I just read a very interesting article about Daniel, the emotional support duck.  Daniel, resplendent in his red shoes and diaper, accompanied Carla Fitzgerald on a recent commercial flight, much to the delight and amusement of the flight crew and passengers.  Daniel even received a certificate for his "first flight," since Indian Runner ducks are actually flightless.  This article is worth checking out, if only to see a picture of Daniel the Duck's graceful silhouette as he gazes out of the airplane window mid-flight.  If you'd like to see Indian Runner ducks in action, here is a short video of 800 Indian Runner Dogs reporting for duty at a vineyard. 

Carla Fitzgerald was a horse-and-carriage driver in Milwaukee back in 2012 when she adopted Daniel just 2 days after he hatched.  Her career ended abruptly less than a year later, when a motorist on a cell phone smashed into the back of her carriage.  She was injured so badly that she was immobilized for months and had to re-learn how to walk.  While struggling with physical pain or PTSD, Daniel seemed to “know” when Carla was becoming upset and would lie on top of her, giving her duck kisses.  Quite a feat for a lipless creature!  Carla also reported that if a panic attack seemed to be brewing, Daniel would try to climb up on her, which would force her to lie down.

Communication:  Much of the article focuses on how Daniel clearly communicates with Carla in their daily life together.  When his diaper needs changing, he walks to the changing table.  When he wants food, he goes over to the fridge or his food bowl.  He loves playing with electronic toys that make noises when he pushes a button and becomes very upset when a battery dies and the toy doesn’t work.  According to the article, “He stomps his feet, raises his hackles, and huffs and he gives you stink-eye.  And if you don’t change those batteries right now, he gets snippy.”

Social and socialized: One of the things I find most interesting about this article is the amount of space devoted to how Daniel responds to Carla’s emotions and how he communicates his wants and needs to her.  Daniel is a member of a social, domesticated species and was socialized with human beings since hatching.  Living in close association with Carla from that early age allowed him to imprint on and bond with Carla, and to become "fluent" in understanding human behavior.

It's not surprising that Daniel’s behavior toward Carla changed after her accident.  Clearly Carla’s behavior changed significantly and Daniel was able to respond effectively.  When he could discern she was becoming upset, he engaged in behaviors he learned would calm her.  Similar behavior is seen in some dogs and cats when they witness a family member crying or in distress.  Many will run over to the distressed person and seek contact.  Dogs will often whine, nudge, or lick the distressed person.  Cats may approach, sniff, and rub the individual.

What do you want?  It's also not surprising how clearly Daniel communicates his needs to Carla.  For those of us with dogs, we know that our dogs will let us know they have to go out by walking to the door, or looking up at us and whining, or doing whatever they have discovered is elicits the desired behavior.  The same thing occurs when they need food.  My dog will scratch vigorously and loudly at his food bowls if they are in a condition he finds unacceptable.  As far as cats go, they can be extremely vocal in communicating their desires at breakfast and dinnertime.  I have also heard of cats, who, if offered a food they don’t like, will go through the motions of covering it, like it is feces in their litter box!  

Duck tantrum: What about Daniel’s behavior when he is frustrated, e.g. when his toys are not working because the batteries have died?  I have not had the pleasure of observing a flock of Indian Runner ducks but my guess is if one duck does something that annoys or frustrates another duck, we would likely see foot stomping, fluffed feathers, huffing, and the “stink eye.”  Frankly, if we take away the feather fluffing, it sounds spookily like the way a toddler might act if the batteries ran out of HER toys, minus the crying.  Interesting, male Indian Runner ducks cannot quack, like the females can, and only can emit a hoarse “whisper.”  In the article, Carla praises Daniel for being such a quiet and obedient duck.  She can claim responsibility for the "obedient" part, but we have to give the nod to biology for him staying so quiet!

Don't stop!  I recently saw an amusing video of a dog named Taco who would hook his petsitter's arm with his paw and pull it back over to touch him whenever she tried to stop petting him.  I had to laugh because I experience a similar thing when I am stretched out on the couch with my African Grey Parrot.  She will lower her head—the classic invitation to have her head petted—and if I don’t pet her, she will gently pick up one of my fingers in her beak and try to thrust her head under my finger before it drops back down.  It gets so bad I have to hide my hands under my body to avoid having my fingers plucked like a banjo!

The point: Animals, when awake and conscious, are always communicating how they feel.  Even if they are motionless, we can observe their location and assess their body language.  Are they loose and floppy, with relaxed facial muscles, or are they stiff and erect, with eyes wide open and facial muscles drawn back?  Do they choose to hang out near a certain person or other household pet, or do they scram when that family member enters the room?  I sometimes have clients talk about using "animal communicators."  I believe we don't really need such a thing.  If we simply  learn how to interpret our pets behavior and then observe them, WE can learn a lot about what they are saying.  So, take some time to learn what your pet is telling you and what you, wittingly or unwittingly, are communicating to your pet!  Everyone will be better off for it.

Excellent resources include Zoom Room Guide to Dog Body Language Understanding Cat Language, and Dr. Sophia Yin's book, How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves.