Nika and The Hands

by | May 2, 2023

puppy holding a finger


Clamp and shred. I’d never known an 8-week-old try to strip the skin off fingers in quite such a determined way. And it bloomin’ well hurt. 

Her first planned learning session here was going to be that hands predict rewards – no conditions, but there would be ample passive learning about the meaning of different gestures as a closed hand, when approached, would open to deliver food.


Hands became objects of curiosity rather than teething toys: followed, sniffed, and even licked, and once noticed they communicated far more than I intended them too.

An accidental brush of a finger against the coat hanging in the hall would result in the tapping toes that communicated excitement at a potential outing.

A casual hand, dangling as an elbow propped, somehow became a summoning gesture for head-stroking opportunities.

These hands were being studied, and she was determined to pass with distinction.

A touch of the top of my laptop screen sent her to the hallway in the hopes of imminent adventures.



Her attentiveness starkly contrasted with what I took for granted: these useful appendages dangling from the ends of my arms that could communicate so much to a dog who was watching and learning.

Fastening a collar on. Lifting her into the car. Lifting her out of the car. Preventing access to some form of mischief that had bypassed management strategies.

Constantly assessing and evaluating, filtering what is relevant to her from what is not, the more she showed understanding of my hands the more I appreciated how forgiving her species for our inconsistency and unpredictability, how attentive in their efforts to understand us.


These hands that she found so interesting could do so many things: some favourable, others not so much. Eager for tactile contact, those sessions allowed interspersal of handling of feet, ears, mouth, face. Planned learning session allowed for hands to be introduced at the point of reward. And she communicated with them too, shrugging off a hand that had remained for too long in one spot, nudging a hand that had gone still to ask it to resume stroking the back of her head.


And so, just as my hands learned to communicate with her, she learned to communicate with them: placing a toy into them, unsolicited, to see if another toy were forthcoming; nudging the hand holding the spoon to request a taste of breakfast; wriggling her way under them at night so that they rested just where she found comfort. 

In her attentiveness to hands, we worked out a language with them: a sweeping gesture, palm out, as an indication to follow it; fingers wriggling in the air, palms facing her, as an offer of touch; the flat of my palm towards her averting movement towards me.


Her engineering of my learning, her caution to be more thoughtful about my own movement, served as an important reminder of the disjunction between our two species and the fruitful results of sincere efforts at more consistent communication. Not only has she learned what’s relevant to her and how, but has also filtered out when those hands are talking in a way that can be ignored because they’re not saying anything important.

You and everyone else, Nika!

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