The act of listening and watching for her physical cues is a valid avenue of communication
Macie with her ball
Macie with her ball. Photo by Dr. Nathan Mueller/VIN
Lately I have been wondering if I am tuned in and listening when our dogs are trying to communicate with me. I tend to overlook the small nonverbal cues and forget how good they are at communicating with us.
A not-so-small cue is when they notify us that they’re hungry. They are exceptionally good at it! It’s an interesting phenomenon to say the least. Do they know how to tell time to know when it’s dinnertime? They can’t read a clock but generally speaking, I believe they can tell time. I presume they associate breakfast with morning and the rising sun, and dinner with evenings. I can see the thought bubble forming above Spike’s head, our Chihuahua-minipoodle, an hour before actual dinnertime.
“Can we please, please, please eat NOW?” he says, stomping his tiny paw.
He leads the pack while the other two chime in with Shug spinning in tight circles and Macie pacing frantically between the office and the kitchen as if to say, “Follow me in here... Did you forget? Hurry, hurry, hurry! I'm so hungry, so very hungry!”
The relationship between dogs and humans is fascinating: they provide companionship or assistance directly to us. They’ve chosen to be our closest allies for centuries and yet the clarity about how it all came to be remains elusive. For example, the herding dogs have been assisting farmers in protecting and herding their flocks for hundreds of years.
When I was a kid, I lived on a wool-producing farm. My parents got me a border collie puppy for my birthday when I was 7 years old and we bonded immediately. Within what seemed like only a couple weeks, she preferred to stay at my side when possible and followed me around. She was my closest friend. We had several border collies over the years to protect the sheep. Without any formal training, they would alert us in the middle of the night to any invading predators such as coyotes or wild packs of dogs. The older, experienced and trained dogs taught the young pups how to watch over the herd, without any interference or encouragement from us. Just like my pup followed me, the pups would follow the adults and the adults showed the pups the ropes.
The breed itself is like no other. Not to say there aren’t other breeds of dogs known for their intelligence and warm personalities but with border collies in particular, I’ve noticed some personality traits tend to mesh well together (i.e., their drive to protect the herd, trainability, desire to work, and perseverance in completing tasks). Hints of critical thinking and decision making add well to the dynamic that at times makes them capable of nonverbal communication using a combination of facial expressions, body postures, head movements and attempts at speech. The noisy cues, which we would typically call barking or whining, I suspect is another language humans have thus far failed to decipher.
Macie, our nearly three-year-old spayed female border collie, found her voice early. Slow to bark, she has a soft yet high-pitched whine she uses to tell us she when wants something. Most of the time, it’s to say, “I want to go outside to play ball.” Now some may say I’m surmising but it’s obvious what she wants because of how she says it coupled with her actions while standing at the back door with ball in tow. If she’s being ignored, she repetitively picks up the ball and drops it while using her ever-so-sweet whine to politely tell us it’s time to play ball. Since this requires someone to throw the ball, she ends up getting told fairly often that it’s not time yet. If she had it her way, she’d be playing ball at least once per hour. I try for twice a day, so we’ve settled on morning and evening with a couple of throws in between and unrestricted ball play on the weekends.
Macie and Shug frequently compete to see who can get the ball first. She surprised me one day after Shug caught it, fair and square. Upon returning, Macie appeared unsettled, staring directly at me between glances at the ball in Shug's mouth. After a couple more moments she started talking or whining — whatever you choose to call it — and it became utterly clear she was saying something like, “I want the ball but Shug has it, so how do I get it back?”
If Macie’s not entertaining me with her fun-loving personality and ball skills then she’s memorizing me with her intense affection. She clearly loves and desires closeness with her humans; we’re part of her dog pack after all. If I even so much as sneeze loudly, she comes to check on me to make sure I’m okay.
She likes to snuggle on the couch while watching TV or reading but because she’s so busy, the snuggling only lasts a few minutes before she wants to play football. No, not the games typically known as football, but a different type specific to the two of us. With her laying on the rug in front of me, she uses a combination of forward movement with her tongue and lower jaw or with her paws (I think she is right-handed) to thrust it toward me. Then, I softly kick it back to her. On and on it goes and when I tire of the game, she goes in search of another interested volunteer, taking her ball with her.
Knowing that I can’t interpret most of what she is trying to say to me, I do try to pay attention and do what she wants when I recognize what she is asking. In the absence of language as we know it, I have found the act of listening and watching for her physical cues is a valid avenue of communication. When I respond to her cues, the communication is then going both ways.
Some say her persistent behaviors are annoying, but I disagree. To quell her attempts at communicating would confuse her and inhibit her ability to interact with us and the evolution of our relationship, which is constantly growing. Why would I want to hinder or obstruct it? Because she’s brought us so much unconditional love and companionship in these three short years, I want to know not only what she’s saying but what’s in her heart and mind too. She can’t use the words and sentences we use, yet she’s successfully and uniquely found a way to communicate with us and it’s within that open communication that our bond continues to strengthen.
“What would you like to do today, Macie? Play ball? Give me a couple minutes so I can finish what I’m working on.”
“Okay.” Macie retreats a few feet and sits, waiting patiently while holding her ball. “Please hurry!”
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.