Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What the Dog Hears

Do dogs understand us? Sometimes it seems like dogs fully and completely understand everything we are trying to communicate and at other times, it seems like they know nothing. The truth probably falls somewhere in between and we (as humans and owner) often completely misunderstand this. I find myself often talking to my dog Tucker. He is a wonderful listener, he never interupts and seems to give me his full attention. He gives me the whimsical looks, the tilted head (which I interpret as a question), and raised ears (which I define as the same as a raised eyebrow in a person). Nonetheless, my understanding is completely wrong. Tucker doesn't understand most all of my words (although I believe at this point he has a thorough understanding of "NO!" and "GET DOWN!" and "Want to go outside?"). The truth is dogs communicate with body language. They understand sucken shoulders, fast paced walks, tones of voice, and even increased heart rates and breathing. Now you may be saying, "My dog ignores me when I am stressed out, I thought you said he can understand that?" Well, just like humans, dogs can become accustomed to just about anything. If you yell at a dog all the time, it will become a normal part of their day. If you are stressed all the time, they won't bat an eye at that behavior because it has become normalized. If you are depressed all the time, they feel that is your normal state and therefore may show no interest in that behavior. Recent research shows that we can even diminish a dogs sense of smell if they are not required to use it (which is why last summer a rabbit was able to essentially sneak up on my dog and get about three feet from him without him noticing - ultimately scaring him to half to death).
So why do I share this? I am trying to speak for the dogs who have no one to speak for them. They do understand us, but not in the way we think they do. They don't understand words, they understand our actions (many times it is the most subtle or simple actions). The Dog Whisperer has based his entire training regiment on this philosophy with great success. That is why he says he doesn't train dogs, he trains people. What he means is that he is training them to "speak" the dog language. So next time you are having a conversation with your dog, remember they are "hearing" your body language, not your words. But who am I and what do I know, I could be completely wrong. When I get home I'll ask Tucker what he thinks.

My Time as a Gang Leader

In my youth, I spent several years as the leader of a local gang. Now, before you all question my sanity, I was in elementary school and the gang was more similar to “Our Gang” of the Little Rascals than what we think of today when we hear the word gang. My gang was formed in the same fashion that most gangs develop, geographic neighborhoods. We were all middle class kids living in the same neighborhood of a very small town. We had about 5 guys that made the core of our gang, with several other guys that stayed on the fringe. We had no female members in our gang as it was before the time of women’s rights hit our small town (and more likely, no girl would hang around a bunch of stinky boys). Besides, we probably thought most girls had cooties at that age.
The gang roll call went something like this; my best friend Aaron was what we called the “muscle” of our outfit. He was the biggest of us, the best fighter and generally the enforcer of the group. It was a dubious honor since I don’t remember our group ever getting in a fight (I don’t remember coming close), but nonetheless, he was tough (we think). Chris was the brains of the outfit. His dad was a lawyer, so he earned this honor by default. Although I think we all knew that he had clearly inherited the brains in the family. We tried him out as the “muscle”, but he was the smallest guy in our group (and not much of a fighter), so we had him make a lateral move in our organization to a position that better suited his skill set.
Mike and Bill were twin brothers with big hearts. Bill was a little more introverted, but he was fast (we were never sure how to apply this skill to our gang, but he was really fast). Bill even walked fast, he usually started walking next to us after school, only to arrive home several minutes before us. Mike was more extroverted and would give you the shirt off of his back – not your typical gang skill, but he fit in our group just fine. I was considered the leader . . . why? Because I am the one writing this column and that is the way that I prefer to remember it.
Mostly we just spent our free time outside of school playing together and setting out on adventures. We had a fort in the woods, in fact, we had many forts. Like many gangs, we found our share of trouble, but trouble was more like normal boyhood adventures – stealing strawberries out of a neighbor’s garden, throwing rocks through windows of an abandoned warehouse, and staying up past our bedtime at sleepovers. But what we really did was to support one another, care for one another, and look out for one another. We were less of a gang and more like a family. As we grew older, we grew apart, but the experience of a tight knit group of positive friends left a lasting impression on my life.
Today, our youth face much greater challenges. While I had a strong support system with family and friends, many of our youth don’t have those supports. Knowing this, we must all reach out to our children and give them the protections and supports that we experienced in our youth.