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LOVE LANGUAGES - We may not speak the same one.

There is a self-help, relationship-building book called “The Five Love Languages,” by Gary Chapman. I am a huge fan of reading all kind of behavior texts to see if there may be some nugget applicable to the work we do with our dogs. I am also, to quote Susan Clothier, “very comfortable with be speculative.” In the sprit of that, I had a thought about how we communicate with our dogs and where the disconnects might be.

“We speak and understand best our native language. We feel most comfortable speaking that language. The more we use a secondary language, the more comfortable we become conversing in it. If we speak only our primary language and encounter someone else who speaks only his or her primary language, which is different from ours, our communication will be limited. We must rely on pointing, grunting, drawing pictures, or acting out our ideas. We can communicate, but it is awkward.”

Our native language revolves around words. Whether they are spoken, signed, written, or read, words are what we use to communicate primarily. Ironically, non-verbal communication may account for 65% or our daily communication (Foley, Gentile, 2010). We also use our bodies but fewer people in the world give as much energy to watching as they do listening. Getting better at listening with our eyes can help with our human and non-human communication. This is where the disconnect with our dogs begins. Their native language is physical. Primarily, they use their bodies to communicate and this typically starts well before they vocalize.

It was obvious over many consults that most of my initial contact with clients came right after they heard their dog—growl, bark, hard snarl, whine. It was almost predictable that humans were brought to attention by something their dog was doing that was audible. My thinking is that we can attribute that to the difference in communication styles.

So, what about love languages? To be true to the book, love languages are how we behave to express our love toward another individual. I got curious about how we typically do that with our dogs and how they perceive our expressions. I am not sure our advances are received as intended. In some cases, I am sure they are not.

We have gotten so much better at asking permission and consent-checking with one another but we maybe playing catch up with our dogs. Our dogs can’t say in words, “I would prefer not be handled that way, thank you.” They might lick their lips, turn their head away, tense their body. So many dogs tolerate handling from those they love. This leaves families thinking their dog(s) are “fine” with rough petting, physical play, and hugging. Then, when a well-intended, dog-loving person who that dog does not have a trusting relationship with tries to do the same, the dogs reacts with behaviors that would suggest their tolerance is much lower. Shock is the typical reaction.

If we really want to express our love for a dog, we should take a minute to figure out what their love language is. Specifically, what can we provide that they really enjoy? Would your dog rather chase a ball, take a swim, play chase, go for a ride rather, or play some work/hunting games rather than get a hug around the neck? Let’s do that instead. If you have done your Choice, Consent, and Control checking and your dog really enjoys being held and pet, then by all means, cuddle the sh*t out of them!

Foley, GN., Gentile, JP., (2010) Nonverbal Communication in Psychotherapy. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 7 (6), 38-44.


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