Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tell me all your thoughts on dog

Which heading do you like better: "Experts grapple with how we got to where we are" or "Why people keep doing things that don't work."  I like both--the first is from a taxi TV news feed ribbon; the second,  from Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin.  I'm glad to know the experts are busy grappling away; I just hope I hear about it when they come up with some answers.  I guess I have to keep riding in taxis to find out if they do.   Now, as far as why people keep doing things that don't work, I'm constantly wondering that myself, so luckily I know where to go to find some answers, and it doesn't require cabfare.  

I’ve been semi-obsessed with Temple Grandin for several years.  She is a high-functioning austistic woman who has overcome great difficulties to become a highly respected authority on animal husbandry.   She is the source and inspiration of the title of Oliver Sacks' book An Anthropologist on Mars; that is how she described her feeling of mystification in the face of the  social niceties and nuances of human behavior.  This alienation does not extend to the animal world for Grandin; in fact, her autism enables her to reach a deep empathy with animals.   In her first book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, she describes how she constructed a squeeze box for herself, inspired by squeeze devices used to hold cattle for branding or medical procedures, as a way to calm herself.   In Thinking in Pictures and this latest, Animals Make Us Human, she goes into greater detail in discussing the similarities between her thought process and that of animals.  It is a nonverbal, visual, sense-based process--making her ability to get a Ph.D. and to write books even more amazing.   On the other hand, it is this closeness to animals that has made her career possible.  

What happens when the autistic child grows up?  How can an autistic adult function in society, let alone become a leader in her field and an author?  Grandin herself examines this question at length in Thinking in Pictures.  Grandin's success was hard won, and certainly not the norm for autistic adults, as evidenced by this story of a young autistic man.   How could a child who seems completely cut off from the world, have grown up to write any kind of book at all?  Despite her autism, Grandin's books that I have read have all been fascinating and readable, albeit with a few verbal quirks here and there.  She works with co-authors, who somehow manage to preserve her idiosyncratic voice.  It would be interesting to know more about how they work together on a book, for instance, how much structure and organization the co-author provides. 

In Animals Make Us Human, after an overview of animal neuroscience, Grandin takes the reader through how various species manifest their emotions in their behaviors.   The neuroscience breaks down into certain core or "blue-ribbon" emotions, such as seeking, fear, panic and rage.  It sounds strange for seeking to be called a feeling, but it makes perfect sense when you see, for example, any normal dog turned loose in a new place.  The first thing it will do is explore the surroundings thoroughly (as long as it feels safe); if it doesn't, then something must be is wrong with it.   It's the same with people, whether they're in a meadow or garden, at an open house, or in a new art gallery.   The feeling of wanting to explore and find out what is around you, either by moving through space, investigating intellectually or creatively--if you don't feel it, you are either physically or mentally ill, or too used to living in a bleak environment.  Therefore, an animal with high seeking needs that is kept in a small, unenriched enclosure all its life will naturally develop stereotypies--those disturbing behaviors such as swimming back and forth all day long in exactly the same pattern, like Gus the polar bear used to do at the Central Park Zoo.   

If animals make us human, they surely also make us humans who are unable to blog frequently.  Having gotten a puppy six weeks ago, my life has been once again overtaken by an extreme concern with the bodily processes of another being.  Luckily, this being will (I hope and assume) be potty-trained faster than my children were.  Her name is Oreo, and she is, of course, the most adorable creature that has ever existed.   In addition to being extremely cute, she is also quite intelligent; I am able to appreciate her intelligence much more after reading this book.  For instance, I learned that it is normal for puppies to have overly aggressive tendencies when very young, as a survival instinct that nevertheless does not phase the puppies' parents.  In this way, a puppy is like a toddler who might bite or kick another child, and live to grow up to be a solid citizen.   As the puppy grows up, it should learn how to be submissive in order to adapt to living with other dogs and keep the peace.  

Dogs who do not learn submissive behaviors as they mature display neoteny--the retention of juvenile features in an adult animal; I'm tempted to draw a parallel between these animals and our entire popular culture, which encourages grown-ups to read Harry Potter books and go to movies about superheroes and vampires.  Interestingly, large-breed dogs (the more "wolf-like," as Grandin calls them) usually learn submission easily and naturally.  It is the smaller breeds, especially toy breeds, that have difficulty, and therefore tend to be comically yappy and aggressive throughout their lives.  There is even something called Small Dog Syndrome, exemplified in the small, bossy dog that thinks it is the pack leader of its humans.

