Quite why Ani thinks I would really like a squashed spider I don’t know. Be that as it may, it is, with great care and delicacy, deposited on my lap. Perhaps she is working on the same principle that makes her alert me to the baby birds blown from the nest early each summer, or maybe she thinks I can fix it, the way her toys are magically restored with needle and thread when the stuffing ‘falls’ out. This, sadly, is beyond my aid. Yet she keeps her nose glued to the lifeless creature as I take it out into the garden. Some things you just can’t fix.
For all my questions about what moves her to do certain things, we understand each other pretty well, she and I, in spite of an obvious absence of a common language. Her various barks, rumbles and cries, though I can’t read them word for word, I grasp in essence. Some things are very clear, others mere generalisations where my comprehension is concerned, but I know the difference between, ‘that ruddy cat is in my garden again,’ and ‘I’m not happy with that strange noise out there’. Some things are as clear as if I had learned a smattering of her verbal language, as she has learned to understand the incomprehensible collection of sounds that constitute English.
Ani recognises her toys by name, but that doesn’t mean she understands entirely all the connotations and associations I have with, for example, ‘duck’ or ‘ball’. She obviously has her own and her relationship with each toy is entirely different. Some furries she will happily unstuff, some are carried around gently, lovingly, and the Ball of Power has a deep significance to her that goes way beyond a game of fetch, encompassing things of which I may only ever manage to understand the merest fragment. Yet, there are points common to each of us where understanding touches, enough for communication.
It doesn’t stop with verbalisation. The communication goes deeper, exploring other senses as well as a certain indefinable awareness of each other. Body language says a good deal more than we give it credit for as a rule. With a dog, you soon learn to give it its proper place in the range of communication skills.
The eyes too speak volumes… as anyone who has been directed to ‘pick up the ball’ by Ani could attest. Eyes say so much in any language, so does a smile… and you can clearly tell the difference between the grin of a dog cooling itself down and happy smiles, in just the same way that a fake or warm smile on a human face is easy to read. Scent… dogs outstrip us at every turn. They can read us with their noses in ways we can barely imagine. But even here it is a two way communication, as anyone who has ever sat with a dog on their feet, a dog moreover who is intent on emanating more noxious gases per cubic centimetre of air than should be possible, will tell you. Illness too you can smell… that doggy aroma may not be to most people’s taste, but it does have its uses.
Touch always transmits far more than words alone could say and though the human and canine interpretations of the need for comfort and affection, the need to express and share love may be different in detail, there the essence of the communication is the same. Her head on your knee and those big brown eyes speak volumes.
This only works between Ani and those who know her… who take the time to see her, be aware of her and learn her ‘language’. Others may just see an over-bouncy, demanding animal and miss the sense of humour… for she has one… and all the other little details that make her as unique a being as the rest of us.
The danger is that we try to project our own emotions onto the animals we know, expecting to understand them in our own terms… because, after all, those terms are all we have and they are limited. The interspecies communication, however, seems to work somehow; perhaps because we take notice of each other, take the time to learn each other’s ways and are open to all the minute signals that allow that communication to take place. And because we want to. Communication and understanding do not need a common language. It helps, but there are other ways.