I am grateful to have had a few opportunities to travel to foreign countries in my relatively young life. Living in a place where you don’t speak the native language can be exciting and interesting, but it can also be uncomfortable, and at times, downright terrifying and upsetting.
While on a chaperoned High School Trip to Paris, we were allowed opportunities to explore the city on our own, in small groups. During our last day in Paris, I recall being swindled by a street artist at the young age of 15, crying with frustration and unable to sufficiently argue in the native tongue that I had been ripped off (I had studied French for two years, but was far from conversational in a general means). As I sat on a stoop, sobbing, another artist took pity on me, and kindly drew a new charcoal picture for me, at no charge. I gave him the last 50 francs in my wallet because I was so moved. We said nothing to each other, but knew what the other was saying quite clearly.
I suspect that for dogs, much of life feels like being in a foreign country, but their caretakers don’t speak their language. In fact, they speak to them in an unknown language, and there are even differences between their body language. Or sometimes, they just tend to disregard some of the clear messages dogs send with their body language, and cross the lines of what is socially acceptable physical behavior in the human world in an effort to communicate with dogs, as depicted below:
I’m pretty sure before I knew any better, I was socially rude and awkward to a lot of dogs. Sometimes, I probably still am when I’m not thinking straight. In our human interactions, we can get away with being rude when other people are too polite themselves to tell you how your staring at them and reading over their shoulder makes them super uncomfortable. Or that they don’t like to be hugged.
Then there are those who will call you out on your rudeness. I had a bartender one time who thought I had stiffed her on a tip, when in reality, I just left the tip in cash instead of with the credit card I used to pay my bill. It was all a misunderstanding when she yelled at me from across the crowded bar to tell me how she felt about the fact I had not tipped her, and when I assured her she had indeed received a gratuity, pointing to the bills I left on the bar, her gaze fell and she was a bit sheepish. However, if I had stiffed her, I would have definitely deserved to get called out for it.
Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about canine communication. This has been essential to learning how to work with Balton, and learning how to help him deal with (or get out of) situations that cause him to react. More importantly than that, I’ve had to learn about communicating with Balton and speaking on his behalf. People look at shy dogs hiding behind your leg with sympathy, and perhaps they are the equivalent of the person who is too polite to be direct (though, I’ve had fosters hide under cars to get away from the people that make them uncomfortable, which I suppose some might qualify as direct).
People look at fearful reactive dogs with disdain and concern, as if their fears are somehow less real, and the human attached to their leash should be ashamed for allowing their communication efforts. But their fears are no less real, they are just more candid about them. Sort of like my bartender who was more candid about gratuity etiquette than perhaps I would have been, likely muttering under my breath instead about the would-be patron’s lack of consideration.
In no way do I mean to shrug off the behavior of a dog who is reactive, or imply that they pose no threat if not handled safely and responsibly. But, to discount their fear as any less real because they express it more loudly is just not fair.
I’m currently in the last few chapters of Suzanne Clothier’s “Bones Would Rain From The Sky: Deepening Our Relationship With Dogs.” This book has been very eye opening, and while I could never hope to effectively or eloquently sum up what Clothier illustrates in putting pen to paper, I am taking its lessons and using them to look at my own foster with refreshed eyes. I know that for all his challenges, Balton is (as Clothier says all dogs are) truthful in what he communicates. Through the last 8 months, it has effectively become my mission to understand his messages. It has become my goal to speak to him in a way he understands, and doesn’t need to fear, when so much of the world beyond me can cause him such panic.
I’ve pulled a lot of especially good quotes from Clothier in my reading, and the one that has thus far pulled my heartstrings the tightest was this one:
“To my way of thinking, a critical part of the relationships I have with my animals and anyone I love is this promise: “I will protect you.” And to the best of my abilities, I do not violate this promise in any way. To keep that promise, I must be vigilant and willing to step into harm’s way on their behalf…To be a dog’s protector, to champion his rights at all times even when it means stepping up and speaking out on his behalf, this is a true gift of loving leadership.”
No dog should ever have to feel as I did that sad day when a French street artist ripped me off. So, while we may not always speak the same language (and to my knowledge, no such Rosetta Stone exists for the language of dog), I shall try every day to help speak with, and for, my foster dog. I will be vigilant in being Balton’s protector, and trying to speak to the world in a language they can understand, while also speaking to Balton in a language he gain some comfort from, and listening intently to the words he has to say.