Think back to how you learned your first language. Chances are that before you went to school, you were able to have basic conversations with your parents, generally by the age of two-and-a-half.
Your sentences were not grammatical, but they communicated. And you got to this point by listening and repeating. As a baby, you made nonsense sounds. Slightly older, you were giving one word commands: “Food!”
By two years, you were using two words: “Mommy hug” or “Sleep now,” and then, in the next six months, it exploded into true communication. But you didn’t learn language by having someone teach you rules and grammar. You learned by example, because you had to, and because you needed to communicate.
Our dogs learn the same way and, while they don’t have the powers of speech that we do, they still learn a language that is made up of energy and intention. Mentally, they don’t develop much beyond the two word grammar, but they can say an awful lot with those two words. We just need to learn how to listen.
For humans, two words can express a lot — something you want or are doing, or even an emotional state or opinion: “me tired,” “broccoli bad.” Even at two-and-a-half-years old, humans have a lot of choices of verbs and adjectives.
For dogs, though, there are no adjectives and only one verb — want/don’t want. At least, that’s the case if you’ve actually listened to what a dog is telling you. If you have a longer list of verbs, then you really haven’t been listening at all — you’ve been putting words in your dog’s mouth.
Remember, your dog is looking to you to be the Pack Leader, meaning that your dog is looking to you to fulfill her needs — and dogs’ needs aren’t that complicated. Besides exercise, discipline, and affection, they need food, water, shelter, and a place to do their business. They’ll let you know what they need and when they need it even if they do so without speaking.
A human toddler uses single words, but a dog can’t, so she’ll communicate in body language. Getting your attention by staring at or nudging you is the verb: “I want.” The dog will indicate the subject by looking at or running to something, whether it’s his leash, bowl, or the front door. And in case you’re wondering, a dog says “I don’t want” by looking or running away from something or avoiding it altogether.
And there you have it — a crash course in speaking dog. It’s a lot easier than learning any human language, and yet people have a hard time doing it because they don’t actually listen. Instead, they project — “My dog is running in circles because she’s happy.” “My dog is nudging me because she loves me.”
At the beginning, I asked you to remember how you learned your first language, which was by starting to imitate, and then making associations — certain sounds meant certain things. And in a very short time, you were able to communicate to other humans in very simple ways because you made those associations. Formal learning of language came later, but long before you went to school, you were able to verbalize your needs and wants to other humans.
Now I’m asking you to do it in reverse. Your dog will never be able to talk to you in any way more complicated than a toddler — but when you were that age you could understand your parents and they could understand you. The only difference is that dogs speak with their bodies and their intentions instead of words.
All of us were born able to communicate without words, meaning that all of us have the ability to do the same now. If you truly want to have a conversation with your dog then you have to forget what you’ve learned as a human and go back to being an infant. You learned your first language instinctually, without really trying. Learning dog language should be even easier.
Stay calm, and listen.