I recently visited my Canadian relatives and spent half of my time with them in pure exhaustion just from trying to make sense of the conversation. Studying French from junior high through college and growing up in a house where French and English were used interchangeably, one would think that the language would be second nature to me, but that’s not how I’m wired.
Even with my limited knowledge of the French language, there were parts of our “conversations” that I understood simply by expression, body language, and intonation alone. In those instances, my comprehension of French was quite impressive! What abilities was I then using if not my understanding of the words and is it possible that animals who don’t use words might share such abilities with people?
I had the unique privilege of hearing Dr. Temple Grandin speak this past week at a lecture sponsored by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine on the topic of animal cognition and autism. Interestingly, one of the points that she stressed throughout her lecture was that animals pay far less attention to words than they do to the information gained from their senses, and if we are to more accurately understand what animals are thinking or experiencing emotionally, we need to pay much more attention to what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling.
Experts on canine cognition and behavior, Dr. Patricia McConnell, author of The Other End of the Leash, and Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog, both write that although we share the same five senses with animals, the campacity of our senses can vary significantly from one species to another. So what we see, hear, feel, taste, or smell may not necessarily be what an animal is experiencing. This creates an even greater challenge if we are trying to understand an animal’s emotional experience.
Truly empathizing with another person is difficult enough because we don’t live in the full context of another’s life experience. Add the variable of sensory processing that pales, exceeds, or even varies from our own, such as that of another species, and the challenge posed is much greater. Overcoming this challenge through educating ourselves about how our beloved animals process sensory input is well worth the effort. Not only do we develop the heightened ability to empathize with their experiences, but in doing so we can now respond to them compassionately and effectively.
As domesticated species who depend on humans for survival, dogs are highly in tune and responsive to our patterns of behavior and emotional states. If we learn to better understand their emotions and in turn demonstrate appropriate and compassionate responsiveness, how much greater will our chances of developing symbiotic relationships with them be?
As I watch my white-muzzled Labrador drive her nose deep into the hole she carved at the base of a stump while rapidly sniffing and blowing out the scent of what might possibly be a chipmunk’s den, I cannot nor would not want to smell what she does. I trust however, that she smells something that results in her experience of curiosity, joy, and purpose. So as Dr. Grandin suggests, I “stop talking and pay attention”. With body language and intense expression, Tessa tells me something that is beyond my ability to know with my limited senses: a family of small creatures may be living beneath this stump. Maybe I am wired for language after all!