Monday, December 12, 2011

Body Language and Dogs

One of the great things about walking outdoors everyday is meeting people in the neighborhood, most of whom are walking dogs. Up until a few days ago I thought I got along fine with all but one of the dogs. Then I had an experience that made me rethink my own behavior and what I’m communicating to the various dogs of my acquaintance.
This particular Jack Russell terrier had been looking at me with what I interpreted as distrust and worry since I first started talking with his owner on my walks over the last few months. I thought it might have been because I took attention away from him. Then the other day a woman who obviously adored little dogs asked if she could say “hi” and when she stooped down he was so clearly delighted to meet her, licking her face and putting his front paws on her, I was amazed at the immediate bonding. I said something to his owner about Alyosha knowing a dog person when he saw one. He said, “He always knows” then added something about her getting down to his level. It took me a minute to digest this, but when we resumed our walk, I stopped and stooped down to greet him like she had done, and he immediately came over and licked my face like he was glad I’d finally gotten around to noticing him. I was pleased and touched by his generous welcome in the face of my months of bad behavior. By not going down to his level I was disrespecting him, maintaining my superior position and not recognizing him as a little being in his own right. To be “beneath notice” is painful and that was what I saw on this dignified little dog’s face. I realized that the looks I’d seen previous to this moment were his puzzlement at my lack of acknowledgment, which may even have hurt his feelings. I always said “Hi Alyosha” but a dog knows that’s not really taking him in. This is a big lesson. I can’t let my uneasiness around dogs make me impolite. These are behaviors associated with the cingulate cortex where social interaction is processed in all mammals. So it makes sense that the various ways we acknowledge and don’t acknowledge each other could communicate across species. It’s also is a reminder that this occurs preconsciously, but as humans, becoming conscious of it gives us a choice.
Though I may feel vulnerable getting down to eye level it communicates faith in the dog’s good intentions. And he was happy to come up to meet me. Face to face is where communication takes place. And Jack Russell’s are known to be particularly sensitive to facial expression and perhaps even more subtle social protocols.
Just like in my interactions with squirrels, I was inordinately pleased after finally meeting Alyosha. Communication is healing, and there’s a purity in the non-verbal exchange with friends from a different place on the animal spectrum. Interacting with animals is good for our health. An article in the mainstream health site WebMD cites studies showing that having pets reduces blood pressure and anxiety and boosts immunity. Relationships with animals are sensory, rich in touch, smell, vision and action that communicate with our right hemisphere and tune our own intuitive behavior. Because they’re not trying to name or symbolize and break down what they experience animals are better at seeing the meaning of the whole. They know when something’s wrong with the scene or out-of-synch with the pattern. So much of what we call intuition is the result of right hemisphere impressions of the whole picture unfolding in time and how it relates to us.
Like any good lesson, awareness of the implications of my behavior to animals gives me the chance to change a habitual pattern that was interfering with communication. Now I’ll be able to get to know them even better and enrich my perspective with their way of being.


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B. Recacho said...

I remember what you told us about dreams in Psychorealism class: that a book of general dream symbols is useless; more relevant is trying to puzzle out what the symbols mean to you on a personal level. I think that communication is also something that we customize to a personal, individual fit whether we are meeting a dog or a squirrel or a person. I've noticed, for example, that one of my new colleagues is not completely at ease with me. I think she's continually trying to figure out how to talk to me, but keeps saying awkward things that seem like picky quips rather than real conversations. On the other hand, I can segue rather seamlessly into a conversation about the most random thing with my closest friend at work. On the canine level, I understood the dog of my college years through body language (she liked to get our attention by grabbing with her paw), her sighs and huffs, and even the shifting of her eyebrows (dogbrow, Ronnie and I call it). We really knew each other as friends. When I meet a new dog things are decidedly more formal! There's a really great NOVA documentary called Dogs Decoded that focuses on the evolution of the dog alongside humans and how dogs are socially connected to people (as friend, rather than competitor) in a way that our closest relatives, chimps, are not. Walking around Bonnie Ridge, I notice the squirrels that socialize with people: they don't run away, but rather stand their ground and watch you, watching them. Observation. Empathy. Paying attention. Listening. These are things I am constantly working on.