They tell you to use simple, clear language with dogs. Easy words, erect body posture, a certain tone. Why is keeping it simple so difficult to remember?
I believe dogs learn our our bodies, our gestures. They read our love and our body language, they can handle words that are more than one syllable, and phrases that are more than one word. My Doberman, Elka, goes to the front door when I tell her we’ve ordered pizza or if she thinks a certain friend is coming over. A certain head tilt or intake of breath, to her, means the ball is about to be thrown or the squeaky toy is about to come out.
Elka knows her name. Two syllables, easy to say. Fun to pop off the last syllable, say “EL-KA” to watch her swivel those ears, look up brightly. But of course it isn’t that simple. Is it ever? Not in my house. We say “Elka-Elka” in a playful tone to incite the play bow, we croon “puppy puppy” as she pins her ears and wiggles her butt, licking our chins.
Baby, babygirl, honeypup, fuzzbutt, puppygirl, Elkadog — she’ll listen to them all, eyes on our faces, waiting for the deeper meaning. Will we play? Is it just for love? Is there food? Please let there be food!
To our delight, Elka talks back. She’ll walk into a room, sneeze, shake her head, and say “out” very clearly (if you’re used to listening for it). She’ll prance out of the kitchen, saying “aw-wa-wa-wa” when her water bowl is empty, and she’ll heel with you, a home obedience champion, while you get up off the couch, pick up the cup and fill it at the sink. She once said “hello” to a neighbor who came over to explain it was her birthday. I was so floored, I forgot to reward it, and we’ve had mixed results on hearing “hello” again.
Maybe it’s Doberman intelligence (they’re ranked fifth in the list Dr. Stanley Coren came up with in his book The Intelligence of Dogs). Maybe it’s because we talk to her in sentences. We humans have had many an instance of explaining to one another, “What? I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to the dog.” I can’t account properly for Elka’s level of understanding. It may be just dog love, but I’m unapologetic. Dog love is its own bliss, the shared looks of “Did you just see that?!” and the discovery upon waking, every time, that we’re all still here, and isn’t it grand?
What Elka wants is simple, certainly. Food, water, toys (squeaking or otherwise), a place on the couch, her hoodie if it’s cold. The blankets lifted at night, so she can curl under them and settle with the grunt-groan of singular contentment, another day done, more food and play in the morning. She wants to watch birds and look for helicopters, and splash in her puddle at the park.
I admit, what I want from her is a little more involved. A certain level of decorum. Elimination outside. Her nose not in my mouth. You know, the little things. Lots of tricks, taught for fun, but still useful. Elka will mug you for your water bottle, empty or not, to take to the kitchen, and she’ll croon at an abandoned one on a desk. She’ll pick up your keys if you’ve dropped them, brace for you to lean on her. We’re working on closing the front door and turning lights off — though there’s concern she’ll turn lights off on her own in order to get a reaction.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes simple is best. Certainly, while teaching other people her cues, we’ve had to be very clear. And simple. “Down” means lay down. “Off” means “get off of X,” whether Elka has thrown herself bodily against you, or if X is just your spot on the couch. Those cues are confusing for other people, I’ve found. It’s a good thing Elka is so kind; she’ll “off” for “down,” if one of those uninitiated has cued her. (But she won’t lay down for “off.”)
She’ll also frequently look to me if given a cue by somebody else, or if a stranger knows her name, as if to say, “Well, is this all right?” Typically yes, it is all right. Thanks for asking, Elka.
Jen is a library clerk who tries to use her psychology degree for good, though it is very hard. Dogs make it easier. She blogs about Elka, her beloved Doberman, at the Elka Almanac.
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