I had an unusual childhood.  Not bad, just unusual.  Looking back now I have to say I wasn’t really well-socialized with people.  I was an only child with divorced parents.  Being that I attended Catholic schools in the early 1960s, that was NOT considered the norm.  I was the only one of my kind.  All around me were large families with outgoing offspring.  Combining my introverted nature with the knowledge of being very different led me to be even more self-isolated, I’m sure.  Plus, we lived out in the middle of nowhere with my grandparents.  So there were very few kids around to play with.  Those that were seemed to constantly be moving in and out.  They often lived in old “company” houses from the brick yard close by.  Looking back I realize just how poor they were.  We weren’t wealthy or even close, but we were stable and solidly lower middle class.  We had indoor plumbing and they didn’t.  My friends were often quite temporary in nature.  The constant was the animals.

We lived across the street from a fairly large horse farm.  I wasn’t allowed to go in and ride unless someone was there, so I spent a lot of my time on the outside of the fence, watching and waiting.  I would mentally will the horses to come to me.  And maybe use a carrot or apple as an enticement as well.  I learned to be very patient with animals.  I also learned that waiting quietly was often rewarded.  The horses would come to trust me and get closer and closer, even when I didn’t have a food offering for them.  I would sit and talk to them for hours.  I knew they couldn’t understand or talk back.  But they could still communicate with me.  I learned about their individual personalities.  They let me see who they were.  Some trusting and friendly, some nervous and shy, some defensive and aggressive.  There was a revolving door of horses over there, so I had plenty of new friends.  As I look back I now wonder if the owners were brokers.  The horses weren’t pets and didn’t stay all that long.

Caught one!

Caught one!

*Sorry this photo is so tiny.  Click on it to see a slightly bigger image.  

I never wanted the horses to actually talk to me in human language, that would be creepy.  I wanted to learn “horse”.  “Horse” was much more subtle and elegant than words.  “Horse” required the entire body in order to be spoken fluently.  It was about taking and giving space, turning forward, sideways, or backwards, making eye contact or not, moving slowly and carefully or quickly and deliberately.  There were a lot to learn to be fluent in “horse”.  Horses seemed to read body language and movement so well that they could tell what your intention was, even what kind of person you were, very very quickly.  I watched many adults in their interactions with the horses.  Horses took a liking to some, tolerated others, and violently objected to a few.  The horses didn’t need much information to make these decisions.  But they seemed to be correct in their assessments of who could be trusted and who could not.

If the horses didn’t like a person I would try to figure out why.  What was that person doing, or not doing?  The horses didn’t like loud and pushy.  That might force the issue and gain a measure of control in certain situations, but they certainly didn’t like it or give their best effort.  The horse would do the minimal required and get away from that person as quickly as possible.

They also didn’t like tentative and nervous.  Someone with fear of large animals also made the horses nervous. They wanted space from that person and would keep their distance if at all possible.  They seemed to take the nervous energy as an indication that there was danger close at hand.  Even as a kid I knew the advice “just don’t let him see that you’re afraid of him” was  idiotic.  The horses always knew, you couldn’t lie to them.

I also watched closely to see what those considered “good” with horses were doing.  Their movements were typically smooth and fluid.  They were calm and deliberate in their behavior.  Confident, but not overbearing.

Me and Patches

Me and Patches

*Again, sorry for the tiny picture.  Work off some very old, very small photos.  

Now, I talk to dogs.  Literally, all the time.  Do they understand?  I’m certain they pick up key words and phrases.  Combine those with my behavior and there is a lot of communication going on.  But the communication works because not only do I talk, I listen.  I pay attention.  I watch them.  I notice changes in behavior and typical actions.  I respond to their attempts at communication.

For example, our next door neighbors are getting new siding and windows (I’m very jealous!)  The side of their garage is close to the deck off our living room.  There is a large sliding glass door there.  Star (youngest BC) started barking hysterically one day.  I walk over, look, and see a worker walking on the neighbor’s garage roof.  I tell Star “thank you for telling me” and I really meant that.  It was a good call on her part.  If someone is on the roof or on my balcony I’d like to be warned.  I also told her very calmly “it’s fine, they’re supposed to be there” petted her, and walked away.  They’ve been there for 3-4 days since and she hasn’t made a sound.  Did she understand what I said?  I think she got the message.  I was calm, my tone was soothing, my actions were relaxed.  There was nothing to worry about.  She got that.

Star talks to me, a lot.  She seems to be convinced that I need careful observation and monitoring at all times.  I really do believe that she was a nurse in a former life.  If I get upset, she leaps into action immediately, gets right in my face, and starts licking me.  This makes me laugh, and then we’re both happy.  Star is very clearly telling me “calm down, everything is fine”.  And she’s right.  She’s so sensitive that even if I raise my voice slightly or change my tone, she’s on it.  Why is she so concerned about how I feel?  I have no idea.

I'm Star and I'm here to help.

I’m Star and I’m here to help.

Zen is totally oblivious to my moods.  His communication with me consists of sitting across the room staring at me and mentally willing me to “throw the ball”.  Sometimes it works.  He’s probably convinced that he has supernatural powers and controls my mind.

Throw it again, and again, and again....

Throw it again, and again, and again….

Is it any wonder I became a behavioral psychologist?

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