Blessed Encounters


This article is posted as part of PGAA’s curation efforts. This was originally posted at Spot Magazine


Tradition reminds us to count our blessings this time of year. One of the blessings at the top of my personal list is one I’m sure Spot readers will second: the joy I derive from critter encounters.

However, those encounters are only as good as the communication between us. How exactly do you convey and read thoughts and emotions without a shared language? Indeed, human communication between two people speaking the same, native tongue is difficult enough.

It turns out that 93% of human communication is nonverbal. Clearly, it’s more than just what we say! Indeed, we use stance, gesture, expressions, other forms of body language (55%), as well as tone of voice (38%).

If you want to manage and master interspecies communication, it helps to know that the same principle applies not only to humans; it holds across the animal kingdom. The truth is animals are conversing with us all the time; sadly, we don’t speak their lingo, pick up on their body language, or mind the cues and warnings they give.

Perhaps worse, many people fail to realize that we’re conveying volumes to them. Without being aware or mindful of our own body language and innate traits, we often give off a massive mess of mixed messages. Our intentions may be good – to cuddle or comfort – and, personally, I believe critters can read our energy, if not our precise intension’s. But as we approach an animal it automatically sizes up the situation, including the environment, any escape routes available to it, as well as how well it knows and trusts you. They also notice your body language and inherent predator traits, as well as the degree to which you’re ‘acting like the predator’ you are.

A common example is misreading (or missing all together) ‘whale eyes.’ In the book, For the Love of a Dog, author Patricia McConnell explains the term whale eyes originated with an observation that the eyes of whales show the whites no matter in which direction their head is pointing. A whale eye expression in a dog can, at times, look simply cute and adorable; but there’s a part of us that knows instinctively that the dog is insecure in the given situation. We know intellectually that we mean the animal no harm – but they don’t, given the mess of mixed signals we’re transmitting.

What that look is really saying is, “I’m really nervous here. I don’t want to be aggressive but I’ll defend myself if I have to. Please give me some space.” We very often swoop in to comfort, cuddle, and console when we see that would-be cute expression (if we notice the look at all), which only serves to:

  1. confirm the aggressive or domineering behavior the dog was afraid of;
  2. reduce the animal’s personal space; and
  3. diminish its escape routes.

At that point, feeling cornered and as if it has no other options, the dog attacks reactionarily.

By being oblivious to how our predator traits influence our day-to-day body language and failing to read cues, we miss the entire exchange. In just this way we very often come across as (unwittingly and) inconsistently aggressive. Then we’re confused, offended, and shocked when the critter reacts defensively to protect itself, its territory, its personal space, or its ‘pack.’ The animal is labeled “bad” and scolded, or worse. Yet it was we who didn’t head the warnings. It’s we who forced the situation and prompted the attack.

I believe we have a responsibility (to our own safety as well as to the animal) to be conscious of what we convey, and to educate ourselves how to properly read critters’ communications and cautions. In so doing, we can minimize disastrous encounters and increase the number of blessed encounters with other species.

To learn more consider joining me at an awareness level critter body language class this winter at a local community college. Find one here:

In the meantime, happy holidays to your and yours, including your furry, feathered, or other four-legged family members.

Jo Becker is a Portland, Oregon-based speaker and freelance writer. A seasoned presenter, she’s given animal-related talks since 2012. Jo’s classes on preparedness (Animals-In-Disaster) and critter body language (Deciphering Doggie Dialects, Cracking the Kitty Code, & Honing Your Horse Sense) offer unique perspectives and practical resources.

Jo takes an entertaining, personable approach to a ‘doom and gloom’ subject, empowering audiences to consider why and how to prepare for the unexpected and to better communicate with furry friends during good times and bad.

As a dedicated pet mom and surrogate livestock handler when neighbors are away, Jo is passionate about disaster planning for the entire family including our nonhuman friends.

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