Pet talks can bring the family together

Sunday, March 30, 2003

NEW YORK-- Pets are part of the family. They are domesticated animals living in the human world; we keep them for pleasure, not utility.

Since people and pets all live together in such close quarters -- according to the 2001 census 36.1 percent of U.S. families have dogs and 31.6 percent have cats -- wouldn't it make sense for people to learn each other's languages.

If you didn't know it, your pets have been "talking" to you since the day they moved in.

Jean Craighead George, a naturalist and author of the new children's books "How to Talk to Your Dog" and "How to Talk to Your Cat" (HarperTrophy) says a family dialogue allows everyone a chance to better understand each other -- and themselves.

"Having a pet helps children realize they are part of a big system," George says. "What this does for children is tell them who they are. Children are all so curious about animals but they realize that they (the children) aren't a worm or another creature."

That's not to say kids and worms don't have a few similarities, according to George.

Most animals, and that includes people, have routines: They like to get up at the same time each day, they return from the day's adventures at the same time and they go to sleep at the same time, George says. Also, most animals get defensive when they are approached in a quick, brisk manner.

As for their mating habits, George recalls watching over several months a male sparrow trying to land himself a female partner. He was unsuccessful every time, she says, because his "home" was on a small, wet parcel. "I knew he'd need some better real estate to find a mate -- just like some people."

Animals also seem to know that babies, whether it's of their own species or of the human kind, require special attention and a gentle manner.

If left on their own, children and pets usually will get along, George says. It's when an animal senses a parent's fear or trepidation that the animal becomes prickly.

"All young animals are friendly toward each other, including children. It's when they become adults they learn otherwise," George says with a laugh during a phone interview from her Chappaqua, N.Y., home.

Most children begin to take an interest in animals around 2 or 3 -- "It's when they pick up critters and bring them home," she says. And these young children don't discriminate, they like bugs, beetles and fish as much as that cuddly kitten.

The first step in having children learn to communicate with their pets just by quietly observing the animals, George explains, because it establishes a trust. As the children are ready to move in for a closer look, parents should constantly remind them to "feel kind toward this animal."

For instance, if the pet is a dog, a child should approach it with an outstretched hand, palm up, and let the dog sniff it. Then they are ready for eye contact, which dogs, some cats and even some wild animals find reassuring, George says.

"If an animal will look you in the eye, it's his sign of acceptance. It's OK for you to look back but you should still remain quiet."

After all parties are comfortable with each other, they are ready to "chat." In her book, George says the best way to initiate conversation with a cat is for the human to stay away for the day. When he returns home, he'll probably get the "I missed you" talk.

You'll know you're having this conversation when the cat presses his fur lightly to the body with whiskers bowed forward. The pupils are large and the cat holds its tail straight up like a flagpole, and on some occasions it'll even rise on his hind legs and arch its shoulder and neck toward your hand.

This is when the person should say, "I'm glad to see you, too," George advises.

Meanwhile, to say "hello" to your dog, sniff toward its nose -- it's how dogs greet each other. The dog likely will respond by pulling his ears back and close to his head.

HOW TO TELL IF YOUR PET IS IN THE MOOD TO CHAT

The Associated Press

No one likes the silent treatment -- and that goes for pets, too.

Jean Craighead George, a naturalist and author of the new children's books "How to Talk to Your Dog" and "How to Talk to Your Cat" offers these tips to get human-animal conversations started and how to read your cat's or dog's mood:

If a cat's whiskers are bent forward, it is a sign the cat is embracing you; bent backward, it means the cat is alarmed.

If a cat's tail is hanging down and loose from the body, the cat is saying "All is well," but if it's lashing around, the cat is angry.

If a cat's back is arched high and its fur is standing up, the cat is ready to battle. It's both a defensive and offensive pose.

A dog's tail that is hanging low is a sign that it's depressed while a tail that is up and slightly curved means the dog is happy. If the dog is sick, the tail might be lowered and hanging toward one side.

A suspicious dog thrusts his head forward, presses his ears back and frowns. A wrinkled brow and ears held out to the side is a way of saying "I'm confused."

Dogs love to play. They invite each other to tumble and romp by spanking their forepaws on the ground, rear ends up. If a person gets into the same position, it also is an invitation to play.

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