tone, and once reprimanded (except when he’s harassing his sister) he stays reprimanded, and has to make it right with me. His sister, Peeb, doesn’t really care what I think.

    Reply
    • “Professionally disinterested” – I love that. I find myself talking to the fat squirrel who hangs out ten feet in front of my door. I try to tell him that he can stay where he is, and doesn’t have to run away each time I get within a certain distance. I think he can hear me, but he doesn’t believe me.

      Reply

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