On a magnificent holiday Monday, while most people were lounging on the beach or snoozing in hammocks, I spent the day at a dog agility competition near Guelph, Ontario. Max and I have two four-year-old border collies, and we have become quite fascinated by this strange sport in which human and dog compete as a team.
What does this have to do with words, you ask? As I run around the course with my dog, Patches, I shout out instructions and encouragement to her – “Jump! Jump! Tunnel! Teeter Bang!” and so on. She knows what those words mean. But more important, she has become attuned to my body language and can sense that a change in shoulder position or a slowing of the pace may mean a change in direction.
When training a dog for agility, you start by “shaping” the behavior you want. You set the dog in front of a jump, and if she goes over it, you lavish her with praise and treats. Only after the behavior is strongly rooted do you associate the word, “jump.” After all, English is a foreign language to dogs.
There was once a famous horse, Clever Hans, who seemed to be able to add and subtract. Someone would pose a question and Hans would tap out the answer with a front hoof. After careful scientific observation, it was learned that when Hans couldn’t see the person asking the question, he couldn’t answer it. It was not a case of fraud: Hans was responding to body language cues that the humans were unaware they were giving.
You’re still waiting for the point, right? It’s simply this: words are powerful, but body language is even more powerful. Some people have suggested that communication is 80% body language and 20% words. Face to face communication will always ace written communication, and a combination of the right words and the right body language will always carry the day.