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Conversations with Dogs

"An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language." —Martin Buber

In my life, I have always had cats. And I have always talked to them. First, it was the playful jibberish of a six-year-old's imagination, then the secrets of teen angst and eventually, a mutual understanding in silence as my pets and I grew older together.

I tell my cats every day that I love them, that their paws smell good, that they are my best friends, the loves of my life and that I am glad, so glad, they happened to me. Never once have they said anything back, and never once have they needed to.

It goes without saying for me that cats are my passion. I am an animal lover through and through, but for cats there is a special place in my heart — a place that jumps to life every time a feline comes through the treatment door.

Dogs are a different story. I have been pining for a pup of my own for the last decade or so and I gush whenever I see random dogs on the street, but truth be told, I'm kind of afraid of them. And during my first month at , I realized I really don't know how to talk to dogs at all.

I spent my introductory week at the practice tip-toeing around the jumpy, slobbering creatures. I had been around dogs before, of course, but not nearly enough to know what they were thinking, or when they might bite. In an effort to look like I knew what I was doing, though, I put my fear away and jumped into the world of dogs with both feet.

I went about handling them as best I could and the only way I knew how — which, apparently, was like cats. I knew that I was a novice by the way I too-gently restrained nervous patients and the lighthearted laughter of a co-worker who told me I was letting the canine beasts boss me around, but I truly realized the error of my ways when I found myself cooing and clucking for a dog's attention.

A gentle voice and some coaxing go a long way for a cat, a creature for whom commands fall on deaf ears. As any cat's human will tell you, it's the kitty who owns you — not the other way around. Dogs, on the other hand, love and need to be told what to do.

I'm still no professional canine wrangler, but over time my timid voice grew louder, my restraining arms stronger and my commands more confident.

I thought I was finally learning how to talk to dogs, but just when I had gotten the hang of it, I found a lump on one of my favorite boarding patients.

She was a beautiful, middle-aged golden retriever with a sunny personality and unbeknownst to me, she had cancer. The lump would not be removed, I was told, because she was already dying. A few weeks, maybe, was all she had.

That day I took her out to the yard, where for the first time, we did not play ball or tug-of-war. Instead, we sat together in the shade and I began to talk. I gave her a hug and told her she was a good dog who didn't deserve her fate. I told her that it would all be okay and that I would remember her. Then I told her I loved her, to which she responded by offering me her paw.

Some may not believe that animals can understand us, but if there was ever a time I knew they did, that was it. And I found in that moment that I knew how to talk to dogs all along, because the language of love and the bond between human and animal is universal.

Deanne Goodman (Editor) September 15, 2011 at 07:18 PM
Jen your column just made me cry. My dog Lucky died a year ago from cancer and it was so hard. Yes, I talk to my pets too! I even make videos for them. Here's the tribute I did to Lucky after he passed. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SuNKl2oa-0
Geraldine Smith September 15, 2011 at 08:13 PM
I just read "A Dog's Purpose" by W.Bruce Cameron. For a dog lover like me, that relly hit home. And, Jen, I'm sorry it took you so long to find out about dogs but now, you know.
Marlena Medford September 15, 2011 at 10:06 PM
Our family dog of 17 years passed last month so I also especially appreciated this column. I'm also happy to hear you're getting to know man's best friend a little better. Thanks for the great piece.
Laura Baase September 15, 2011 at 10:34 PM
Just a month ago today we were advised that our Golden was very sick and we had to make the decision to put her to sleep. She was awesome and we feel so empty yet today. I agree with you these animals know far more then we we give them credit for.
Geraldine Smith September 15, 2011 at 11:02 PM
We've all heard that when a beloved pet passes on, they leave a hole in our hearts. Ain't that the truth?
Debi September 16, 2011 at 01:07 AM
We lost our golden three weeks ago to cancer she was 13.5. We miss her so much. Things transpired so quickly she went downhill so fast. I wish I had that last week with her back, even though she was weak I would of taken her for one last beach outing. She died on her own on a friday morning with me by her side. I miss her so very much.
Deanne Goodman (Editor) September 16, 2011 at 02:26 AM
I'm sorry for everyone's recent loss, I know how much it hurts. :( For me, getting a rescue puppy pretty soon really helped. I just can't imagine my life without a dog in it.
Cris Weatherby September 16, 2011 at 04:55 AM
I talk to my dog all day and I know that he understands a great deal of what I say. Cats.......usually snub me at the first meeting. I think I might try a little harder.
Jennifer Reed September 16, 2011 at 06:12 AM
Thank you, all, for the comments. I'm sorry to hear about everyone's losses as well, but I think we can agree that when it comes to pets, it's better to have loved and lost than never loved at all. @Deanne, that video was amazing! I have tears in my eyes. And @Cris, please do. You have to work for a cat's affection, but trust me, it's so worth it.
Dana September 16, 2011 at 10:49 PM
No surprise that in my dreams of our departed dog (bone cancer, last Sep.), he crosses the line between dog and human. Last dream, he was a greeter at the entrance to a forest preserve. He came bouncing up to offer to take the puppy (same breed) to the 'boys room'. "Don't worry, I'll take care of this.", and they trotted off to the latrines. House training was easier after that dream.
Geraldine Smith September 17, 2011 at 01:11 PM
My little Silky Terrier,Minnie, who was my beloved pet and companion for more than 17 years, died in 1994, and once in a while, I still dream about her - when she and I were still young and frisky. I still miss that little girl!
I am thankful that the Golden gal had u in her life at such an important time. I know that pets understand the universal language of love. Keep up the good work.
Steven Relyea October 28, 2011 at 09:34 PM
Want a dog park in Spring Valley? Go to www.springvalleyca.info and sign the petition to help us get funding. Thanks!

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