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Learn active listening to animals

Dawn Armstrong
Lake Tahoe Humane Society and SPCA

Animals communicate with body parts. There are charts, books and workshops to teach the meaning of ear, lip, eye, tail, fur and feather signals. At the same time, career counselors and psychologists advise that up to 90 percent of human communication is through body language and they suggest success techniques. It would seem there could be a clear channel of communication between man and beast, especially companion animals. But that’s not the case. As animal language research advances and its cross species significance is recognized, the general public remains stuck with traditional ideas on human animal interaction, including pet needs and pet training.

Helping to change that, an HBO film recently aired about the life and work of Temple Grandin, a respected scientist who copes with her autism through identifying and understanding animal needs. Her books and television exposure reach out to a non-academic audience with solutions for enriched living with animals, be they livestock or companion pets. Grandin pushes herself to speak publicly, intent on a dual mission promoting humane animal husbandry and effective approaches to human autism. Two of her books, “Animals in Translation” and “Animals Make Us Human,” include practical tips for easing and enriching the relationship between the average pet and average pet owner.

The significance of learning to understand what our animals are communicating and how they do so is clear. Ongoing research in the fields of anthrozoology, the study of the relationships between humans and animals, and expanded discussions of the definitive 1984 book by Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson, “Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species,” demonstrate that positive human animal interaction is critical to sustainability and quality of life for all species. “The Biophilia Hypothesis” by S.R. Kellert and E.O. Wilson challenges: “No one who looks at the evidence can doubt that animals in hand improve the quality of modern human life …”



There is confirmed evidence that companion animals elicit healthier social behavior from autistic children, can provide alerts for seizures and other human disorders, help overcome depression, and possess other, not fully understood communication capabilities which benefit humans. It’s been suggested with some seriousness that dogs might be trained to help baby boomers remember things when memory starts to decline, like observing and locating where the car keys were left.

“Oscar the Therapy Cat” and “Dewey the Library Cat” are true stories (both best selling books being made into movies) which document in nonscientific settings the extra senses companion animals may be able share with humans who are willing to listen. Oscar knows when someone is ready to die and “tells” the resident facility staff. Dewey changed attitudes in a small town in Iowa as he comforted not only his caregiver but also strangers in a public library who he recognized as in need.



Understanding animals creates harmony, safety and an enriched world for all living things. Beyond signal watching, active listening with pets reveals core shared emotions and the motivations which lead to bonded humane relationships. Ultimately, this leads to human wholeness achieved through interconnectedness, which is vital to preserve the biodiversity of our shared habitat, planet earth.

Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help “Keep Tahoe Kind.”

-Dawn Armstrong is the executive director of the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and SPCA.


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