Communicating with Animal Teachers

Animal Guides and the Communications Barrier

One of the common questions I get asked in my practices when dealing with animal teachers, is how to communicate with an animal that doesn’t ‘talk’ in an obvious or direct way? Animals of course don’t ‘talk’ in our spoken language in ‘real life’, and some animals continue this pattern in our visualisations. It can be frustrating, especially for beginners who are expecting a clear message along the lines of; ‘you are on the right path,’ and instead might get a wolf that calmly stares them down before marking its territory and wandering off. Sometimes these sorts of messages are difficult to understand, it’s not in our spoken language, it’s not ‘talking’ to us in a way that we’re used to.

Yet communication is occurring, even if we’re not aware of it! The very presence of the animal in our visualisation and its non-verbal communication is its a way of speaking, even teaching us, and we can understand this language through research and interaction. For those of us who have pets, it becomes pretty obvious when an animal companion wants attention, when they want to be left alone, or when they want food!

Learning how an animal communicates via its body language, vocalisations and other methods (such as echolocation) enables us to develop a more wholistic understanding of animals both in the real world and in the unseen worlds, and also enables us to better understand nature.

Animals, including humans, don’t always communicate clearly to each other. In the case of humans there can be many reasons for this, the most obvious being language and cultural barriers. One the most obvious differences between our ability to communicate with animals, and understand their communications with us, are similar language (and cultural) barriers. We may not understand their vocalisations and body language, and we may not understand what their behaviours mean.

There is not enough time or space to talk about the body language of all animals, or even most animals, so I will use a few examples as a hopeful launching pad for you to start your own research. This is where researching your animal comes in handy, as it’s through this research we come to understand what it means when an animal communicates with us in a certain way.

Sometimes our own assumptions get in the way; many people assume that birds sing to us to inspire us, or for some other kind-hearted reason. While birdsong may be inspiring, birds – particularly song birds – usually sing to aggressively defend their territory, and to let other birds know; ‘hey, this is my patch, stay away!’ If you are lucky enough to hear birdsong regularly in your area, you are lucky enough to hear the territorial calls of many birds telling each other to stay away! Alternatively a bird may be singing some version of ‘I’m super hot and really turned on! Mate with me!’ Birds of course use calls for many different reasons – such as courtship, to frighten away predators and of course to keep close contact with their offspring.

Now lets look at the domestic dog. If a stray dog in real life makes eye contact with you, refuses to look away, and isn’t wagging his tail, it’s probably a good idea to look away and leave. If he starts growling, it’s a pretty clear ‘I don’t like you and I might attack you to get this message across’ signal. This is aggressive behaviour on behalf of the dog which may be motivated by a variety of reasons, including fear and uncertainty. Likewise if you meet a stray dog and it is constantly wagging its tail, lowering its head, avoiding eye-contact and even rolling onto its back to show you its belly, it is showing a pacifying behaviour. The belly of a dog is a vulnerable area. It is similar to showing our own vulnerable body parts to a complete stranger to appease them. When a pet dog does this, we tend to think it is cute, and sometimes it is cute and a bonding behaviour! But sometimes it is also about insecurity and appeasement.

Even fish have strong visual communication skills. Some – like the octopus and certain species of fish – can actually change their colours not only depending on their environment, but also depending on their mood. Whether they are aggressively flashing red to deter a predator or a rival, or whether they are trying to blend into their environment.

Bettas (fighting fish) bred for the pet trade, often flare their gills and tails upon seeing their owners. Owners often interpret this as the betta saying ‘hello.’ They couldn’t be further from the truth. Pet trade bettas are extraordinarily aggressive creatures, they flare their gills and fins upon greeting us large humans as a way of saying ‘get away from me, this is my territory.’ It is a way of making themselves appear bigger and scarier, similar to the way a cat will fluff up and rise onto its toes to make itself seem bigger to rivals and predators. It is not the friendly greeting that we assume, but an aggressive message. This doesn’t mean bettas won’t greet you, but it does mean you might need to learn what that’s going to look like instead of making assumptions.

Animals will sometimes communicate with us non-verbally, or using their own vocalisations, in our visualisations, even if we don’t know what it means! If you are one of those people who have animals that almost never talk to you in visualisation, it is a wonderful opportunity to pay attention to its body language and vocalisations as alternative methods of communication. In a visualisation, note the following:

1. Is the animal making eye contact with you or not? Is it facing you, facing away from you, or does it not seem to be aware of your presence at all?

2. What is the animal doing? Is it sitting or standing or lying down (or doing something else entirely)? Does it appear relaxed? Are they tense?

3. Is the animal acting ‘normally’ for its species, and would you know what ‘normally’ entails? If not, research!

4. Is the animal deliberately interacting with you in any way? Is it bringing you something? Is it taking something away from you? (such as food, clothing etc.) Is it growling or acting aggressively towards you? If you’re not sure, research the animal and find out of its behaviour matches its natural behaviours in the wild. This can be a good way to learn how to interpret unusual behaviours.

5. What vocalisations is it making? Do you know what they mean?

6. How do you feel upon seeing the animal? Sometimes the instinctive feelings it raises within us are as much a part of the lesson as what we can see, hear and touch. For example; if we have an animal guide that nearly always brings us joy, and then one day we feel strong fear around it, what is different to evoke that fear?

For those people that have animal teachers that don’t ‘talk’ to them (and even for people who do), take the time to research one of your guides on the internet and in books, and even at the zoo or a wildlife centre if you can get such an opportunity. Learn about its bodily behaviours, its vocalisations and its interactions with its natural and unnatural ecosystems. Write down the information you gather on the computer, in a diary or a journal, or on a piece of paper about your animal. If you want, you can even see if you can use or adapt any of its behaviours successfully in your own life. Does it help for example, to try and be more physically assertive and strong in your stance when you want something? Does it help to sometimes communicate deliberately with your body, as much as with your voice? Look at how your animal guide communicates and see if you can learn something from its less obvious methods of communication.

There are barriers between us and fellow humans, and barriers between us and animals, both the ‘real life’ ones, and the ones we meet in visualisation and while journeying. These barriers are not negative or unwelcome, but instead they are opportunities to learn more about each other, the creatures that contact us, and an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and our world in the process.