DEAR DR. FOX: Back around 1970, I was working with Ralston Purina as a communications consultant. If I remember correctly, we interviewed you, and you shared a theory about visualization as a way for a pet owner to communicate with her/his dog. Does this sound right? I want to share your idea with others, but I wouldn't want to misrepresent it.
I now publish books, mostly for artists, and while talking with a couple of them, I remembered your idea about visual thinking as a way to connect with animals. We were discussing communicating with pets -- for instance, the way a dog will cock its head to indicate a thirst for more information -- and I wanted to check with you before mentioning your idea. -- W.O., St. Louis, Missouri
DEAR W.O.: You interviewed me while I was an associate professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, studying the behavior, development and communication of wolves, coyotes, dogs and other canids.
I always felt that to study animals and understand their behavior, there must be a degree of empathy as well as scientific impartiality. This can be challenging with the many species whose senses are more highly evolved than ours -- dogs with their hearing and sense of smell, for example, or bees with their ultraviolet and geomagnetic sensibilities. (Interestingly, the latter is evident in some electrosensitive people.) Some animals, like mice, communicate vocally above our range of hearing (called ultrasound), while elephants use low-frequency infrasounds to communicate over long distances. Some whale species have elaborate communication songs (which our sonar and ocean noise pollution may disrupt), while dolphins have specific sounds for individuals -- essentially naming each other.
It was my general impression with dogs and other canids that they quickly learned to understand and responded to our "paralanguage" of body movements, posture, gestures and tone of voice. Recent research has shown that dogs seem to have an innate ability to quickly learn what human gestural pointing means, compared with wolves and other canids.
But above all, I felt (and still feel) that humans can best communicate with dogs and these other species by thinking visually rather than verbally. This belief was later confirmed by studies showing that people have different cognitive processing styles: Some think in pictures and others in words. The animal scientist Temple Grandin, whose Ph.D. research I helped mentor, came to the conclusion that animals are essentially cognitive visualizers. They think in pictures -- and I know that I do, too!
This is not to say dogs do not come to learn what specific words mean; studies show that dogs can learn quite a large vocabulary, and process words in the same brain region as humans do. Most notable is the dog Stella, whose owner, human speech therapist Christina Hunger, has used a method called augmentative and alternative communication to teach Stella 48 different words. The dog can communicate by pressing buttons that play recordings of specific words. (For details, visit hungerforwords.com.) And we should not forget Koko the gorilla, whom Francine "Penny" Patterson taught a form of American Sign Language.
Dogs also have a capacity for mimicry, having so-called mirror neurons. When my children were young, I would encourage them to give a play-bow when greeting a friendly dog -- who would often, to their delight, immediately reciprocate with the same gesture. Dogs are also highly empathetic. They seek eye contact with people, produce endorphins and serotonin when playing with humans and are attuned to our voices and emotional states.
DOGS' SNIFFS AND LICKS
When other dogs meet our Kota, a rescued dog from Alabama, they often sniff her cheeks and temples as well as the usual rear-end regions. She is on close sniffing terms with me and allows me to sniff around her head and face.
I urge people with dogs to check and see if their pets have what Kota has: scent glands in the skin of her cheeks and temples that emit a floral fragrance. I call her my Flower Child. Many dogs have such scent glands, which I think of as peacemaking/appeasement pheromones. Readers, do let me know what your dog's head-scents are like, and include the dog's breed and sex.
As for dogs licking people, many find it disgusting, while others wonder why. In my opinion, dogs use their tongues as instruments to display affection and caregiving, much like a mother dog licking her pups. They do not lick us to remove salt from our skin, as you may have heard, but they may well use the sensory input of our "taste" (along with our smell and emotional state) to know when we are ill.
Dogs' tongues can also be an instrument of healing and anxiety relief. Anxious dogs often lick their own noses or upper lip. Dogs with separation anxiety may be obsessive "kissers." Obsessive licking -- as of one leg or paw, or of carpet or another material -- may call for veterinary attention, since such behavior indicates discomfort and possible injury or sickness.
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxOneHealth.com.)