Friday, January 15, 2010

I Talk With My Hands

I am one of those people.

I talk with my hands and most of the time I don't knock over stuff, but sometimes I do. But when it comes to dogs, I have always talked with my hands in a very literal sense from their Homecoming Day and onward using hand signals.

Thank Heavens.

This week has been very long and not fun for my furry friends. I've been sick and mostly in bed or on the couch with tea and Kleenex and in various stages of losing my voice. However, I am still able to tell Ollie, Marshall and Gus (and to a lesser degree, Orange Cat) that I need them to move, be quiet, sit, wait, back up, relax, come here, or snuggle.

(Orange Cat knows my hand signals for 'snuggle' and 'come here', lately it's just a matter of if he *feels* like coming or snuggling. Cats were once worshipped by an entire culture and we humans will never live that down. Ever.)

Dogs understand hand signals well before they understand the verbal command or cue. In part, this is because their eyes are designed to detect small movement. While most dogs don't actually 'see' very well (about a human equivalent of 20/70), their eyes are able to detect slight changes in the way we walk or move even from great distance. Their ears are designed to hear noises from great distances with incredible directional accuracy, evaluate pitch and volume at much greater frequencies than the human ear is capable of.

Unfortunately, that does not mean they are good at differentiating human noises. Our words become a foreign language to them.

When teaching a foreign language, one of the best techniques is Total Physical Response method which is basically immersion with overstated, exaggerated movements to show what the word or phrase means. (Note: It does not help to just stand there and repeat the phrase louder over and over and hope the other person understands what you are saying.) Essentially, since we are teaching dogs human language, that is what hand signals accomplish. Dogs will never be able to replicate our vocalizations, but may learn correct responses to 30-200 verbal commands and gestures given the right training.

As the week goes by and I have to communicate what I want or need from my dogs without any verbal commands, I'm realizing how much we look at each other to make sure the message got across. I had forgotten sometimes to look for the body language that is asking essentially, "This is what you want, right?" and reinforce the behavior. I am realizing how much I talk.

And how much I don't need to.
And how much I talk with my not-furry friends.
And how much I don't need to.

I think I'm learning why monks take a vow of silence-- not so much to learn a 'new' way of communicating with the earth and the beings here. Rather to return to a very natural and basic way of communicating. I'm thinking that some of my frustration the last few weeks is from talking too much and not listening-- not hearing-- what other's silences are saying.

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