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It's Nelly's World

Nelly, Speak!

alec vanderboom


"If animals could speak, maybe then we wouldn't keep them in zoos, and
we'd have to take them out. We could trust them, and tell them things."

In our house lately, we've been talking about language. My young son gazes longingly at Nelly and wishes he could know what she's thinking. With the extensive work ethologists have done, we can come close.

So I tell him that dogs do not like to be leaned over (a sign of aggression), or hugged about the neck (ditto). Thus he refrains from doing what he wishes he could ("Nelly is addicting!" he says of her deceptively winsome look as she sleeps) in what amounts to the growth of his nascent compassion--a sense of concern for The Other, in the act of turning away from one's own.

Language spells freedom. If the denizen of the zoo could look through the steel bars and, in a clear, articulate, Harvard-inflected English, say, "Please don't incarcerate me. I have done nothing wrong (besides being unable to plead my case). This is unfair. And moreover it is painful," would we be able to ignore it? Only because the animal lacks speech? (And thus the only way to prick our conscience?) Or, perhaps, because he also lacks the ability to fight back?

My son longs for an interpreter, as he watches his dog watching him.

Unfortunately, all too often I know exactly what Nelly is saying. Like today. On a snow day, with little traffic on the road, I decide the risk is worth her company as we attempt to guide the plastic sled down the pitiful slope at the side of our house. (It doesn't want to go; the sled protests, "But I was having a good time napping in the shed!") Nelly stands at the bottom of the drive, returned from a small stroll about the neighbors' garbage cans and potentially rodent-infested deck undersides, and, reassured that we have not left for vacation in the meanwhile, stands motionless looking at me while I call, "Nelly!" That seals it. She flips around and races off down the road in the other direction. She has spoken. Quite clearly. And what she has said, in West Virginia - inflected English, is "See ya later, sucker!"

[For the benefit of true behaviorists out there, I will suspend the joke and admit that I am well aware that although I would like to believe that I have trained the cue "Nelly!" to correspond to the behavior "come," her behavior informs me that I am mistaken. I have, unwittingly, to be sure, taught her it means the opposite.]

My son has also sagely observed, when I bill and coo to our dog in that unspeakable patois--baby talk, blech--that if Nelly could talk, what she would say at that particular time is "Why the heck are you talking to me like that?"

For those who truly want to know what their dogs are saying, there is a wealth of decoders available. (And why people persist in living with dogs without availing themselves of a few language lessons--I mean, could you imagine marrying a Chinese person but insisting you would never, ever utter a word of Mandarin in their presence?--is, I think, a matter for abnormal psychology to investigate.) Starting with Konrad Lorenz, and extending to Roger Abrantes; there is even a pretty good capsule in Wikipedia. Why the heck do people insist animals have no language? It's speech they don't have, folks. The claim is bizarre, given the subtle richness of what ethologists have observed--and one should quickly suspect they haven't fully caught even the half of it. So, worse than bizarre, it is stupid. And often leading to abuse, as is ignorance's wont.

There's a photo in the KV Vet catalog, which I was just leafing through in pursuit of vitamin supplements for the girl dog who probably needs fewer nutrients, not more, that made me pause. There's a Corgi receiving a treatment with an anti-flea wipe, but I'm not sold on the product, as they mean for me to be. That's because the little beast has been caught by a quick shutter in an expression of slight distress, with a tongue flick to his nose. It happened in a second, but just because we are rather slow creatures doesn't mean he is not saying something meant for us to hear. It is one of the "calming signals" in Turid Rugaas's terminology, as she catalogued in her On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. Dogs' language is, of course, body language, and their vocabulary is quite rich indeed. When dull-witted humans miss it, or misinterpret it, or dismiss it, it is sad for all involved. For, as the Norwegian behaviorist puts it, dogs use these communications to "prevent things from happening, avoiding threats from people and dogs, calming down nervousness, fear, noise, and unpleasant things."

And nothing could be more unpleasant to our companion animals than the unwittingly threatening behavior of what to them is the equivalent to us of a 750-pound person throwing us on our backs and pinning us down in the name of "fun," or a canine-aggressive move like hugging their necks, in the name of primate love.

We will never be fully fluent in Dog, of course, until we have a tail to wag, ears to prick or lay back, loose skin to shake, the eyesight of a radar scope. In terms of dog language, we will forever be at the level of the robot maid in the Jetsons cartoon, who described love as "the most ut." (And love certainly is that; as are all the ways we express it, spoken or not.)

Another thing my son said blew me away. Staring at Nelly, he suddenly wondered if she had another name. "I mean, what if her parents gave her a name before we did, one we'll never know?"

Not in any dictionary I know is all that a dog, or a child, is capable of saying.