Monday, August 4, 2014

Listening with Doggie Ears

Today was our regular day volunteering at the nursing home.

And here's a picture of Isaac dressed for work in his new bandana.  Cute, isn't he?

Today while at the nursing home, and afterward, I was thinking about the issue of consent and how Isaac and I communicate with the nursing home residents, particularly those that aren't able to communicate real clearly verbally.

One thing I always try to do is to get a resident's consent before bringing Isaac into their room or before bringing him real close to them, before letting him sniff them, before letting him kiss them, before letting him put his paws up on the arm of their chair or on their bed, before letting him jump up on their bed, and so on.  While many of the residents love him, I know not everyone likes dogs (Isaac does not know that, though, so shhh!  Don't tell him).  Some people are afraid of dogs.  Some are happy to pet a dog but don't want to be licked by a dog.  Some of the residents like dogs but sometimes they may not feel well or may be tired or in pain or may be busy doing something else and just not want to pet him at that very moment.

Plus, it's just part of being respectful.  I don't think nursing home residents generally get  a lot of privacy, they often have people intruding in their personal space (which may be necessary if they need a lot of help with personal hygiene and stuff, but it's still an intrusion in some sense, I think), they don't get to make a lot of choices or exercise a lot of control over their environment, and I want their experience with Isaac, and with me, to be different from all of that.

So if someone is in the dining room, I stop a short distance from them and ask "Do you want to pet the dog?"  If someone is in their room, I knock on the door (even if it's open) and ask if they want to pet the dog.  There are some people that I know always want to pet the dog, but I still knock before entering their rooms or greet them from a short distance away and make sure they want a visit from Isaac today.  With some of those people, I don't really have to ask if they want to pet Isaac because as soon as they see us coming, they call out to him or beckon him over to them.  But in general, I ask.  And if I think they could reach him better if he put his paws up on the arm of their chair, I ask if it's OK for him to do that.  And so on.

But how do you get consent if someone doesn't speak?  Or doesn't make sense when they speak?

I've realized that Isaac has gotten better at reading signals from people.  He is still certain everyone loves him and wants to be his bestest friend, but he no longer seems to believe they all want to be kissed on the lips by him.

Dogs rely a lot on body language, though, and tone of voice.  Isaac listens to those things more than to the words someone says.  When we still lived with Mike, Mike would tell him to lie down or leave something alone, but Isaac wouldn't do what Mike told him to do.  Mike didn't know why.  I knew why, though, and I tried to explain it to Mike.  The problem was that Mike said "leave it" in the same tone of voice you would say "come on, let's play!"  Mike said "down" in the same tone of voice you would use to say "good doggie, I want to pet you!"  Isaac responded to the tone of voice, not to  his words.

I've found that if I listen with doggie ears, or pay attention to things like tone of voice and body language, I can get a pretty good idea of what people are saying or trying to say.  I can tell if they want Isaac to come closer or if they don't want him to come closer.  I can tell if they are happy he is near them or if they would maybe prefer to be left alone.

I may not be perfect at interpreting these things.  But it seems to be working pretty well so far.

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