We recently brought home a cute little border collie dog to join the family on our property. Like all puppies, Molly has the capacity to lure most people into a state of puppy bliss, switching on our nurturing instincts with cries of delight and inducing the need to cuddle and pat her. She has only been with us for two weeks and has already imprinted on her new family. When you think about it, it’s a tall ask from a puppy that had only been on the planet for 12 weeks before coming to live with us.
The animal behavourist in me is interested in how she learns to make the connections between the things that keep her safe and those she needs to avoid. There is a certain amount of trial and error involved such as learning to keep away from the electric fence. But she is also learning to make the link between her choices of action by putting her trust in me. This helps her ascertain whether her actions may get her into trouble and having been zapped a couple of times, she now listens to me when I say no, come, sit and stay. She has also learnt to communicate with me, in terms of telling me when she’s hungry, thirsty, wanting reassurance or to stroke her favourite spot on her tummy, wanting to play a specific game. I find it amazing that she can convey so much in such a short time of living with us. All this and she also has to learn the house training rules like toilet training and what she’s allowed or not allowed to chew as well as socialising with other dogs and the other animals in our family.
It’s a huge demand on one so young yet there is an instinct within all animals that drives us to learn how to survive in the world. The quicker the rules are learnt the better their chances of reaching adulthood.
I recently read that KoKo the gorilla had died at the age of 46 years. She was taught American sign language and could understand 1,000 different signs as well as others she’d created to converse with humans. She also made several complex signs that suggested a more developed degree of cognition demonstrating the ability to communicate about objects not currently present.
It seems to me that humans spend a lot of time disassociating themselves from the rest of the animal kingdom failing to understand their humble beginnings in the family tree. The word anthropomorphism is bandied about to quash “uneducated” ideas about nonhuman animals but we are all animals and we are discovering that we share far more common traits than was originally thought.
Horses have been found to have facial recognition and can detect our emotions and react before we have uttered a single word. They are not alone, many animals share this ability. Dogs watch television and have favourite shows they like to engage with. My dog tried to take a biscuit that was being offered to a dog on screen, I ask myself, is this not an indication that they have rational thought processes?
It’s time we opened up our current thinking patterns and treatment towards fellow animals sharing our planet and treated them with the respect they deserve. We still have such a long way to go but with thought and effort we can communicate with them to a much greater extent than is commonly credited.
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