Fairfield County Edition

Listen like an Animal

Deepen Communication Without Words

Animals may not use human words, but they have amazing communication abilities. Animals listen not only with their ears, but with all of their senses, and can teach humans how to do the same.

We don’t have to become the storybook character Doctor Dolittle or an animal communicator to deepen our connections with animals; we just need to change the way we listen. Humans over-rely on sound as a primary communication tool. We pay attention when dogs bark and when cats meow. Domestic animals know that we speak this way and have adapted their speech to how humans hear. For example, house cats meow more often than feral cats do.

However, animals converse with each other in ways that are more nuanced and precise than words. They closely observe body language and convey complex information through subtle movements and behaviors. It is commonly understood that a dog’s wagging tail is a sign of happiness. The direction and speed of the wag and position of the tail can signal other emotions as well, and dogs readily distinguish those details. Horses create virtual bubbles of personal space around themselves; they are able to establish and adjust these boundaries with a flick of an ear or a weight shift to let other horses know they can come in closer or need to take a step back. 

Within the same species, animals obviously know the signals, but they also are quite adept at learning the languages of other species. A cursory internet search will reveal dozens of articles about cross-species bonds, even among unlikely pairs that normally would be predator and prey. Differences in genetics, size and “race” aren’t barriers to friendship, love and loyalty. Many people recount stories of their pets knowing they are sad or ill and offering them extra comfort. The ability of animals to correctly read human moods isn’t merely an anecdotal observation. Studies have shown that horses and dogs are capable of interpreting human facial expressions and correctly distinguishing between happiness and anger. This occurs even when the expressions are conveyed in just photographs, without the humans being present. Animals are watching us much more carefully than we realize. They are more tuned in to us than we are to each other and, because of that, can be excellent communication teachers. 

Be Mindful

The first key to heart-centered communication with an animal or another human is to be fully present and pay attention. Let go of any physical distractions, such as the cell phone, or mental distractions, such as the next thing we want to say or do. This background static is distracting and limits true connection. Commit to staying in the moment, listening with the whole body and carefully observing body language. Be truly curious and open-minded about what is being conveyed; observe with no expectations.

Talk with Touch

Spend some time with pets, paying close attention to what they are telling us with their body language. Many dogs, for example, don’t actually like to be hugged or patted on the head, yet humans do it regularly. Watch them carefully when we reach for them. Are they subtly shifting away when certain areas are touched? Just because animals regularly tolerate certain types of physical contact doesn’t mean they are enjoying it. Try different types of touch in diverse locations and discover what the animals truly relish. Or put the hands several inches or feet away from the animals, ask what they would like, and wait to see what body parts they move toward the outstretched hand. 

Scratch the Itch

This technique works particularly well with horses, but can work with other animals too. If you observe where a horse is scratching itself and then scratch that spot, most horses will immediately figure out that you are listening to them. If you ask the horse to show us where it itches, they will begin pointing their noses to specific spots on their body or begin scratching certain areas themselves. Try this with willing human partners too; offer to scratch their back and have them show where it itches without words, then trade places.

Practice without Animals

If there is no animal at home, turn the television to an unfamiliar program and mute the sound. Spend a few minutes watching and see what you are able to understand. Without speech to tell us what’s happening or background music to give us cues for how we should feel about it, we are left relying on interpreting nonverbal communication, including facial expressions and body language. Studies suggest that only 7 percent of human communication is based on words, while the other 93 percent is body language and tone. Humans miss an awful lot by just listening with their ears, creating potential for misunderstandings and miscommunication.

There are many ways to open a dialogue with animals. Once we do, we will be amazed at the benefits we receive. Not only will we understand our animals better, we may improve our human relationships.

Carrie Brady is the creator of Wilton-based Possibilities Farm, a wellness center that partners with horses through non-riding programs, personal and professional development workshops, creative arts, meditation, equine-assisted Reiki and the Heart Herd. Connect at PossibilitiesFarm.com. See ad, page 4.

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