The Rhetoric of Talking to Dogs

It is well known that conversation is considered a form of rhetoric. When we speak to another person, we are articulating our views in a way that seeks to persuade or, more generally, communicate in some way. That is to say, there is a goal we’re attempting to achieve in our conversation. But what about our interactions with dogs? If we assume that our pets don’t comprehend much of human speech, then it’s hard to determine what we can convey to them through talking. Similarly, what can they convey to us through their actions?

However, it is not just the words we say that make an impact on a listener. We can also implement rhetoric through our actions and tones. The tone in which we speak to a dog can communicate several different things: an angry tone can convey that he has done something wrong, while a happy tone can mean the opposite. The movements and actions we use, for example throwing a ball or whistling, can convey meaning. Through these forms of communication, we can make rhetorical appeals to animals to persuade them. Consider how we can convince dogs to trust us: if we put a hand out for the dog to smell before petting it, we are establishing our ethos as a safe person by communicating that we are not a threat.

Now, let’s examine the potential rhetorical strategies dogs use to communicate and persuade humans. When we teach dogs tricks like sitting and rolling over, we usually reward them with treats when they successfully complete the task. Through this process, they have learned that their owners (their main audience) respond well to tricks. As a result, the next time they see their owners with something they want, they usually will perform the trick as a means of persuasion to get the treat. To take another example, when dogs whine, they are usually communicating that they want something or that they are uncomfortable in their current situation.

As I researched this topic, I found that there are mixed opinions on this matter. Some people believe that rhetoric can only be used by humans. Others believe that in some cases, humans and animals are able to communicate well enough to use rhetorical skills with each other. In my opinion, though human-animal interaction could be seen as less complex than a human-human interaction, it nonetheless seems to succeed at establishing meaning between the two parties and can work to create an argument.

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