Ace is wrestling with a new friend three times her size. I watch intently as they play. Teeth bared, Ace lunges for the dog’s neck. The large dog nips back, and they jump, chests clashing. Ace takes off like a rocket in an arc around the park, while her friend pursues her closely. They pause, panting, and the large dog holds eye contact with Ace while bowing down on its front legs. Enticed, Ace lets out a short, rough bark, and they come together again as if dancing.
Ace is 15 pounds, yet as I watch her play with dogs of all sizes I feel relaxed and delighted. I keep my eye on her and her friends; I know she is safe because I am able to read their body language. Understanding dogs’ communication with one another has been invaluable as I raise my first dog.
Shortly after I adopted Ace, I began bringing her to puppy playgroups four nights every week. Watching Ace play with other puppies fascinated me. Here were animals as young as 10 weeks old who were able to engage in complex social exchanges. I watched Ace learn these techniques from the other puppies, and with the guide of several fantastic instructors I began to decipher what was being said between the dogs. I learned to tell whether dogs were playing too aggressively, and the meaning of different behaviors like the play bow, mounting, and barking.
More incredibly, from watching Ace play I was able to begin to read her emotions: anxious, bored, inquisitive, tired, irritable, or joyful.
Around the same time, I enrolled Ace in basic obedience training, which was given the name “puppy kindergarten” at our “school.” I knew it was my duty to teach her how to navigate human society with good manners. Since I had some knowledge of positive reinforcement and other operant conditioning methods, I thought I knew what to expect from kindergarten. However, it soon became apparent that the real focus of the classes was not on whether Ace would sit on command. I was as much of a student as Ace was. Just like the puppies in the playgroup, Ace and I were learning how to communicate with each other.
In our classes, I learned that it takes a two-way conversation for me to teach Ace a behavior. I had to check to see whether she was paying attention, whether she would consider the treat in my pocket a high-value reward, and whether she had enough energy to practice the behavior. With her large, expectant eyes trained on me, I had to monitor her response to determine my next move.
For example, when learning the command “down,” Ace had trouble understanding that I wanted her belly completely on the floor. With patience and attunement to what Ace was saying, I learned how to tell her what I wanted.
Although formal classes are behind us (for now), Ace and I have developed a kind of language that allows us to communicate at a level I did not know possible. I think several factors are at play. One is that Ace can read my behavior for cues about what will happen next, so that simply by going about my business I am telling her something important. Ace’s power to read my movements is at times mysterious. Somehow she can tell whether I am leaving for my eight-hour workday or whether I’m running across the street to the corner store, even though I might be leaving at the same time of day. I know she can tell the difference because she communicates it to me: If I’m going to work, she rolls on her back and exposes her belly, asking me to stay, while if I’m going to the store she sits alert on the couch and waits for my quick return.
Because I know that smell is Ace’s strongest sense, often I will hold up a relevant object for her to sniff so that she knows what’s coming next. When it’s time to go to the dog park, I present her briefly with a whiff of the sneakers I wear only to the park. Ace knows it’s time for her dreaded weekly bath when she smells the ear cleaning solution I hold out to her. When I need to photograph her for one of my Dogster product review columns, I show her my camera and a bag of treats.
Similarly, I can hear Ace speaking plainly to me through her behavior and body language. Often, she does this simply by placing her body in a specific location. I know when Ace is ready to get out of our bed because she will stand on my chest (thanks, Ace). I know when she is ready to eat dinner because she will stand in the kitchen. Sometimes it is the direction of her gaze that tells me what’s on her mind, though that can take a bit of guessing based on factors like the time of day and where she’s at in her routine.
Like a mother with her child, I can tell when Ace isn’t feeling well: she licks her lips and pushes herself onto my lap, laptop be damned! Similarly, though I’m not sure how exactly, Ace knows when I’m having a hard day: she stays close to my side in every room.
Learning to read Ace’s behaviors dramatically shifted the way I thought about and related to her. Instead of this object I possessed, she became a unique individual being separate from me, one with her own preferences, feelings, and hopes. This is not anthropomorphizing; although it is appealing, I make an effort not attribute to Ace thoughts and feelings that are probably not possible for a dog to have (like guilt). Rather, my empathy helps me feel close to Ace, and allows me to truly savor her joy. That’s why I can’t get enough of taking her to the dog park to watch her romp with new friends.
About Ace’s Mama: This East Coast transplant enjoys the bounty of San Francisco, including its micro-climates, farmers’ markets, and secret stairway walks. When she’s not walking with, talking about, or kissing the face of her Boston Terrier, Ace, she blogs about Ace’s adventures. Product reviews writer and guinea pig at Dogster.