I met Savannah at the pound, and from very beginning we began to talk to each other without talking. I sat against a tree in the yard behind the concrete-block shelter building, and watched her sniff her way along the cyclone fence. I wanted to get a sense of who she was, and let her wander without direction from me. I didn’t know much about her. The woman who had left Savannah at the shelter claimed she was a stray. She seemed healthy, but was clearly depressed. She gave only passing notice to the few toys scattered around the yard, and when she looked at me there was a look of disappointment in her big Great Dane eyes. I had the sense I wasn’t the one she was hoping to see.
As Savannah explored the far end of the yard, I wondered if the person she missed so much had taught her the skills that make a dog’s life easier in the world of humans, and whether she knew how to come when called. Just as the thought passed through my mind, she lifted her nose from the grass, looked over at me, and calmly walked to where I sat. Long and leggy as she was, she towered over me a bit, and looked down with what seemed like expectation. It looked for all the world as though she’d heard my thought, and intuitively knew I wanted her to come. So she presented herself in front of me, and waited for my next request. That was just one of many clues that let me know I wanted to share my life with her.
The first morning after she moved in, we went outside to let the horses, Tess and Tomar, out of their paddock to play and graze the pasture. Savannah followed close by, and stood next to me as I prepared to open the gate. I had no idea if she knew her way around horses, and was concerned about how I’d teach her to avoid getting under foot. Without thinking about it much, I said to her, “Honey, the horses are going to come through the gate now, so you should go stand over there where you’ll be safe.” She turned around, walked to the other side of the fence and waited, exactly where I wanted her to.
And that’s the way it was, for the rest of the days we lived and loved together. Savannah and I talked to each other, sometimes with words, sometimes with just our thoughts. I’m not nearly as good at intuitive communication as she was, so I relied on words much of the time. But with or without spoken language our relationship was an ongoing conversation.
Most of us were raised in a world where dogs are taught commands like “sit,” “stay,” and “come,” with the assumption that it’s the only way to communicate our wishes to them. Of course it’s true that dogs—and other animals—can learn those verbal commands and the behaviors we expect when we utter them. But I’ve found they’re capable of much more. It’s obvious that animals communicate with one another all the time, without the use of words like ours. A flock of starlings fly back and forth across the sky like a single acrobat; in an afternoon a zillion ants share the news of a few cookie crumbs on the kitchen counter. My experience tells me that animals are perfectly capable and willing to communicate with us the same way, if only we are open to the possibility.
For many years I was a horse trainer. (I long ago extricated myself entirely from the horse industry—but that’s the subject of another article.) With horses, too, there’s an assumption that teaching them to respond to short verbal commands is the best way to elicit certain behaviors, especially when both horse and handler are on the ground. A common part of the training routine is to “longe” a horse. The handler holds the end of a very long lead line, called a “longe line,” that’s attached to the horse’s halter or bridle, and asks the horse to move around her in a circle. Typically a young horse is taught to respond to the verbal commands “walk,” “trot,” “canter,” and “whoa.”
A key element of my approach to working with horses was mental communication. When a horse is allowed to be very relaxed physically and mentally, and the rider is very quiet, the level of communication between the two can be quite exquisite. The two can truly move as one, with a wealth of information passing between the two without words or physical cues. That’s a very special thing. That level of communication is possible even when both parties are on the ground, as in the case of the longeing exercise. I never taught those verbal commands to the horses in my care, but I did teach them to walk, trot, canter, and halt in response to my mental request. For example, I could stand at the center of the circle, and Tomar, my sweet, wise school horse, would transition through all the gaits without ever hearing a word out loud from me.
When my students came for lessons, a very interesting thing happened. Although Tomar had never been taught those verbal commands, many of my students had learned to use them from other trainers they’d studied with. So they’d bring Tomar into the arena, let out the longe line, and send him out onto the circle with the crisp command, “Trrrrot!” And Tomar would trot. And he’d walk and canter and “whoa” in response to the students’ sharp verbal commands.
How was that possible? I believe he was reading the students’ minds, just as he’d learned to read mine. The students used the commands to focus their thoughts, and Tomar understood those thoughts. It makes sense to me that the same process takes place when we talk to the dogs or cats or birds in our care. I know for a fact that Savannah, Tess, Tomar, and every other animal I’ve cared for respond to language far beyond any commands they may have been taught. I speak to them in sentences the way I’d speak to a human friend, and again and again they respond in ways that can only mean they understand. In turn, I’m ever more aware of the times I know what they’re thinking, even when there are no visible or audible clues. In fact, I’ve found that the greatest limitation on our ability to communicate in this way is the shortfall in my own expectations. Every time I become open to the possibility of greater complexity in our communication, or greater sensitivity or awareness between us, the animals are there ready and waiting to show me how much more is possible.
I have no doubt that you already communicate with the animals in your family far beyond the lexicon of simple commands you and they are supposed to know. You’re probably aware of the dialogue most of the time—or maybe you’re not. In any case I challenge you to explore the farther reaches of conversation with them, both verbally and intuitively. If that hasn’t been a conscious part of your relationship, they may not be expecting it, might not be tuned in. But give it a little time. Let them know you’re trying, and notice how much they respond to words they couldn’t possibly have learned in the usual way.
Most of all, don’t forget to listen. Notice the times when you walk through the room and suddenly have a thought about what they want, fear, or imagine. Consider the possibility that those thoughts are not your own creation, but your intuitive awareness of theirs. All those times you walk around the house chatting away, imagining you’re just putting words in their mouths—it might be that in fact they’re putting thoughts in your head. They have a lot more to say than you might have imagined.
See what happens when you push the limits of your expectations about how much you really can communicate with one another. It may well be that only they know what’s really possible. But I’m pretty sure they’ll be willing to show you a little more each day.