Say What?

(tales of the animals part 6)

None of my pets speak English. In fact they don’t speak any language at all save however it is that they communicate in their species specific way. The cats speak cat, the dogs speak dog that seems to be about it. Any yet there is a lot of cross-species understanding that takes place despite our lack of a common language. It was during a conversation I was having with one of the dogs that it occurred to me what a hard time we all have trying to get our point across even when we do speak the same language. There is something wonderful about the way the animals all understand the things I say that are important to them, and how all the rest just falls away.

Sometimes my husband will say something to me and I get all worked up, not about what he said but about how he said it. I work hard to not do that too much, but I am a just a regular person and I can’t help it sometimes. The dogs really do not care about the tone of voice I use when I say “do you want to go for a walk?” The only thing that matters are the words. I know, I know, experts will tell you that it isn’t what you say to an animal it’s how you say it. I don’t think the “experts” live with dogs. I can do the happy sing-song voice and they both get excited and run downstairs, I can say it sarcastically and they get excited and run downstairs, I can be chatting with my spouse about the plan for the day and ask, “when do you want to take the girls out” and they will get excited and run downstairs, I can be stressed and exasperated and say, “urg we better head out for a walk,” and they get excited and run downstairs. Notice the theme here? Any combination of ‘take the girls out’ or ‘go for a walk’ and they are excited and downstairs (which is where the door is so it makes sense). They don’t care what tone I use, they don’t need to check in on the deeper meaning or if I really want to go for a walk or if I’m just doing this because I feel obligated to. They don’t care, I said the words and they react to the words. That certainly makes the relationship a lot simpler in many ways.

We add so much import to the conversations we have as humans. And I am terribly guilty of this because at one time in my life I litigated, my job when in a deposition or court was to pick apart the words someone used, to deconstruct the form and structure so I could control the story. It’s a terrific skill to have when you need to figure out who hit whom first, or who took the whatever from the wherever when you have little children, but it isn’t a great behavior for relationship building in general. How often do we say, “I didn’t like that tone,” or “what do you think she meant by [fill in the blank with whatever you are trying to figure out]?” We analyze and fret and embellish and react to all manner of things that may or may not have been intended at all.

Another word the dogs know is “cookie,” and sometimes I, or my husband or children will say “cookie” without meaning that the animals are going to get a cookie. We try to be careful with these trigger words but sometimes we slip. Instead of having to have a big conversation about why I said “cookie” when  I did not mean that “you are now about to eat a cookie” the dogs (and the cats) look at me with a little disappointment, will look wistfully at the cabinet that holds the cookies and then, usually will just move on. Maybe it’s a control thing and they know not to pine for something that requires opposable thumbs, or maybe it is just acceptance of the words in their simplest form. I say the word, they look inquisitive, I say that’s not what I meant and then it is over. We could try that out, we humans with each other, just say what we mean or apologize when we mess up and use the wrong word. We could try that, it might make a lot of things easier.

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