I am an animal lover by nature. I have lived with animals most of my life. I have had a variety over the years; lab rats, a rabbit, cats, dogs, and horses. They have all taught me a lot about communication.
Animals may not communicate in words but they definitely get their messages across. As anyone knows who has an animal buddy, once they get to know you as someone who will listen they will teach you how to communicate with them. They have taught me to look for more than just words for communication. They have taught me the power of observation.
It is important to acknowledge that behavior is communication. When you realize this, it opens all kinds of ways to interact. This knowledge can help you when working with nonverbal students. I am not trying to compare humans to animals here. I realize there are big differences. For the purposes of this post, I just want to open your mind to nonverbal communication and observation of behavior. My animals have made me a better clinician with students who do not always communicate verbally. Below are some things I have learned from them.
1 .Foremost it is important to establish a relationship. You won’t know full potential until you develop a good relationship. I have marveled how animals keep their true personality from you until they trust you. Why would a human not feel any differently. Don’t make judgments about abilities until you get to know your students. Take some time to get to know them and establish a relationship before you make demands.
2. Play is not wasted time if it helps to develop a relationship. I worked with a student who was blind and physically impaired. He could operate a switch with his head. He had major difficulty interacting with his peers and most peers didn’t think he could do anything. He in turn would let everything happen around him. I arranged voice output for him so that he could say a riddle and then give the answer. His mother reported back that this was really successful in his apartment complex. Children came up to him to interact with him for the first time. He operated the switch correctly to tell a riddle and then would find the location for the answer by auditory feedback and scanning. He loved it when they laughed at the answer. The children saw him as a playmate for the first time. We found out what motivated him and it opened up a new world to him.
3. Animals have taught me to look at communication from different perspectives. They need to have a reason to communicate for their benefit. If they want something, they will make all kinds of requests. There are all kinds of ways to get attention and communicate. The dogs hit the pantry door for treats or the door to get out. I didn’t have to teach them that, they learned on their own. One dog is very vocal about the schedule. He has dinner and treat time figured out and comes at the same time each day to tell me if I am late. He is very vocal about it and I swear he can say words. Even the rabbit would hop to the refrigerator when he saw the door open. He would put in a request for fresh parsley. He surprised us one night by getting out of his cage. He could have roamed the entire house but instead joined us in bed, right on top of my husband’s bare chest. I guess he got cold and was lonely. Circumstance can be set up, but sometimes it happens naturally. We need to be observant of those times and use them to our advantage.
4. Sometimes we get undesirable behaviors because needs are not met. Behavior can be communicating a want or need. It is important to look at the total picture and not just the behavior. If you have had a rabbit you know it can bite through power cords in 2 secs. He didn’t like us talking on the telephone if it took away from his petting time. He actually went under the bed and bit through the telephone cord while my husband was talking to my daughter. One of my dogs doesn’t like it when I watch TV. He makes a habit of grabbing fabric from my sewing supplies and running through the house, fabric flowing behind him. It gets me off the couch every time.
Similar things happen with our students when they are bored or frustrated and need a change. You may see biting, throwing, and hitting. It is important to look at the total picture before working on the behavior. What is the student really trying to communicate? If they have an alternative way to communicate will the behavior stop? We should always look at this before punishment.
5. Horses have taught me about differences in perception and reactions to environment. Horses tend to be sensitive to environmental changes and if it is too different you flee and sort it out later. I had an old guy that was pretty mellow under most circumstances. I remember when I went for a first ride down the road in the Spring. A neighbor had built a garden shed from the previous Fall. I really didn’t give it much thought because it had become a neighborhood fixture. However the horse hadn’t seen it there before. It startled him and made him do a quick stop. He didn’t want to move forward. It made him nervous because it shouldn’t be there. He gave it the evil eye, as I assured him it was OK. Eventually I convinced him it wouldn’t jump out and he moved forward. If I hadn’t been observant about the shed , I wouldn’t have known what the problem was. It is important to look at problems from other perspectives.
When students are nervous about something and want to flee or need to stop to sort it out, give them time to adjust. Sometimes we want things done fast when a little time is all that is needed. It doesn’t help to put the pressure on. Sometimes small steps are needed to move towards a goal.
6. You can teach good behaviors by repetition but you can also teach bad behaviors. Sometimes you teach things without even realizing it. If you stop at the same place while going in a circle more than two times with a horse it is likely to stop on his own on the third time. This happens with the lesson horses that get so use to the sequence and vocal commands of the instructor. The students aren’t really controlling the horses and it can give the impression that the students are really good riders.
7. If you are teaching students, make sure you are not teaching one response for everything. I often see this with yes and no responses which can be difficult to interpret because of the many forms questions take to get a Yes, and No answer. Students may not be able to understand the question. The yes may function more as an “I want.” Yes and No responses may seem to be an easy and versatile response for a communication board but may actually be too vague for a student to use effectively.
I would love to hear from my readers about your experiences with animals. Have they taught you a lot about communication?