Talk to the animals?

Rex Harrison and a couple of his friends from “Dr. Dolittle”

One of my earliest memories of going to the movies was waiting in line to see Dr. Dolittle (1967).  I remember feeling excited to see the film, clutching a little Dr. Dolittle wallet to put my ticket stub in.  Even as a small child, I was captivated by the idea of being able to talk to animals.  The film became a favorite that I revisited throughout my childhood.  However, as I look around at the world today, and engage in conversations about horse and dog training, I realize the signature song got it wrong.  We should not strive to “talk to” the animals – we should be striving to listen to them!

As humans, we excel at talking, but we are not so good at listening – even to other beings who speak our language.  Almost daily I watch people around me engage in conversations where neither party is truly listening or processing what the other party is saying.  Sometimes it is a function of different perspectives – for example, business users and software developers do not view systems at all the same.  Sometimes it is a result of bias – just last week I exchanged stories with one of my staff about sexist behavior in our workplace, where women’s ideas are too often still dismissed by men in power.  But mostly I get the sense that people are too often centered on self to truly engage in listening to others.  After all, there are numerous classes offered in listening skills – that says it all!

If that is the case when we are conversing with our own species in our own native language, how good can we actually be at listening to the animals around us?

Rest assured, the animals we live with do try to talk to us.  It is simply logical that highly social animals attempt to make connections – and we have inserted ourselves into domestic animals’ societies.  A life time around a variety of animals has proven to me that there is much to listen to, if we are willing.  But you don’t have to take my word for it – science has been proving it.  However, as one study on horses showed, if we don’t listen they stop “talking”.

How can so many people not listen to the pain this horse is expressing so clearly?!

Sadly, as I watch debates over the state of the horse world, or even philosophies of dog training, to my mind the heart of the issues are our lack of listening or understanding.  When I watch modern Dressage rides, especially at the highest levels, too often I see a horse screaming discomfort and stress.  The masses see a flashy ride that wins a medal – which is clear indication that it must be right.  Nowhere was that ever more clearly illustrated to me than a famous ride from the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen.  One sign that success overrides our ability to see clearly what is in front of us is that my piece about it is far and away the most viewed and shared of my post – and the only time I have been attacked for a blog post.

It is not hard to see why we have so much trouble listening to the animals.  Once we left an agrarian life we began a long separation from the previous intertwinement with our domestic animals.  Not to say that they were always treated well – but they were more often understood by the people who depended upon them for survival.  In our modern age, we have tried to come up with explanations for what are now alien behaviors to many of us.  Enter our human tendency toward hierarchies, and the age of dominance theory (read here about some studies that debunk the heart of dominance theory in horses).

If your premise is that the horse or dog is always looking to see which of you is dominant (the basis of most “Natural” Horsemanship theories, as well as the dog “whisperer” Cesar Milan), then every behavior that is not compliance is seen as an attempt to dominate.  Along with this theory goes the all too common rhetoric about how likely you are to get hurt if you do not follow their plan.  Of course their methods are “humane” because they also convince you that it is what the horse or dog wants.

But if you approach your interactions with a foregone conclusion, then you will never actually hear the other individual.  Have you ever had to talk to someone who you were sure was out to sabotage you?  Or listen to an idea from someone who “never” has good ideas?  Odds are that if you think really hard, you can remember a human interaction in which either you were not listened to, or you did not openly listen, driven by one party’s foregone conclusion about the other.

There are those who say that we should not try to understand animals through a human filter – but I would argue that this is the only filter we are equipped with.  The problem, to my mind, is not that we use a human filter, but rather how we use that filter.  If you view them in a compassionate rather than adversarial manner, you will get much closer to understanding.  Let me illustrate with a small incident with Roxie.

We’d just entered the arena when Roxie stopped, head slightly high, and gazed into the distance.  Your typical “Natural” Horsemanship “guru” would have immediately spoken of inattention as a sign of disrespect, and likely would have moved her all about in order to regain her attention and “respect”.  It is a scenario I have seen all too often.  I have even, in the distant past, attempted the same myself.  Yes, you get their attention – but all too often in a stressful way that actually accomplishes nothing.

