Dogs don’t speak English

Our cockapoo Nellie is now three & 1/2 months old. She’s losing her baby teeth, and so chews on everything. One of her favorites of the multitudinous toys we give her to keep her off the sheets and furniture is a dried bull’s penis. She did like the green bone, compressed plant matter of some kind, for a while, but bullcock is her current favorite. She changes her eating habits a lot, too. I agonize about scheduling her – 7 am breakfast, noon lunch, 5 pm dinner, no water after 7 pm – and yet I can see the benefits, both to her and to us.

I reflect a lot on the similarities and differences compared to parenting humans. Of course, the lack of language as we know it colors everything, but I also was made conscious of the difference in expectation–children will eventually move on into their own lives, and have whatever relationship you’ve developed with them, but Nellie will never move out on us. And we will likely outlive her.

It stuck with me when the trainer at Nellie’s Puppy Kindergarten said, “Dogs don’t speak English.” Her main point was to emphasize the importance of body language  in training, not to rely on the words, but always have a gesture that means the command, and be as consistent across the caregivers as you can be, just as one would in pronouncing the words correctly. And that’s another lesson from having this animal in my life, to pay attention to how I use my body to gesture and command all the time, often without being conscious of the meanings.

But it’s also an important reminder for me, as a highly verbal person, to feel and communicate in other-than-verbal modalities. Just pure emotion, love and gratitude, a feeling of being blessed – these have all come to me through Nellie, not just today, but repeatedly. We just came in from sitting in the sun on the deck, and as I held her in my lap, felt her soft coat and hummingbird breath, I was at the point of tears of joy, and filled with emotion. Learning to speak dog is forgetting the human urge to put words to everything: surrendering to the presence of the moment.


Fred is a Teaching Artist, an arts integration advocate & a social justice activist. He is near completing a two-month Residency as String Game Performance Teacher at Calabasas Elementary School in Watsonville, CA, and performed at the 2015 Santa Cruz Storytelling Festival. He also serves as Teacher Consultant for Professional Development with UCSC's Central California Writing Project and as their Technology Liaison to the National Writing Project. He is a Connected Learning Facilitator and coordinates Face To Face Drop Ins on Connected Learning biweekly at Arts Council Santa Cruz County. He teaches self-directed & connected learning via real-world projects & string games through his Original Digital Project, an Associate of the Arts Council.

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