Why I talk to dogs

Their tethered humans might think I’m crazy, but I can’t help it. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A sunny afternoon at a park in Stockholm.

Facebook tells me that talking to my dog is a sign of intelligence. Whew. I talk not only to my dog but to all dogs. Out loud. In public. Their tethered humans might think I’m crazy, but I can’t help it. And now I know it’s smart.

“Thank you for saying hello to me,” I say to the miniature poodle springing up and down in spirals in the elevator.

“Mac! Mac, come see me!” I yell to Angie’s labradoodle on the sidewalk.

“Henry!” I say to my own dog. “Here comes that German shepherd. Hang tight. Let ’im sniff. Uh-oh. That scrappy spitz. Just go around him.”

The word for this is anthropomorphism. Facebook quoted behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley, a University of Chicago anthropomorphism expert. He says that I and others like me are showing signs of “intelligent social cognition” in talking to pets. Because humans are social creatures, we talk to things we love in order to be social, to have friends. For thousands of years, dogs have adapted as companions to humans. They want to bond with us, be a part of the family, please us. They even want to talk to us, which is why they bark.

Somewhere along the evolutionary highway, dogs learned to bark to communicate with their human packs. Dogs evolved from wolves. Wolves howl. They don’t bark.

Literature is full of talking animals. Some are called fables as in Aesop’s “The Hare and the Tortoise,” in which the animals challenge each other to a race. Some are fairy tales – the big bad wolf misleading a red-caped girl in the woods. Snakes and donkeys converse with humans in the Bible. The Quran says Solomon had the ability to communicate with birds. How could all these stories be based on non-facts? Perhaps humans once chitchatted with both household pets and wild animals.

Henry, a West Highland terrier stud, was retired at age 7. His official registered name was Clipper. My friend John drove me to Indiana’s Amish country to fetch the castoff sire. I sat in the back seat with the dog on the way home so I could talk to him, bond.

“He’s not responding to the name ‘Clipper,’ ” John said. “I’ll bet they never called him that. They just bred him. Why don’t you call him something like Henry?”

And so I did. All the way home to Chicago. The next morning I hollered, “Henry?” He ran from the next room and jumped in my lap. We’ve been conversing ever since.

I suspect that the non-pet owners who find me talking to Henry when the elevator door opens haven’t heard of Dr. ­Epley’s research. To them, I’m just the batty pensioner with the fluffy white dog on the third floor. But I know better.

I talk to animals.

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