Although Lent starts this Wednesday, I have a Christmas story for you. There’s an old legend that says that, at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals can speak in human voices. This is because, on the first Christmas Eve, various animals in the manger gave their greatest gifts to the baby Jesus.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever stayed up on Christmas Eve with your dogs, but I have and I’ve never heard them speak in human voices. That’s okay, though, because my dogs talk to me all the time — and I talk back.
The idea of talking animals is very old in human culture. Even the earliest Greek myths and stories are full of talking animals, and there is a talking snake in the first book of Bible. It’s a very attractive idea to humans, because it makes us feel closer to the animals. A regular lion is scary, but a talking lion like Aslan in “The Chronicles of Narnia” is not.
Humans are very preoccupied with words and language because it is the primary way that we normally discover and define the world around us. It is also how we communicate with each other — or don’t communicate, because two people who don’t speak the same language will have a very hard time having a conversation.
For humans, language is one of the main things that defines our individual packs, even more than countries or religions. The average English-speaking American would feel more comfortable with English speakers from Canada or Australia than they would with someone from Ireland who only spoke Gaelic, even though the American is more likely to have Irish ancestors. And in countries that have two or more predominant, very different languages, we often see civil war, or at least a big cultural split between the two groups.
So things would be a lot easier for us if animals could speak our language, but that’s not likely to happen, no matter how many Christmas Eves go by. This doesn’t stop us from talking to our dogs in our human voices, of course — but in talking to our dogs with words, we forget that we are “talking” to them in an entirely different way at the same time.
All animals communicate with energy, through emotions, intention, and body language. It’s such a universal form of communication that it works across species. Well, most species. In this case, it’s a lot of us humans who don’t speak the language because we’ve forgotten how.
Dogs do not understand our words, but they understand our energy and our tone. Where a lot of people get in trouble is in thinking that it’s the other way around. I’ve actually seen people do things like scold their dog in a singsong, baby-talk voice. The words coming out may be, “You are a very, very bad dog,” but what the dog “hears” is a human giving them affection.
This misunderstanding works the other way, too. Far too often, when people see an excited dog, they instantly interpret it as aggression because they aren’t looking at the whole picture. “The dog is jumping and I can see its teeth. Must be aggressive.” In this case, people are missing most of the words. How is the dog holding its ears and tail? How tense or relaxed is its body? Is it making eye contact with another dog or person or not?
Doing the same thing with human language would sound something like this. I start a sentence with “To,” and you immediately assume I said “To be or not to be” without listening to anything else. But what I really said was, “Today it is raining.” Then you reply, “I love Shakespeare,” and we both suddenly think the other person is crazy.
Dogs will never be able to talk at midnight on Christmas Eve, but that’s okay because they can “talk” all the time anyway. We just have to learn how to “listen” to what they’re saying.
Stay calm, and talk “dog.”