Learning the language of dogs “It’s just no fun arguing with somebody whose only reason for living is to live.”
By Michael Morse
WHY IS THIS STORY IMPORTANT?
Author Michael Morse shares a few lessons in communicating that he learned from his dog, Mr. Wilson, including the importance of living, not arguing, and living in the moment.
THE QUESTIONS THAT NEED TO BE ASKED
What is it about pets that they often enable humans to learn how to express their emotions in a more healthy, loving manner? Is there a potential for Rhode Island to become designated as a dog-friendly place to travel, as part of an overall tourism campaign? What are the different ways that dogs have become part of a larger working tradition – beyond herding, police and rescue work – to include therapy and support?
UNDER THE RADAR SCREEN
Our own personal stories are the most prize possessions we carry with us; telling them quilts us together in a tenuous, human fashion. The relationship between humans and dogs [and pets] creates its own special language of shared emotional connection and companionship. The constancy of that relationship recalls the Josh Billings line, quoted at the beginning of Disney’s epic dog movie, “Lady and the Tramp”: “In the whole history of the world there is but one thing that money can not buy, the wag of a dog’s tail.” Perhaps the most important thing that dogs teach us is how to wag our own tails.
WARWICK – I had just met Mr. Wilson when I wrote a book about the wonderful relationship that I saw forming between us. I felt the emotional connection the second I touched him, a rescue dog fresh off the bus from Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
I don’t know if it was because I had learned a little more about the mysteries of life since saying good-bye to the dogs that shared my life prior to Mr. Wilson, or if he was simply very good at letting me know his thoughts.
I do know that he has a way of communicating that is not all that difficult to decipher – once I learned what to look for.
All dogs are great communicators. Their every waking second is spent sending signals to the other living creatures in their lives. They do not waste time on idle chatter; there is purpose in nearly every movement, snort, yelp, growl and smile. Most of their waking hours are spent testing the people and animals they have allowed into their pack.
“Who is in charge?” is the most important game that Mr. Wilson plays.
Every day he tests me, and tries to usurp my status as king. A paw on my chest to wake me is actually, in his mind, a great start to the revolution.
By marking me high on my body with his scent he establishes dominance.
The cats that share our home must understand this ancient secret as well, because my sleeping form is a great target for a number of different paws.
Demanding breakfast is not just bad behavior from an unruly dog, it’s a clear signal that his needs need to be met before anybody else’s, or else.
Dashing out of the door when I open it tells me that he is in charge, and I had better follow.
It’s not that he thinks he would be a better king; rather he needs to know that the person he has trusted to be the leader of the pack is worthy. Once we have established the proper order, he can relax, and get on with his very important schedule.
Small things matter greatly when communicating with Mr. Wilson. He can complain all day long about not being fed first, it is up to me to handle his demands. He eats when we are through, period. He has learned that begging for scraps is beneath him, mostly because no scraps ever appear no matter how pathetic he chooses to act. He sits, and waits at an open door, overcoming his instinct to be the first one through.
These behaviors did not come naturally, they had to be taught. A good teacher tends to be a good leader in a dog’s eyes. When he has been rewarded for acting properly, his anxiety levels subside considerably, and he decides that I have passed his tests, and will be allowed to be the leader of the pack, for now. Any sign of weakness from me is an invitation for him to start the revolution all over.
A good leader does not rule with an iron fist. Learning from the creatures who inhabit the kingdom is essential to maintaining order. Only when everybody is in their proper place, or as Mr. Wilson sees it, in “pack order,” can any meaningful experiences be shared. My natural proclivity to go with the flow needed to be tweaked so that I could enjoy all of the wisdom that a seemingly simple, yet amazingly complex creature has to offer.
“The exuberance that he shows is remarkable, but it is not for everybody. Something happened in his past that keeps him from fully trusting everybody on sight,” I wrote in Mr. Wilson Makes it Home [Skyhorse Publishing, 2015].
“There must be some cloudy memories of pain in that little head of his, and in some way, certain people, through no fault of their own or no sinister, deep dark meanness hidden with friendly smiles and handshakes, bring those emotions to the forefront, but he doesn’t lash out at people who intimidate him, rather he cowers, and worries, but ultimately gets close enough for them to be touched by him.
“There is something everlasting about the spirit that accompanies a dog, something that as smart as we are we will never fully understand. We have the brains and reasoning ability to know everything, but what do we really know?
“Perhaps there is a completely different way of communicating that we cannot comprehend, something that far surpasses our ability to understand the world around us and the people in our lives.
“Maybe each species is gifted with senses that surpass what we think are the five biggies – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Our eyes see, and our ears hear, and our noses smell things. Our tongues taste and our skin feels, but is that all there is?
“We feel emotions like love, and fear, and hate, and sense those feelings in others, but how deeply? Is a dog able to sense those emotions as clearly as we can see written words on a page, or hear the crescendo as our favorite songs reach their climactic peak?
“I think so. I think they are capable of that, and things that we cannot imagine, and in their bodies that are vastly different from ours, I think that they too know when they are needed most and are able to make their feelings known with absolute clarity, and for those fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a dog’s attention the result is one of the things that makes the mysteries of living not only bearable, but incredible.”
Teaching me how to live
I spend a lot of time teaching Mr. Wilson how to act so that he can enjoy my company. In turn, he spends all of his time teaching me how to live.
Lessons like living in the moment cannot be missed when sharing your life with a dog.
Their ability to rise to any occasion, and to squeeze every last drop of joy from something as great and adventurous as a walk through the woods, or as mundane as taking a snooze with the king, are infectious.
Dogs live life on life’s terms. There are no “what ifs” in their language, only “what is.” Their complete lack of expectations makes everything they do the most important thing that has ever been done.
I like to emulate Mr. Wilson’s philosophy whenever I can. Some of my more difficult relationships have become more manageable simply by putting the lessons learned from him into play. It’s just no fun arguing with somebody whose only reason for living, is to live.
Michael Morse, a popular columnist and author, lives in Warwick, with his wife, Cheryl, two Maine Coon cats, Lunabelle and Victoria Mae, and Mr. Wilson, their dog.
Michael spent 23 years working in Providence as a firefighter/EMT before retiring in 2013 as Captain, Rescue Co. 5.
Morse was awarded the prestigious Macoll-Johnson Fellowship from The Rhode Island Foundation in 2012.
Morse is the author of two books, in addition to . They are: Rescuing Providence, and Rescue 1, Providence. His next book, , will be out in December, 2015.