Yesterday was Rosie’s first full day with me. She was, of course, on her best behavior. Rescue/rehome dogs are like that – they tiptoe around, not knowing the rules and not wanting to get busted for breaking one.
Then they start getting more relaxed as they figure out that the new digs are safe. That’s when they start testing the boundaries, which is a way of zeroing in on the rules of the new place. Or sometimes it’s not so must testing as being clueless. Today, day two of Rosie, is the day of clueless.
I’m pretty sure Rosie is not house-trained. If she lived in a backyard all the time, why would she be? Yesterday she was still too intimidated to test any rules or do much of anything at all except lay on her bed and look around. In the evening she tentatively checked out a radius of maybe twenty feet from her bed but hesitated to do more.
Knowing she might not tell me when she needed to go potty, yesterday I took her on walks every few hours. The last one was pretty late in the evening. Didn’t matter. This morning I woke up to find two pee puddles on the floor. One was right next to Lili Kitty’s litter box, so Rosie gets points for that. The other was near the kitchen door that she’d been in and out of, so she gets points for that, too. She wasn’t sure it was okay but hey, the cat did it there, and the door she had gone out to pee was there…. I sprayed the spots thoroughly with enzyme spray (if you’ve got cats – especially males — you need that stuff) while she watched. But I didn’t say a word to her about it. I just did it and moved on to the next thing that needed doing in my house.
The thing about living with animals is that you have to learn to communicate. For most people communicate seems to mean that the critters have to learn to understand English. For me it doesn’t. For me it’s about body language, intent, and maybe a little bit of ESP.
Animals are masters at reading body language, which makes sense given that their verbal abilities are limited by physiology, if nothing else. Horses are so good at reading body language that some of them have become money-earners for their owners. A hundred years ago Clever Hans could do math problems, and a couple decades after him, Lady Wonder could not only type messages but read minds.
Except that it turned out both horses were just experts at reading human body language. When they were asked questions, the horses could give correct responses nearly 90% of the time when the questioner already knew the answers, but less than 10% of the time when the questioner had no idea — which is not to say that what the horses were doing was any less incredible. They could read body language whether or not the questioner intended them to, including when other human beings could perceive no cues at all.
Dogs can howl, bark, groan, whine, whimper, yip, grunt – but they don’t have spoken language like humans do. Humans can make the same noises dogs do, but humans don’t really know what the sounds mean. They’re just noises to us, not words.
A dog that hasn’t been asked to learn words, that is, a dog that hasn’t been trained, isn’t going to understand the meaning of any words at all. But they can get by just fine without it. They can read body language as well as a horse can. Better than a human, too.
A rescue dog has way more incentive to be accurate in that reading than a dog that’s comfortable in its own home. I didn’t tell Rosie she was bad for peeing in the house because she would have no clue what the words mean. While she might not be Border Collie smart, though, she’s smart enough to understand my tone of voice and my body language. I wasn’t happy when I sprayed the pee spots but I didn’t tell her that – I was careful to say nothing at all. I didn’t have to. Just my having paid attention to her pee made her so nervous that for the next couple hours she cowered anytime I walked near her.
I ignored that, too. I didn’t want to make a huge deal, I just wanted to make it as clear as I could that yes, there was something about peeing in the house that was different than eating, sleeping, and all the other things that go on in a house — but no more than that. It was not a punishable offense. Rosie was not a bad dog.
It was the same with how I wanted her to know that looking too intently at a cat in the house was a thing in itself, and that licking the hot spots on her paws is another thing. There will eventually be a whole bunch of things that will be differentiated over time, but we’ve started with just these few. These will become the words in the language that both Rosie and I understand.
Once she learns to differentiate between actions — to identify that there are differences — then those actions become units of understanding. Meaningfulness, if you will. After meaning comes learning whether actions are permissible or not. And from that comes understanding of the rules.
So has Rosie become house-trained, just like that? Not likely! At best Rosie knows that that there’s something going on. If I’m lucky she’s already made the connection between peeing in those spots and me being unhappy. She doesn’t know what or why, not yet. She’s still learning to trust that I won’t hurt her, that I will behave in predictable ways, and that I expect her to behave in certain ways, too. She doesn’t know the ways, mind you. Heck, she doesn’t really know her name yet.
We don’t have communication established, not yet — but we’re getting there. It’s early days still.
Oh, and about that ESP? Next time.