They say dogs understand a good deal more of the words we speak than we realize. Our intrepid seven-pound poodle Ben understands a lot.
For example, if we don’t want him to know we’re traveling in a few days, we have to watch our language carefully and not use the words “suitcase,” “pack,” “airport,” or other incendiary terms. Not even in casual conversation. If we do, he knows it, and suddenly we have an anxious dog on our hands.
(He doesn’t love it when we leave and wishes we would just stay home. Preferably forever.)
Of all the hundreds of words of ours that he knows, there is one he not only understands but has learned to speak clearly himself. Here’s how it works:
Ben comes downstairs to my lower-floor office, stops in front of my desk, and gives me the Look. The Look says, “I am communicating something right now, and I need you to get what it is.”
“Hey, Ben,” I say. “What’s up. Do you need to pee?” The Look continues. “Want to go for a walk?” No response. “Mom getting ready to go out to the store?” He is patient. The Look continues. “You hungry?”
At that he immediately drops the Look, takes a careful step backwards, then emphatically nods his head with a big shake, like a horse whinnying, and makes a big “Schnufff!!”
He only says this when I get the answer exactly right. Anything else, even something close-but-no-cigar, and I just get the Look. The Schnuff!! only happens when he is saying, “Exactly! Precisely! You got it on the nose!”
So smart, that dog. And he long ago identified what may be our favorite word:
This is no accident. Ana and I have cultivated the art of yes in our relationship and everyday lives. We are constantly on the lookout for ways of saying yes to each other.
John Gottman, the renowned marriage researcher, spent more than four decades observing couples and how they interact. Those couples whose relationships not only survive but also flourish, he found, are those that exhibit a positivity-to-negativity ratio in their everyday interactions of 5:1 or more.
In other words, the successful couples are those who make at least five comments of praise, appreciation, love, or other positive expression to each other for every one critical or complaining statement.
They say “yes” at least five times more often than they say “no.”
I’m not talking about being in denial. It’s not about papering over our feelings when we’re sad, or grumpy, or upset. But we love to find ways to say and show how much we love this world we’re in, this day we’re in, and that we’re doing so with each other. Maybe it’s that we’ve both seen enough heartbreak and difficult times that something as simple as a beautiful sky or delicious meal makes us feel like we live in paradise. Maybe it’s just part of being alive a few more decades.
We’ve found we appreciate little things as much as big things, maybe even more so. And take every opportunity to say so.
Not long ago, I was standing in the kitchen with Ana, just after we’d made a meal. In the moment, I was overwhelmed by just how lovely she truly is, and I had to say something about it.
I stopped her in the middle of the kitchen and looked at her.
“Sweetheart,” I said, “I just have to tell you, you – are – so – beautiful!”
And before she could say a word back we suddenly heard a noise, coming from the direction of our feet.
It went, SCHNUFFF!!