Silent Conversation

Ramona dressed for Valentine's Day. February 2012.

Ramona dressed for Valentine's Day. February 2012.

Ramona and I have been living in tandem for ten years now, from the day I brought her home when she was about eight weeks old.

I could go on about the lock she has on my heart, how she's seen me through heartbreak and upheaval, and how coming home to her every night after work makes me happy. But everyone with a dog will tell you the same thing.

Here's what never ceases to amaze me: Ramona and I communicate almost entirely without language. Seems obvious, right? Sure, she understands a solid handful of words and phrases, from commands (sit, wait, down, et cetera) to other things she's learned on her own that concern her (treat, hungry, walk, and so on). But mostly, we coexist beautifully without words.

I heard an interview of animal behaviorist John Bradshaw on NPR in May 2011 and subsequently read his book, Dog Sense: How the New Science of Understanding Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. The interview and book are fascinating. One little tidbit really stood out to me: Dogs are the only animals that understand what humans mean when they point. Not even apes, the animal species genetically closest to us, understand what a human means by pointing. (Pointing meaning, of course, "look there" or "it's over there." Not "I'm flailing my arms and hands around for fun or aggression.")

Stunning, isn't it? Bradshaw points out that, for hundreds if not thousands of years, dog genetics have selected for attunement to humans. More than any other animal, dogs are highly sensitive to our body language, behavior, and tone of voice.

Ramona understands some of my words and some of my gestures—maybe more than I realize. But she has little gesturing ability (other than nosing, scratching, jumping, leash pulling, and sitting at something she wants). Yet I often know what she means, even when she doesn't use her few gestures. I know the meaning behind her eyes. I know her body language. I know when she's tired of me working on my computer from just the way she sits quietly and stares at me. (Fortunately, I'm not getting that look at this exact moment.) I know when she's bored. (At this exact moment, she's bored.) I know when she's annoyed with me for taking too long to make and eat my breakfast. (She has to wait until I'm done eating before she can eat.) I know when she needs me to shift the way I'm sitting so that my lap is more comfortable for her. (Yes, she's spoiled.)

When she was sick about a year ago, I didn't have to see any symptoms. (In fact, there weren't any.) She looked at me, I looked at her, and I knew.

Ramona and I have entire conversations. Silently.

So I wonder: If I can have this deep an understanding with an animal of a completely different species—even if that species has evolved over perhaps thousands of years to understand me—what does that mean for communication with my own species?

Is it possible that you can have as deep and pure a communication as I have with Ramona—without words or gestures or sign language—with another person? Stands to reason yes, right?

There's the old adage that actions speak louder than words—usually referring to big actions and big statements. However, maybe it's more subtle than that. Maybe words are great for higher level discussion—debates, philosophy, weighing options—but they're a handicap that prevents us from fully stretching our ability to read others' nonverbal communication otherwise. Would we understand each other better if we were more attuned to wordless communication? And would there be less hurt as a result?