I love it when my dogs communicate with me clearly and creatively. I think that the ability to communicate like this requires a solid relationship and a foundation based in trust and the ability to explore options freely. This is part of why I love clicker training and the Control Unleashed program so much: both build this foundation in and allow ample opportunities for the relationship to blossom.
Layla has become an awesome little communicator. This wasn’t always the case! Subtlety is not one of her key character traits, and when she was little she oftentimes eschewed communication attempts in favor of just bowling through life in full-out pursuit of her current goal. This involved snapping numerous collars as a puppy when she took off after small furry critters, landing on top of my head to scream at a squirrel in the tree, and jumping straight up to land with all four feet on the kitchen counter, among other things. If I need a laugh, all I have to do is remember the day she climbed a tree in hot pursuit of a neighborhood cat (after snapping the plastic buckle on her collar, leaving me standing with a leash and half a collar, but no dog). When she got just over the height of my head, she suddenly realized what had happened and stopped dead, then after some coaxing jumped down to me. The look on her face when she realized how high she had climbed cracks me up every time I recall it!
One of her little character quirks that makes me smile is how she “talks” to me. Layla has a running commentary on her life, and often feels the need to share specific events with me. If something happens that is especially exciting or horrible, she will seek me out. When she runs into the room and looks at me, I will ask her if she needs to tell me something. Usually, she will jump up next to me. I put my arm out at Layla-shoulder-height, and she snuggles in so that my arm is draped across her shoulders and her side is pressed up against me. She sits ramrod-straight and serious next to me for several moments, then gets up and leave once she has “told me” all about it. This brief communication is enough to inform me of most events. However, if something especially wonderful or horrifying happens, she will take this a step further. Before snuggling in next to me, she licks around my mouth and the lower half of my face frantically, then assumes the position. This isn’t something I taught her, but rather a routine she has developed over time. And it’s amazing how much information I glean from it! Just by paying attention to her body language, I can often tell whether she’s trying to tell me about something wonderful and exciting that happened to her (I got to clean up a raw egg that fell on the floor!) or something scary or upsetting (someone stepped on my foot and I almost died!). Frequently after “talking” to her, I will become curious enough to go find out exactly what happened that she was trying to tell me about. I don’t believe in telepathic communication with animals, but I’ve learned that you can find out an awful lot by ‘listening’ to their body language.
Thursday night, Layla again astounded me with her ability to reason and communicate. She’s been on pretty strict rest restrictions for the past six days due to a very scary incident last week where she became partially paralyzed for about 24 hours. This meant no going up or down steps, limited jumping (such as on and off furniture), short leash walks wearing her Gentle Leader, and no playing. She’s been a little trooper through it all, but she’s also been understandably very excited when walk time rolls around. Finally, she can DO something! She’s been locked out on our four-season porch for a good portion of the past week, as that provided the best space for her to recover (and in fact I slept there with her the first three nights of her recovery).
Anyway, she was sedated for some pelvic radiographs early on Thursday afternoon. The sedative that was used was partially reversible. She was still groggy after being given the reversal drug, but she went from being fast asleep to walking out of the clinic under her own steam quite quickly as the reversal drug took effect. Once we got home, she went back to sleep. She was still a little quieter than normal that night, but alert and aware of her surroundings throughout the evening. Anyway, when walk time rolled around we began preparing as normal. Coats, gloves, and hats for the people. Leashes, bait bags, poop bags, training treats, and Gentle Leaders for the dogs. But suddenly we realized that Layla was nowhere in sight. She usually watches us prepare for a walk with her tail wagging, then runs to the door and sits there as soon as we are ready to leave. But now she was missing.
I called her, and she trotted into the living room and looked at me. Then she very clearly looked at my dog walking outfit, looked me in the eyes again, and trotted back onto the four-season porch, where she curled up on her dog bed. I cracked up! This is a dog who NEVER misses a walk, but clearly she was aware that the sedative was still making her feel a bit funny. “Not tonight, mom. I’m still a sick dog tonight.”
What I love most about this sort of thing is how clearly she can reason things out and make her choices known. The porch is where sick dogs stay. For the first four nights of her recovery, she wasn’t even allowed to go on walks and was completely confined there. She has beds all over the house as well as a crate in the living room, but she very deliberately turned and went to her bed on the porch rather than choosing a closer bed. She didn’t leave her bed on the porch until everyone had returned from the walk and taken off their dog walking clothes. Then she rejoined the family for the rest of the night.
To me, experiences like this are one of the most precious moments of living with a dog. Communication goes both ways, and it’s easy to forget this fact sometimes as I focus on training another skill or practicing something Layla has already learned. But it’s just as important for me to listen to Layla’s guidance at times, and to respect her wishes when it is reasonable to do so. This is the joy of living with a dog. Have you listened to your dog today? I know I have, and she had a lot to say.