Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

How to communicate with animals

More than ever, humans need to find new ways to connect to other animals. In the United States alone, over 150 million people have a pet. There are over 10,000 zoos worldwide, with each of the larger zoos having several thousand animals. These and millions of other animals rely on humans for their survival. It wasn’t always like this. When humans were hunter-gatherers, we were immersed in animal life and had deep respect for other animals who didn’t need us to survive.

This changed when humans began to domesticate other animals thousands of years ago. Humans are not going to become hunter-gatherers again. But does that mean we need to experience our relationship with other animals as our domesticating them, as our taking care of them? What we mostly have now are two kinds of parent-child relationships with animals. One kind is the domineering parent to the submissive child. To make wild animals safe, they are made to be submissive, like “breaking” a wild mustang. The other kind is the loving nurturant parent to the dependent child…even when they are adult animals. This is the most common relationship today.

Is there another way we can relate to animals today? Yes! We can work to be animal whisperers.  How can we do this? By experiencing shared reality with them in an adult-adult relationship. We have all heard about horse whisperers. The true horse whisperers signal to the horse that what matters to the horse also matters to them. Over time this builds trust. The horse and the whisperer become partners.

And it is not just horses. Many humans have dogs whom they love and care for. But does that make them dog whisperers? Dog trainers recognize as the highest level of human–dog relationship the adult–adult relationship. What is this? A dog and its human partner approach another dog. The dog wants to play with this other dog. But it first looks to check how their human partner is reacting to this other dog. Is my partner having a positive or a negative reaction to this other dog? If positive, then approach. If negative, then avoid. Importantly, the complementary situation for the human also occurs. Is my dog, my partner, having a positive or a negative reaction to this other dog? If positive, then approach. If negative, then avoid. This is an equal, adult–adult relationship where the human and the dog as partners learn from each other how to react to a third party. From the beginning, they know this third party matters to both of them. They have shared relevance.

This adult-adult relationship with another animal is not just about the animal learning to trust the human. It is about the human taking turns with their animal partner about who takes the teacher role and who takes the learner role. It is about humans trusting their animal partner as someone to learn from. And it is even more than this. In this way, humans can learn from their animal partner about what matters in the world, what in the world is worthy of attention. The humans should signal their respect for the animal, their gratitude that the animal has taught them something about the world that they did not know before. This is the kind of respect of and learning from animals that we had as hunter-gatherers. Simply put: We should say thank you!

How can this be done with a partner who does not have language or the knowledge that we have? Most of us have already had this experience with a partner who does not have language or the knowledge that we have…and they are called children. Most of us have experienced seeing the world in a new way with a very young child who directs our attention to something we overlooked or ignored that the child teaches us is worthy of our attention. We all know how magical that can be. And when we partner with a child to learn from that child what matters in the world, the child experiences that he or she is being respected by us, is someone we can learn from. It is no longer just a parent to child interaction. And we should thank them too.

Our animals can do the same for us if we treat them with respect and pay attention to what they know that we do not—creating a shared reality with them when they are the teachers and we are the learners. And we can initiate shared reality interactions by looking for and noticing what is grabbing their attention that we could learn about. Moreover, it is not just learning from pets. We can also learn from our billions of farm animals. Have you ever seen a cow jumping for joy in the fresh spring grass? It makes you appreciate fresh spring grass in a new way.

We all need to become animal whisperers. That will be great for the animals. It will be great for our relationships with them. And it will be great for our learning about the world in which we live.

Featured Image Credit: Image by Drew Hays via Unsplash

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