Hearts And Flowers And The Art Of Listening

Cesar Millan makes a heart symbol with his hands.

This Wednesday is Valentine’s Day, which is always a special occasion for me. A big part of why is that I have a really wonderful woman to call my Valentine. The other is that it’s the eleventh anniversary of when I founded the Millan Foundation, now known as the Cesar Millan PACK Project.

Our mission is to improve the health, happiness, and harmony of dogs and people while helping both species learn from and support each other. A big part of doing that is raising awareness about spaying and neutering to reduce pet overpopulation and, ultimately, to save lives.

This is why Valentine’s Day was the perfect holiday on which to found the PACK Project.

The holiday is all about love, and so is working to improve the lives of animals and their people. Every dog (or cat) that is rescued or fostered is one less unwanted animal in the world. Every person who winds up adopting or taking in one of them has a new loyal companion that will show them unconditional love. Well, dogs will do that, at least. I don’t know about cats.

For as long as I can remember — and, according to my mother, even longer than that — I have always loved animals, and the more you get to know them and communicate with them, the more you realize that most animals have an emotional inner life that is just as complex as ours.

The only difference is that they don’t use language in quite the same way, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t use language at all. Whether it’s a dog’s bark, a cat’s meow, a crow’s caw, a cow’s moo, or a squirrel’s chatter, they still use sounds to communicate with each other and with us. And what do they communicate? The same thing we do: Our needs and our wants.

And animals communicate in other ways that humans do but that we forget that we use: body language and energy. The way you’re standing or sitting or using your hands, and the expressions you make can all change the meaning of what you’re saying.

Here’s just one example. You say the word “Nice” in response to something someone else has just done, but the message you send will be incredibly different between you standing in a relaxed manner and making an open-handed gesture, and you standing tensely with your arms tightly crossed over your chest — both of which will also change your tone of voice. The difference between support and sarcasm is literally that small.

In dogs, you can probably tell the difference between an aggressive approach and a play bow and, of course, so can other dogs. And yet not a bit of that difference is expressed in words. It all has to do with the energy and method.

And when communication doesn’t work because of inherent differences, it can be just as interesting to watch. For example, when a dog wags its tail, it’s usually a happy greeting. When a cat wags its tail, it’s a warning to back off. When a dog does a play bow, it’s a friendly invitation. When a cat makes the same movement, it’s a threat. In case you’ve ever wondered why dogs and cats are frequently seen to be natural enemies, this is it. They do not speak the same language, and miscommunication can lead to animosity.

That is probably one of the biggest lessons we can learn from figuring out how animals talk. Not all species and not all people communicate the same way. A very normal and slangy way for two people to communicate in English might actually be incredibly insulting in Japanese, and while Russian is very creative in making up and using swear words, Hebrew is not.

If you’re an English speaker learning Spanish, you’ll be confused that we have two ways to say “to be” (estar and ser) and “for” (por and para.) Meanwhile Spanish speakers learning English like I did will be endlessly confused that you have two ways to say our word “en” — “in” and “on.”

But this is also a great reminder that one of the best things we can learn from animals is that words are not necessary for communication. In fact, we would be better off as humans if we learned how to communicate with our energy and body language, and left our words aside.

And where is the one time and place we tend to wind up doing that? Usually, interacting with people we love. Those silent spaces and loving looks say everything without saying anything. Love can even overcome language barriers, and that is beautiful. And that is why Valentine’s Day was the perfect time to start my foundation, and the perfect reminder every year of why I did it.

Happy Valentine’s Day. If you’re in a relationship, hooray for you. If you’re not, don’t worry. Be yourself and trust yourself and it will happen.

Be calm, and listen to all of the animals around you!

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