CANINE TELLS: I learned something interesting this past month…or perhaps I’ve known it all along and I’m just now acknowledging the slowness of my own perception when it comes to things I interact with every day. People often say that they wish their dogs could talk to them. Well, the truth is, they do. We just don’t know the language. Or do we?
As a high-functioning autistic, I sometimes often misinterpret facial and verbal cues that my fellow humans offer in daily communications. This leads to misunderstandings on my part that then get amplified in my miswired brain, becoming an incredibly strong feeling of discomfort and which makes me eschew social situations that I am not in control of – which happens to be most of them. However, in the spirit of not becoming a total recluse, I force myself into the world on a daily basis so that I can get more practice. That’s where the beauty of my relationship with dogs come in.
It’s no accident that I chose highly social breeds to adopt into our family. Malai was the first, a Zen-like black Labrador who was my constant companion for the first two years of her life. Newfoundland/black Lab mix Ozzie came next, with his amazingly complex personality and consummate clown. Then Yaz the Spaz (Great Dane/Weimeraner) joined us much later, and was a definite challenge in getting her rehabbed into being able to live with other dogs. When working with dogs, I always *believe* I’ve learned everything there is to know about a specific breed or animal, then find that indeed I lack in some of the more subtle clues.
Much like my interaction with humans. (are you beginning to see where this is going?)
The more subtlety I can pick up from dogs, the more I know what to look for with my friends. So the other day, I asked the pups if they wanted to go outside…the answer to which I assumed would be, “Duh!” But I saw that Ozzie shook his head, and realized that I’d seen him do that numerous other times when I asked a question of the dogs, not expecting any answer but an affirmative one. So I tested it.
“Ozzie, want a treat?” Head shake.
“Ozzie, are you hungry?” Head shake.
“Ozzie, want to go for a ride?” Head shake.
This method does not work with other questions, such as “Do you want a bath?” (which he hates) or “Is it time to go get your shots?” For those, he merely gives me the head tilt and questioning gaze that I find so endearing.
His responses – the head shake being similar to the ones humans give when indicating “No” to some question or statement – made me realize that perhaps dogs communicated in the ways they knew how, or in ways that they’d learned received a positive response from their human counterpart. So I tested this with the other two, with similar results. However, both Malai and Yaz had their own “tells” they used when responding to my questions. Yaz used her enormous nose to poke at my hand or forearm. Malai curled her lip as if growling, but on her it became a joyful smile. So I began watching for other tells, and sure enough, they were there. I had simply failed to notice them. My bad. So now when I work with canine clients and their human companions, I strive to discover what each dog’s tells are and then teach the human to recognize and interpret them.
Also, I have learned an important feature in communicating with other people: that each of us have tells that give away our true intent or thought or desire. It’s definitely not a perfect system with humans (cumbersome, time-consuming, and inefficient when interacting in a social setting). But like Tim Roth’s character on “Lie To Me,” it does work when viewing video or DVD. Perhaps in that way, I can more easily learn to recognize tells and cues in people at a more rapid rate.