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So dogs do get some information from our speech, but they're definitely not getting the full details of the long conversations that some of us have with them. So why do we do it? I often joke that it's a great idea to have pets if you like to talk to yourself, and Horowitz has observed that a lot of what's going on is that we're simply narrating what's happening in our heads.
But there's more to it than that, and it's because sometimes dogs, at least, do pay attention in ways that matter to us.
Therapist Tiffany Craig says it's often easier for clients to talk to her "assistant" Dante, a Lhasapoo. She remembers one teenager who wouldn't talk to her and would only scream at her mother, but she would talk to Dante. "Then she opened back up to me, and we were able to talk through what was going on," she says. "That happens a lot."
Why? Partly it's just that dogs are good listeners. For one thing, they're interacting in a way that we understand. "Dogs don't look each other in the eye. It's impertinent in the dog world," she says. "But they've learned to look us in the eye because that's what humans do."
And though dogs may not understand our words, there's plenty of other information they pick up on. "They're responding to your body posture; they're responding to your energy; they're responding to your hand gestures; they're responding to your space. They're picking up all of those cues," she says. "Even if they have no idea what you are saying, they know there's an important exchange going on, and they know they're part of it."
Another aspect of it, though, is what animals don't do. For one thing, they don't interrupt to tell you their story. "Talking to people can be helpful, but often people are listening solely with the expectation that when you stop talking they can begin," therapist Allen Wagner says. And what you say to a pet stays with the pet. "Not all people have close people in their lives they trust, and confidentiality with your dog or cat is a given," he says.
Also, your pet is always on your side — or if he's not, at least he doesn't say so. "Dogs never say stupid stuff," Craig says. "Dogs never invalidate your feelings; they don't tell you you're crazy; they don't judge you."
So there are clearly reasons we might get psychological benefits from talking to our pets. But can it go too far? When she considers whether a behavior is a problem, Craig says, "What I ask is, is it functional or dysfunctional in your particular environment?"
Having whole conversations with your dog on the street may annoy passers-by (and you might end up quoted in Horowitz's Twitter feed), but as long as it's not affecting your relationships with others, Craig thinks it's not a problem.
"In my opinion, the line is, how much is it impeding or impairing your life? If somebody is living alone with a critter and they talk to that dog or cat all the time, if it's not hurting anybody else, who cares?" she says. "But if that person has four other people in the house and won't talk to any of them and will talk only to the cat, now we have a dysfunction."
But what about my talking to the zoo animals who didn't respond the way a dog or cat does? Is that crossing the line? Craig suggests that another reason we talk to animals is simply that we're obeying the deep-seated social instincts of our species.
"If those giraffes were humans and you gave them their food and walked away without saying anything, it would be incredibly rude," she says. "It violates our own social expectations. You don't want to be a rude person."
And, after all, consider the audience. "I wouldn't want to be rude to a lion," she says. "That's just stupid."
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