“Are you ready?”
It’s a simple enough sentence, isn’t it? But, on paper, it’s impossible to tell the intention. Is the speaker happy, angry, excited, impatient, or something else? It could be a hopeful question between two people who are about to walk down the aisle together, or a complaint from someone who’s tired of always being late because of their spouse.
One human skill that many people are not the greatest at is listening. Yes, we may hear all of the words, but we don’t always hear the intention correctly. Fortunately, this is yet another area where our dogs can teach us, because they are the best listeners in the world. Why? They know what to listen to.
Now, while some dogs, like border collies, can have large vocabularies, they don’t really understand words in the same way or sense that humans do. They can associate certain sound patterns with objects or actions, but can also become confused if the word and the intention don’t match up.
Or at least they seem to become confused, but that’s just a result of what we think we’re asking them conflicting with how we’re asking it. This is why shouting at a dog to calm down just makes them more excited even if they know the words.
Remember that dogs experience the world through their senses in this order: nose, eyes, ears. So when they “listen” to you say something, the words and noises coming out of your mouth are the least important thing they’re paying attention to.
In the human world, it’s quite the opposite, where we seem to pay more attention to a person’s words than to anything else — especially in this Internet age, when so much of our communication has become nothing but words.
To make up for that, we’ve had to create an entire visual vocabulary of emojis. At the last count, there were nearly 2,700 of them, if you can believe that. For comparison, it only takes knowing about 3,000 words to be conversationally functional in a language — unless that language is the invented one called Toki Pona, which only has 123 words.
But even when we’re communicating face-to-face, while we may understand all of the words we hear, we can easily miss out on the intentions behind them because we are often unaware of the energy and body language that come along with them.
Dogs are aware of both. In fact, these are the primary ways in which they communicate. Once we start paying attention to that and understanding not only how our dogs figure out what we want but how they tell us what they want, then we can learn to do the same with other people. But it takes being able to perceive what’s happening beyond the words.
See, that’s the other thing about human communication: The words and the intentions don’t always line up. How many times have you heard someone insist, “I’m fine,” when you knew there was something wrong? And, of course, people do lie.
Dogs cannot lie and they are also excellent lie detectors. More than that, they are excellent communicators. We’re the ones who have to learn how to listen to them and not the other way around. But the best part is that the more in tune you become with dogs and how they “talk” to us, the better you’ll get at listening to other people and actually hearing what they’re saying.
Stay calm, and keep listening!