Karen B. London
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Understanding Dogs
Unexpected help with cultural adjustment
My new Costa Rican dog buddy, Colita.

I am so grateful for the help a couple of dogs recently gave me in the middle of a period of cultural adjustment. This week, my family traveled to Costa Rica, where we will spend the next four months. I love this country, having spent close to a year here over the course of five previous trips. I speak Spanish, but it does not feel at all like using my native language of English, which is effortless and easy. (Hopefully no editors who have ever worked with me will be surprised to read that I consider myself so proficient in English, but that’s a whole different issue.) After 36 hours of speaking Spanish and translating for my husband and kids who are learning Spanish but remain less comfortable with the language, I was exhausted.

We were outside speaking with our neighbor Eduardo when I realized my bilingual brain needed a break. Just then, a couple of dogs from the neighborhood started to play together, and we all paused to watch them. They are small dogs of about 15 pounds, very peppy and extremely playful. They were leaping on one another, playing chase, taking turns in their roles, pausing frequently, performing plenty of play bows and using other play signals, all while maintaining a low and constant level of arousal. It was the kind of beautifully appropriate play session that anyone who has ever taught a puppy class would be ecstatic to observe.

When the dogs came over to me, I was able to interact with them just as I do with dogs anywhere. They responded to the way my body leaned, the tone of my voice, my posture, my energy level, and the direction I moved. The familiarity and lack of uncertainty were exhilarating. I always enjoy meeting friendly new dogs, but in this case, there was an extra perk. I understood what was going on and it was easy to observe and react appropriately. My brain was not translating, and I was not guessing or using context to fill in gaps. I was simply interacting with some new friends.

I’m fond of saying that I understand dogs, but that “canine” is definitely not my first language, which simply means that I’m aware that only dogs can understand dogs as native speakers. And yet, in that moment, I felt more comfortable with the ease of communication with canines than with people in a language other than English. It was such a joy to be with dogs, with whom I am so comfortable and so familiar. It was a surprising gift that these dogs gave to me as I adjust to life in a foreign country. I often find that when I am tired, I am only truly able to converse with ease in my native language, but dog “language” is apparently an exception. Hallelujah for that!

Sometimes we know when dogs will help us feel better and we even expect it: When we are heartbroken but we know that they still love us. When we have a bad day at work and we get to come home to them. When we head out to walk them because it’s the right thing to do, but being out does us every bit as much good. Yet the unexpected times that dogs give us a little lift are some of the best simply because they blindside us. How have dogs unexpectedly helped make you feel better?


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by Jennifer Hahn | August 17 2013 |

I speak in dog and was taught by my first teachers; Tally and Tupence.
A giant female fawn "Great dane" & a grey/black cairn terrier.
I was born in England country side-by the sea. In Fakenhiem -North creek England countryside.
I learned from my dogs and 6 cats how to speak with my body movements, tone of voice and touching-stroking ability. I was a copycat kid with the animals so they saw me as their own.
My 4 sisters did not take to our animals like I did. I loved to be with the animals because I understood their language. I am a straight arrow person. Animals have rituals but they all lead to honest behavior.
Play is the most important use of energy with dogs cats and people.
We learn to ....dance life. It causes our brains-bodies to survive- and live in harmony. Beyond the body health -the emotional and stress relief is beyond medical science drugs.
My dog's who are both now in doggy heaven-taught me to be 'up & out", use safe cleaners , stand up for their air space (no smokers allowed), and to moderate my tension-voice -and stress. A healthy dog house is a healthy human house!!!
Our best days always spent walking-running for fun and playing each day in Central park at dawn and at sunset. Without them I would have died.

Submitted by Katherine | August 19 2013 |

Hi Karen,

What a small world....i was researching k9 police dog vests and came across an article you wrote in 2011. I then found your blog and read you are getting settled in Costa Rica.

We are doing ok. It has been a tough go since Rudy went to woofie heaven. He had such a presence and I miss him talking to us. Kooper seems more relaxed and playful. He has 'looked' for him several times and I think Zannie has looked around a bit as well.

Thank you again for your help with our difficult decision.

Submitted by Karen B. London | August 21 2013 |


I felt a connection with Rudy right away and miss him, too. His social, talkative ways were incredibly endearing. I know how tough a decision it was for you, and wish you peace and comfort as you grieve. I hope it helps to see Kooper more relaxed and playful. Stay in touch.


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