Conversations with Dogs
By mysticcharoite, Jun 3 2016 06:34PM
Border Force was very vocal when I returned home from a trip to a dog show at the weekend. I didn’t actually take any of my own dogs but showed a couple of girls and some boys (How very dare you? Border Force would want to know later that afternoon) for a slightly incapacitated friend.
If you have dogs you’ll understand how rigorous the re-entry process can be, even after a short trip abroad; and by abroad I mean anywhere passport control hasn’t physically accompanied you and where you might just have come into accidental contact with an unfamiliar dog.
I can come home after Kev’s dogs (and my dogs’ team mates) have jumped on my knee to only a raised eyebrow and a “thank dog you’re home, does this mean we get a snack before bed?”
Sunday involved contact with lots of dogs they don’t share a stake-out with, however, and I was only allowed through the door after a thorough sniff down and quite a lengthy telling off, “What do you mean coming back at this time, smelling of strange dogs? And treats, we know there have been treats in your pocket.”
Yes, I gave treats to strange dogs.
Eventually, mostly with the promise of chicken, the pointy nosed Siberian poking calmed down although at a couple of points through the evening, Pyewacket obviously remembered I had given treats to strange dogs and wooed at me reproachfully.
His mum Beany didn’t say much but sneaked into the bathroom later and ate the pocket out of my trousers.
I explain myself to my dogs quite a lot, “Sorry, I’m late, kids, someone rang me as I was leaving the office” and so on. This is probably quite wrong and is definitely unequal because Beany had nothing whatsoever to say about the trouser pocket incident and no one was going to own up to peeing against the dog food bin in the kitchen.
It’s not just explaining myself, I have more than the occasional conversation with my dogs. And yes, I did just use the word conversation because, you know, often what dogs don’t say back to you speaks louder than anything.
At a recent dog show, I was very nicely reprimanded by the rather doughty lady judge for being too chatty with Pyewacket. “You talk to him too much, he’ll just switch off and not listen to you,” she advised. This may be so. After all, we’re all occasionally pleasantly irritating white noise to those significant people in our lives. I talk to my dogs (way beyond the gee and haw everyone agrees is a necessary level of communication) when I’m running them too and again have been warned this will have dire effects on their competitiveness, in the same way letting them sit on the sofa apparently does.
To the uninitiated, talking to your dogs may sound like you’re one step away from living in a stinky dressing gown, being owned by 47 cats and having a secret, not-for-human-consumption alcohol habit but, like letting them into your life in other ways, it’s actually very healthy.
For a start, it helps us to bond. Studies have shown dogs are able to amass something of a vocabulary. There are well documented cases of dogs who have been able to learn vast numbers of words but even if you don’t own a canine Kipling or Shakespeare, you probably want to avoid saying words like “walk” or “dinner” when you want your dog to settle down and go to sleep. Sled dogs, for example, know the difference between “gee” and “haw”; that “straight-on” means go neither direction; “on-by” rules out play time with that other team of dogs; and “leave it” is something along the lines of please don’t take me on a safari after the bloody squirrel.
Even if they don’t understand the words, they still seem to like listening to you and respond well to the human voice. Recent research using MRI scanning, for example, showed that dogs’ brains respond to human voices in pretty much the same way as people do and it’s much the same area of the brain that humans use for this.
I grew up talking to Penny, my Jack Russell. As the massively youngest of the family, it was almost like being an only child. Forming a deeply close bond with my dog as a young kid taught me that the world actually didn’t revolve around me and I wasn’t necessarily a priority. I don’t know how people survive adult life without these two early lessons. I told my dog everything and she never betrayed that trust or ever held any of it against me although she’d never let me steal her bone. We all need that kind of a friend sometimes. Kids with conditions on the autism spectrum are often able to talk to dogs or other animals way beyond the way they can communicate with other people.
At the other end of the age spectrum, talking to dogs helps to keep elderly people (especially those having early memory problems) anchored in the here and now. Social isolation is really bad for cognitive functioning and having a dog or a visiting dog to talk to can help them concentrate on the present and as well as staying physically active.
When I run my dogs, the chatter is important. We’re supposed to do things in life that make our hearts beat a little faster; things we’re a bit scared of. I love mushing as much as it sometimes terrifies me. Talking to the dogs calms my nerves, helps me focus and reminds me that I’m doing this basically because I absolutely love it that I can do this amazing thing with my best friends.
Sometimes when I’m talking to my dogs, I’m actually talking to the dog walker we’re about to pass or the musher we’re about to overtake (it’s not unusual for people to help avoid conflicts between themselves by directing comments to a dog).
However, I do restrict conversations on the trail to things that are not going to blow their fuzzy little lemon brains and make them run into a tree while worrying about the meaning of life. They have enough to think about.