“The Aboriginies have a saying: ‘Dogs make us human.’”This quote may sound like a romantic cliché, but it is meant in all scientific seriousness. This book by Temple Grandin, who has been called “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow”, isn’t merely a collection of amusing anecdotes from Grandin’s fascinating life with autism and with animals. Each story convincingly illustrates her theory that people with autism think more like animals, than “normal” people do. Together these stories and ideas form a handbook of how to understand and deal with animal behaviour, that is not only convincing, but also very entertaining to read. When you get to the “Behaviour and Training Troubleshooting Guide” at the very end of the book, a remarkably thorough yet concise summary of the basics of ethology, you realize what a wealth of knowledge Grandin possesses and has just imparted in the most delightful way.
Some of my favourite bits:
“Unfortunately, when it comes to dealing with animals, all normal human beings are too abstractified, even the people who are hands-on. That’s because people aren’t just abstract in their thinking, they’re abstract in their seeing and hearing.”Normal humans hold an abstract idea of the world, which results in “inattentional blindness” - they see the world as the expect to see it, filtering out unimportant or unexpected detail.
“When an animal or an autistic person is seeing the real world instead of his idea of the real world it means he’s seeing detail. This is the single most important thing to know about the way animals perceive the world: animals see details people don’t see.”
So much failure to understand and thus to modify animal behaviour comes from the fact that we just don’t see (or hear, or smell, or feel) what they are seeing. Consequently we have no, or even the wrong, idea of the motivation for the behaviour. Grandin’s argument that animals, like autistic people, are far more sensitive to details, such as changes in the environment, bright lights and stange noises, makes sense. Even just looking at the world from the same angle as my dogs, and keeping in mind that their sense of colour, contrast and perspective is different, makes it clear why, for example, those stairs in our house seem so scary to them – they don’t look like steps, that is, things that would support one’s feet, but as some strange slope, and as a precipice from above!
Grandin allows that animals do have feelings, which, although not the same, are connected to basic core emotions that humans also experience, such as rage, fear, social attachment and play. One of these core animal and human emotions, according to Grandin, is not easily described in only one word: curiosity/interest/anticipation. Recent research indicates that this emotion is seated in a part of the brain separate from the reward and pleasure centre:
“This part of the brain starts firing when the animal sees a sign that food might me nearby, but stops firing when the animal sees the actual food itself. The SEEKING [capitalised term coined by Jaak Panksepp] circuit fires during the search for food, not during the final locating or eating of the food. It’s the search that feels so good.”
Very compelling stuff when you have two greyhounds that never catch anything but nevertheless throw themselves into the chase with abandon. Grandin draws parallels with human addictive behaviours, and I think one needs to bear this idea in mind when trying to deal with certain behaviours – removing the apparent “reward”, or even offering an alternative reward, will have little effect – it is the chase that is the point here. And we can all identify with that. Indeed, curiosity and exploration bring much pleasure to us human as well as our animals. Expecting your dogs not to be curious or not engage in some form of exploratory and predatory behaviour is at best going to lead to disappointment and at worst to behavioural disasters. Providing a safe space for them to explore is imperative.
There are also some interesting passages relating to the much discussed idea of dominance in Grandin’s book. Grandin clearly has no interest in joining either camp regarding canine behaviour and training, and she makes some very interesting points. On the one hand, she clearly states that dominance and hierarchy plays a central role in predator animals:
“All animals who live in groups – and this is most animals – form dominance hierarchies. Animals are not democratic and there is always an alpha animal, and often a beta animal, too. […] Dog owners must establish themselves as the alpha, period. This is the one rule you must not ignore.”However, establishing yourself as the alpha to your dog does not mean breaking it into submission for Grandin. She discourages the alpha roll, but encourages owners to make their dogs assume the sumbmissive roll voluntarily through play and training.
Indeed, playing with your dog does not mean giving up alpha status, argues Grandin. Higher ranking dogs play with lower ranking ones frequently, and themselves assume the submissive position at times. Play strengthens social bonds, and teaches correct social behaviour. A good example is the game of tug-of-war, often discouraged by trainers, on the basis that it inspires dominance in dogs. Grandin recounts a study into how the game affects behaviour:
“The researchers had people either win or lose a series of tug-of-war games with retrievers, and then watched how the dogs behaved. The losers were more obedient after playing the game – but so where the winners. All the dogs were more obedient after playing tug-of-war with humans! And none of the dogs suddenly got more dominant […] One study doesn’t prove anything, but I think it is probably both safe and fun to play tug-of-war with your dog, and it might even be good for him. Just remember one thing: the study also found that the dogs who lost every time were a lot less interested in playing any more tug-of-war. Apparently a dog doesn’t like losing all the time any more than a person does.”
In my experience dogs whose owners engage positively with them, whether by walkies or games or cuddles, are more likely to attentive and thus obedient. I have said it before: you have to give your dog a reason to want to be your friend, let alone to listen to your command. Not only are dogs social animals and need interaction, but humans and dogs have a special relationship as companion species. In fact, it appears that part of our evolutionary make-up is shaped by our interaction as species.
“Going over all the evidence, a group of Australian anthropologists believes that during all those years when early humans were associating with wolves they learned to act and think like wolves. Wolves hunted in groups; humans didn’t. Wolves had loyal same-sex and nonkin friendships; humans probably didn’t, judging by the lack of same-sex and nonkin friendships in every other primate species today. (The main relationship for chimpanzees is parent-child). Wolves were highly territorial; humans probably weren’t – again judging by how nonterritorial all other primates are today.
By the time these early people became truly modern, they had learned to do all these wolfie things. When you think about how different we are form other primates, we see how doglike we are.”
This may sound like another romanticization of the dog-human relationship, but Grandin points to biological evidence of brain evolution. All domesticated animal species brains shrunk compared to their wild ancestors, most likely because many functions such as alertness for predators and searching for food were no longer necessary. Dog brains shrank too, compared to wolf ones. However, so did human brains, just at the time when evidence of burial with dogs is seen, around 10,000 years ago. As Grandin says, what is interesting is which part of the brain shrank in dogs and people:
“In all of the domestic animals the forebrain, which holds the frontal lobes, and the corpus callosum, which is the connecting tissue between the two sides of the brain, shrank. But in humans it was the midbrain, which handles emotions and sensory data, and the olfactory bulbs, which handle smell, which got smaller […] Dog brains and human brains specialized: humans took over the planning and organizing tasks, and dogs took over the sensory tasks. Dogs and people coevolved and became even better partners, allies and friends.”
|Mesolithic Natufian (in present Israel)|
burial with puppy, ca. 10,000 BC.
To my mind our companionship with dogs is crucial to remember. They are not toys, ornaments or status symbols, not there just for your company, for your entertainment, or for the kids. Like Donna Haraway suggests in her The Companion Species Manifesto, which also puts forward the theory of canine-human co-evolution, we are in a relationship of “reciprocal possession” with dogs, and this relationship demands two-way respect. For a happy and harmonious relationship with our dogs we need not just to understand their behaviour but to interact with them, as we both evolved to work and play – indeed live – together. If you’re not prepared to give them that, don’t get a dog.