Do we read far too much into the body language of animals? Or do we not give them enough credit for their general intelligence? I’m afraid we miss half of the sophisticated body language that they desperately try to make us understand.
Take for example the conversation I had with Poncho, our black and white Santa Fe shepherd. I was sitting at the sewing machine doing something I no longer do, when Poncho came into the house. He surveyed the backpacks in the hallway and ran up to me, jumping and whining and wagging his broken curl of a tail. Then he looked imploringly at me, barely able to contain himself. I asked him if he wanted to go outside, and he answered by sinking on all fours to the floor—his habitual signal that meant “No, stupid, I’ve just come in from outside.”
Having laid that question to rest, Poncho proceeded again to dance, his huge brown eyes full of questions. “What do you want?” I asked. He had had his dinner; he couldn’t be hungry. He had come directly to me, down the hall past the busy back-packing back-packers.
He hadn’t given them more than a sideways glance. Perhaps he knew that he had little chance of getting an answer out of them while they were so busy. He had come directly to me full of expectation and questions, nosing my hand. Would he be going along on the backpacking trip or would he be left at home?
Obviously, I wasn’t going, for I was avoiding the packing chore. If he had to stay home, he knew he would not be alone. However, he obviously wanted to go on the hike, and he wanted me to know that, so I hollered down the hall, “Poncho wants to know if he is going with you.”
“No,” came the answer from Husband Don. “We can’t pack enough water for him.”
I didn’t need to repeat the message. Clearly, unmistakably, he had understood every word of our conversation. All the starch went out of Poncho’s tail, and he sank to the floor at my feet, his head between his paws.
All the agitated questioning, the prancing about, the eagerly upturned eyes, the insistent nosing of my hand were gone. A pouting dog lay at my feet, as if he motor had been suddenly shut off. He stayed with me for a while. Then he went to the living room to watch the packers, quietly accepting his fate.