For those who do not speak the same language, verbal communication is out of the question. Pets understand us and communicate to us through behaviour. We call it body language.
When a pet performs a behaviour, it may be doing it out of innate requirement such as feeding or grooming or scratching. But sometimes they are trying to tell us something. This may be a species specific communication such as a growl from a dog to warn someone to go away (unfortunately too many people have misunderstood this cross-species communication and been unnecessarily bitten), or a learned communication because a pet has learned that an owner will respond in a specific way if that behaviour is performed.
Some behaviours may be learned or reactive in response to particular triggers. Reactive responses and some learned coping responses can be due to heightened emotional responses.
Animals do have emotions. In fact the part of the brain responsible for emotions has a more similar level of development in animals to humans than the rational part of the brain that is very well developed in humans. So when an animal experiences a heightened state of fear that affects its behaviour in a particular situation, it needs to behave in a way that helps it cope. If we pet owners do not “listen” to the animal seeking help, we could very well be doing our our pet a disservice and we may even be negligent towards the welfare of our pet. If, as a pet owner, our frustration with the behaviour grows and we punish it, we are trying to force our pet to abandon a coping mechanism, which is likely to be seriously detrimental to his/her welfare.
If behaviour problems are left untreated or are treated inappropriately, the emotional response can progress to become much worse for the animal. Pets can become more fearful of places, objects, weather or people for which they previously had no or little concern. This can progress to become pervasive anxiety and affect many facets of a pet’s life.
It is important that we do not only look towards our own frustrations when a pet behaves undesirably, but try to understand the behaviour for what it is: a call for help from a pet to anyone who may “listen”.