This is perplexing. As Gary Larson (the cartoonist) observes, when we speak to our dogs they don’t understand what we’re saying. What is more we know this (or at least most of us do). And yet we still speak to them. Why?
First off, let me say that some dogs are extraordinarily intelligent. You wouldn’t believe how brilliant Chaser the Border Collie is. She knows over one thousand words and has demonstrated the ability to make logical inferences. Watch this fascinating Nova video “How Smart are Dogs?” : http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/how-smart-dogs.html
Everybody knows that Border Collies are smart. In fact, they are typically rated as the most intelligent of all breeds, above even Golden Retrievers and Labradors and German Shepherds. So perhaps I could understand speaking to Chaser. She just might get what you’re saying. But my Lhasa Apso x and Maltese x? Let me say that they mean well. But intelligent they ain’t. So why do I still talk to them?
Perhaps we can get the spotlight off me for a second. If you’ve seen Tom Hanks’ film “Castaway” you know that for a significant portion of the film Hanks ends up stranded on a desert island talking to a volleyball that washed up on shore (which he appropriately calls “Wilson”). Why does the castaway Chuck Noland (Hanks) start talking to, of all things, a ball? Is he insane?
Clearly not. But human beings are social creatures and as such our flourishing is richly dependent on social relations with others. When we are deprived of those relationships our social well-being suffers, in the worst cases leading to dire consequences like despair or even insanity. In that sense, Noland’s attachment to the ball is an incisive coping strategy to maintain his own mental stability while on the island.
I don’t think I talk to my dogs out of any need to maintain my mental stability (at least I hope not!). But as I anthropomorphize my pets it does have positive psychological benefits. As Noland constructs another agent out of the ball so I construct agents out of my dogs, not out of necessity but as a further enrichment of my social life. And so I continue to say “Way to go Sonny! Good job” even as I know Sonny hears “Blah blah blah Sonny! Blah blah!”