Another normal reaction would be, “Hey, we have work to do.  Get going.”  I have also tried this, with the result that they remain distracted as their natural curiosity has not been satisfied.  Instead, I allowed Roxie to indulge her curiosity – in this case, watching goats play in a pen across the nearby road.  What does it cost me?  A few moments of time.  What does it gain me?  Trust and a level of friendship.

Coffee has become one of the most “talkative” horses we’ve known!

It is my unscientific opinion that my life time of trying to understand the horses around me is behind why so many have befriended me.  From “ruined” horses to those completely shut down, I have brought many a horse out of its “shell”.  In fact, it’s a joke in our home that horses come here and suddenly feel that they can have an opinion!  But I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I may not be able to provide them complete autonomy, but it is the least I can do to listen to them and let them make the occasional choice.  I once led Nash to the arena, where he stopped and stood gazing up the driveway.  I took the hint, and we passed on schooling in favor of a stroll down the road.  The next day he went willingly into the arena.

The challenge in openly listening to our animal companions is a large one.  Aside from the language barrier, we also have to overcome our pre-conceived notions, and especially our egos.  What you hear may not always be welcome, but if you start to listen and respond in a positive manner, the messages will become more positive over time.  Your relationship with your companion animals will be richer when you not only talk but truly listen to the animals!

Be good to your horses!



7 thoughts on “Talk to the animals?

  1. This is such an important thing: listening to animals and our horses is particular. I often wonder why people ( and as you point out some are at the top of the sport) ride at all. They don’t seem to care about their horses and in some disciplines ( Tennessee walkers) the abuse is horrific from what I have learned. So thank you for this post it is one for the horses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder the same, Anne! But even more I wonder at all the “fans” who support those individuals. I would assume they became fans of a sport or rider because they loved horses, and they have nothing to personally gain, but will argue strongly that there is nothing wrong with the chestnut above. Hopefully we can reach some of them over time!


  2. Excellent post and you’re spot on. I’ve often been given looks or had people ask “Why do you always talk as though they’re gonna reply back? It’s a dog / horse they don’t speak English what do you bother with all the polite manners and pleasantries?

    Says more about them than it does about me because in my world manners are second nature. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to the Queen of England or a snail mooching out in the rain I still use manners and take a polite friendly tone regardless.

    Like you we’ve managed to acquire and gain the trust of horses and dogs others couldn’t get near and said were beyond help. Less is more. Just be patient. Lay off the pressure and know how and when to use voice and communicate through the tone and volume. It’s the simplest, least expensive and most important training tool in the world.

    My daughter cried laughing when I demonstrated to her how it’s not what you say but how you say it . Cuddled and stroked the dogs and in a baby mardy voice went “I’m gonna kick you both shitless in a minute doggies… yes.. yes I am I am gonna tie you up and kick you aaaalllll daaaayyy loooong” and they wagged and wiggled their entire bodies super happy and clueless as to what I was saying but it sounded really good so they were all for it.

    We are too serious, too keen to want to appear in control and make everything complex and sound like it’s skillful and it’s a shame more people don’t realise the importance or benefits of just going back to basics.


    1. I often think of manners when I’m dealing with my animal friends – both mine and theirs. It is a social interaction, and we should all behave politely. I agree about the tone versus words, although I had a dog who once proved us wrong about that. Hmmm … perhaps another blog post. Thanks for reading and for the fabulous comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oooh I’m intrigued about the dog that proved you wrong! Love it when that happens. I might be “Oosh you little…” but it makes my ears prick.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I have Border Collies though that does make a difference. My eldest is so smart we’ve taken to saying certain words in Japanese (my daughter speaks fluently) but even that is starting to fail. She’s always love the rain and if you mention “Rain” or Outside” or she hears the tiniest patter of rain on the windows she’s up and going nuts to get outside and play.

        Daughter said to use a new word “Ame” and within a week the dog had picked that up too.

        Actually I think I’ll post the story of when I learned just how tuned in and switched on that dog is.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. My girl, the one I referred to, was Sheltie/Border Collie, so I know just what you are talking about! I also had a horse that knew words so well that I had to spell when I would use him in a lesson … and he picked up on that so well that I had to start using complex sentences … “At A, please ask for the gait that is the next one down from what you are at now.” It is amazing how much people underestimate our animal friends!

        Liked by 1 person

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