I'm reading
Speaking dog
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Speaking dog
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Speaking dog
Pass it on
Pass it on
5 December 2021

Speaking dog

How a foster dog taught writer Emma Hardy to listen.

Written by Emma Hardy

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

Discussed in this Story

“Don’t try to touch him,” the trainer at the Lost Dogs Home told us before we collected Buddy. “It’s best to just give him space. Throw him treats across the room. Don’t get in his business.”

I looked to my partner, who simply nodded along as though unphased by anything the trainer said. I knew he was terrified.

“And, so, sorry,” I said. “What if he bites?”

“He shouldn’t. Just don’t get too close to him,” said the trainer. Then, sensing the inadequacy of his answer: “We’ll deal with it when we get to it.”

In his photo, Buddy had a shy demeanour and a soft heart-shaped print on his nose. His coat was white, splotched with black and grey. He looked lovely — a handsome ball of muscle with wet, curious eyes. I should have known I was setting myself up for heartbreak when we decided to foster. But I didn’t. I thought myself too practical. I wasn’t sentimental — I could care for a dog and then give him back, knowing he was getting a better “forever” home. I was, of course, wrong.

The Buddy we met defied all language the trainers had given him. He left the foster home happy, jumped in our car and showered us with wet puppy kisses. It’s as though he was waiting to get out of there, I thought. It’s as though he knows he’s safe now.

I’ve yet to learn how to write about animals without humanising them — I doubt I ever will. The idea of putting my own words into an animal’s mouth (or tentacle, or nose) makes me uneasy. But the process of sitting with animals — especially those we share our spaces with — has made me realise the urgency of this task. How am I to write about people without also writing the mice who share their kitchen, the magpie who lives in the backyard?

The language Buddy and I shared was in large part my own, I know that. But I can’t help but believe that I learned his language, too. A language that goes beyond words — a language that exists somewhere in the body, somewhere more-than-human.

How am I supposed to write about a dog without giving weight to the experience of what it means to be more dog?

“I don’t know what you want,” I said as Buddy looked up at me from the living room floor. “Outside? Water? Scratches?” It was a guessing game as I tried to read language into the curve of his ear, the hunch of his spine.

In time, Buddy learned to communicate with me: to make bold ‘roo-roo’ noises when he wanted to play. To bang his paw on my leg when he wanted me to shove over on the couch. And I learned to understand him, too. Language is never a one-way street. It requires both parties to try, and both parties to listen. I listened to the ways he would lick his lips: wide and smacking when he was anxious, soft and gulpy when nauseous. I learned that a yawn could mean he was tired, or it could mean get those people out of my house.

As Buddy came to share my space, he came to share my language too. This shared language felt unique and special. In reality, it was the consequence of patience and attention. My partner could not for the life of him get Buddy to sit.

“Stop saying ‘sit’ like that,” I’d tell him. The request lay not in the word, but in the crispness of your T and the angle of your wrist. These bodily symbols were a contract between Buddy and I. How could you expect a dog to listen if you broke the grammar of your shared language?

Though perhaps Buddy understood and flat-out refused to listen. Who am I to know? Buddy was, by all means, a Bad Dog. He ripped through bins, ate shoes, pissed on the carpet more than once, would get too rough during playtime and growl at strangers who came on too quick. But he was a generous communicator. He’d peel his ears back long before a back-off growl. He’d cower at the first sign of discomfort. He made listening to him easy. So it became easy to view his flaws — his Bad Boy behaviour — as a gap in our communication.

Once, we took Buddy to a friend’s house. He acted like a maniac, jumping on tables, barking at everyone. He wouldn’t sit still for a second. We all bustled around, trying to figure out what was wrong, tempting him with treats, trying to get him settled. Then, something clicked. I led him to a pillow in the corner and removed the harness he’d been wearing from the walk over. His body relaxed, he sunk into the pillow and went to sleep.

“The harness,” said our friend. “It’s like he’s wearing a suit at a pool party. It just doesn’t feel right.”

I felt heavy with shame for not having noticed sooner.

Theories of human-dog communication have shifted with cultural trends. Our initial — and still common — understanding of dog behaviour came from observations of wolves in captivity. Wolves (and therefore dogs) sought dominance. Naturally, it followed that in order to speak dog, we had to speak the language of an alpha. But a dog is not a wolf. And a wolf in captivity does not behave like a wolf. In the wild, wolf packs are extremely complex social systems. Wolves care for one another, are playful, social, make each other feel comfortable.

The language Buddy used in the shelter painted him as aggressive. He cowered, he growled, he hunched his shoulders and told people to back the fuck off. To me, this does little but paint the obvious point that our environment shapes our language. When we are unsafe — or feel unsafe — we act accordingly. Why is the expectation that an animal, human or otherwise, will act anything other than mad when their environment is maddening?

Now, theories of dominance are slowly being replaced with theories of positive reinforcement. Reward the behaviour you want to see more of. Communicate with empathy — bad behaviour is neither aggression nor dominance, but fear and uncertainty. We can’t expect a dog to become fluent in our language overnight. We need to have the patience to bridge the interspecies gap.

I thought that Buddy getting adopted would be a positive thing. And it was. But learning to speak another’s language requires empathy — a kind of empathy that overcame my lack of sentimentality. Despite my aversion to putting human words onto non-human animals, I had forced myself into the humanising position of feeling his whines as though they were my own. His fear and uncertainty became my fear and uncertainty.

I would have been fine to let him go if he had been fine to leave. But I understood him well enough by then to know that he wasn’t fine, so neither was I.

I felt the way his ears perked, and his nose rose as my partner and I drove away from the adoption centre, leaving him in the hands of a near-stranger. We turned the corner and, once he was out of eye line, I sobbed.

“What’s wrong?” my partner asked. “It’s a good thing, he’s got a home.”

“I know. It’s — nothing — just — I don’t know,” I said. Will his new person know that he doesn’t mean to be bad when he jumps on the counter? Will he get yelled at and not understand why? I didn’t have language for this experience yet. I couldn’t explain to Buddy why he wasn’t coming home with us. I didn’t even have human words for that kind of inter-species betrayal.

Buddy would have to learn that stranger’s language now. He would have to learn to be understood all over again.

Emma Hardy

Emma Hardy is a writer and creative working in Naarm (Melbourne). She’s interested in feminism, activism and the environment. You can find her online or on Twitter

Dumbo Feather has evolved, follow the journey by signing up for the Small Giants Academy newsletter