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The Art of Animal Observation

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Observing animals is an event -- it is not one-sided -- it has an effect on the animals. It changes them -- as well as you -- depending upon the purpose and style of the observation. Considering this two-way engagement can have a huge impact on the quality and depth of the human-animal connection, if that is your goal.

If, on the other hand, you are involved in neutral or scientific field observations, you may attempt to be as invisible or non-invasive as possible so as not to alter the behavior you are observing. But what about observing animals that are closer to you? Perhaps animals you are helping in a rescue or shelter, or animals that are in your life. In these scenarios, your focus may be on creating a connection with the animal in order to help them be less stressed or frightened. For example, a shy, or fearful, or stressed dog that hovers in the back of his shelter, and doesn't approach when humans come near, is going to have a very poor chance of being adopted and may end up being euthanized, simply because he was afraid.

It is always a good discipline to work towards objective observations of physical or vocal behavior without imposing a meaning on what you see. In other words, if you are observing dogs meeting each other, begin by focusing on the simple physical behaviors you see. "The white dog has a curved body, his head is lower, he is moving slower, his tail is wagging slowly." This kind of observable behavior is preferable to imposing interpretations of mood or motive, such as "He wants to approach, but he is scared." Staying objective about what you can see, versus what you assume is its meaning, is a mental discipline that helps you to keep from imposing or projecting your own emotions.

Practicing how to observe nonverbal or at least non-linguistic communication in this objective manner is very valuable and keeps you from projecting emotional states that may or not be really what the animal is feeling. It is always tempting to view animals behavior from the point of view of how we feel, but this may or may not be accurate.

It is excellent training for the human to be aware that various animals use a complex set of communication tools that might include patterns of body movement, gesture, posture, variation of speed, complex use of eye contact, vocalizations, (including sounds that humans can't hear) scent release, various forms of touch and contact, grooming – just to name a few.

Being able to correctly decode the meanings of this huge repertoire of communication modalities allows greater understanding and insight into the lives of animals. Anyone involved in training has to become both a “master reader” of these signals, as well as the ability to be able to adjust their own communication patterns so that the animal will understand the human’s intentions.

In this video, a wild silverback gorilla approaches a photographer. The man was wise enough to adopt a still and submissive body language. This allowed the Alpha Male to determine that the man was not a threat, and to allow the babies to explore him. In this case, being still, and letting the animals approach, sniff and groom was the perfect strategy to communicate that the man meant no harm.

If you are interested in training animals, there are many advantages to observing and accurately interpreting animal communication. You have to be able to establish a relationship of trust in order to train. This means you "play by the rules" of animal communication, such as the use of friendly body language. You also correctly "read" the animal's state of mind -- such as interest, fear, aggression, boredom, confusion or stress. Training sessions can go very wrong if the animal becomes confused, tired, or bored, and the trainer overrides these communications.

Accurate observation has many advantages because it builds empathy and opens communication channels. It can save lives, as in pets who attempt to alert their owners to unknown cancer. Many animals seem to anticipate natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, and by paying attention to their warning behaviors, humans can be greatly served. By paying attention to, and accurately interpreting sudden movements of groups of animals, (upland for example), we can be better prepared. This is just one way of increasing our awareness of what animals know, and how this can improve the lives of humans.

Most social animals are excellent readers of non-verbal (or non-linguistic) communication – through body language and physical signals. Correctly giving and receiving each other’s body language (and in some species vocalizations) can mean the difference between connection, cooperation, reproduction, and survival within the pack.

If we are reading body language accurately, we will have a better chance of understanding an animal's emotions and intentions. And we will be better able to communicate in ways they understand. Thus the correct reading of body language is a foundational skill for humans who wish to understand and/or communicate with them. And we can learn by observing how they communicate with each other to accurately decode the messages they give each other through body posture, movement, eye contact, gesture, sounds, and so on. This awareness spills over into our own lives, making us better senders and receivers of human-to-human non-verbal communication.

Zoey loves having a scratch or tickle from Barbara

Animals' body language is very reliable, unlike with humans, who can disguise their truth. As a species, we are pretty good at using words to hide meaning (lying!), but while animals may be capable of deception for a specific gain, they generally don't lie about their emotions – such as love. Can you imagine how much human suffering could be reduced if humans never lied about love? One of the books on the reading list for the Animal Consciousness Course is Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s Dogs Never Lie About Love: Reflections on the Emotional Worlds of Dogs.

Me just being with Miss Betsy, a traumatized horse, in quiet stillness, helped her learn to trust.

Finally, I would like you to consider that gentle observation with animals with whom you have, or wish to have a relationship, can be a very powerful event. Just being with them, observing without judgment, simply being present with them can be very healing for both you and the animal. Being still and "doing nothing" can go a long way to letting the animal get to know you, your smell, your energy, your nature. Consider spending time with an animal where you just hang out, simply being near each other. Observe with soft eyes, not staring. Just feel each other's presence. It is powerful and very healing. This will create a profound connection and will change you both in subtle, and not so subtle, ways. It is a wonderful gift to give an animal, your loving and gentle presence.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection


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