Oreo is a cockalier, i.e. a mix of Cavalier King Charles and Cocker Spaniel.   Being a combination of a toy breed and a medium-sized sporting/gundog breed sometimes noted for high-strung tendencies, it was possible that she could have had trouble with submission.  We are extremely lucky that she is very submissive with other dogs and not at all yappy.  In fact, she rarely barks and then only in play.  She engages in appropriate play with other puppies, such as tussling, chasing, mouthing, maybe occasionally nipping.  She tries to show dominance only toward her toys (or things she deems to be toys, but are actually valuable household objects) or once in a while a very small dog or one of her human “brothers.”  She sits when she sees other dogs, and waits for them to approach or show interest.  Larger puppies and adult dogs are sometimes overly aggressive towards her in the dog run, no matter how many times she rolls over and shows her belly to them; I assume those dogs did not get the memo about what submission means and need to keep asserting their dominance over and over again.  I think some of this behavior is due to the unnatural way dogs live in our society.   Grandin reminisces about how her childhood dog was able to run around outside with other neighborhood dogs and just be a dog.  Especially in cities, today dogs are forced to stay in a juvenile state in some ways: Always leashed, except in small, sterile dog runs, where owners hover over them.   The trade-off is a long, comfortable life.

After discussing the emotional needs of dogs, Grandin goes into what she means by animals making us human, with respect to dogs.  Both species have benefited by the domestication of dogs by humans: humans through the aid of dogs in hunting and protection, and dogs through the extra care and shelter given by the humans.  Thus the first people to successfully domesticate dogs (well, wolves to begin with) were more likely to survive than people who did not have such success.  The wolves, although they gradually lost their identity as such, gained longevity and reproductive advantages for themselves and their progeny.  Biologically, caring for animals can increase the production in humans of oxytocin (not to be confused wtih oxycontin), the hormone familiar to mothers who have breastfed a baby--it causes milk to "let down."  Oxytocin increases feelings of calm, relaxation, even confidence.  In fact, there is a book on the effects of oxytocin in humans as a result of the human-animal bond.  So evolutionarily and biologically, having animals around has beneficial repercussions for humans, as well as animals, except that the animals lose their wildness.

After dogs, Grandin goes through several other species--cats, horses, cows, pigs, poultry--and also discusses wildlife and zoos, all with the question in mind of what do animals need to have a good life.  Sounds a little boring, even for a dyed-in-the-wool animal lover, and in truth it gets a little repetitive, but since her expertise is in the field of livestock husbandry, the moral crux of the book starts to become clear in the section on cattle.  In a section with the heading “Why People Keep Doing Things that Don’t Work,” Grandin writes, “Another obstacle [to changing bad habits, i.e. mistreatment of cattle] is that to be a good stockperson you have to recognize that an animal is a conscious being that has feeling, and some people don’t want to think of animals that way.”  Simple, right?  Even people who originally listen to her, because she is working within their system instead of attacking it from without like PETA, and try to adopt her methods, eventually go back to their old ways.  She goes on to write that “One of the biggest frustrations in my career has been that I’d do an installation at a plant and train the workers and get the handling real super-good, then I’d come back a year later and find they’d reverted to using the electric prod and screaming at the cattle.” 

For someone who described herself a feeling like an anthropologist on Mars when observing human behavior, what does it mean to title a book “Animals Make Us Human”?  To her, what does “human” mean?  She struggles with this question of why people keep doing things that don’t work precisely because she is at that slight remove—she is practical above all else, and it just doesn’t make sense to her, and nor should it, that once shown the right way, people would not stick to it.  Why do something so obviously wrong and impractical as go back to the bad, old ways of doing things?  That is what makes us human—that we do not always do what makes sense.  What enables Grandin to feel such great empathy with animals—whatever that quality is, it is inseparable from her autism—makes her eminently sensible, thereby making it difficult for her to understand others who are not so sensible.  After expressing her frustration with this human imperfection, Grandin gathers her forces and applies what she knows about animals to people.  She delineates the personality traits that are desirable in stockpeople, and describes how to manage the emotions of the people handling livestock through auditing and incentives.  Humans are animals, too, after all.

So the title of the book is on the one hand a concession to animal lovers, just like the picture of the gorgeous golden retriever on the cover.  On the other hand, it expresses a hope.  If we get to know animals better through studying them and caring for them, they will indeed make us better people.  Unfortunately, we are human to begin with, which makes us very slow to improve.  One episode of Animal Rescue, or a viewing of a PETA video surreptitiously made at a chicken farm, should be enough proof that there are plenty of humans who have not been improved by contact with animals.  In fact, some of us seem to seek out animals in order to inflict cruelty on defenseless beings.  It would be nice if some day we can help animals as much as they help us (and feed us).   We just have to cultivate the same kind of empathy that Grandin naturally feels, and they will pay us back in kind.  Besides everything else they already do for us, animals also work as therapists (or human whisperers).  One of my favorite examples is the Read with Mudge program in the New York Public Library system: Kids who are having trouble with reading get to read aloud to a dog, who of course listens with no judgment.  The children get practice reading with no pressure; I hope at least the dogs enjoy the  stories.


  1. I have only seen Grandin on television, but was quite impressed with her. I would say that merits reading at least one of her book, which I must do.

    I read, some years ago, a book about dog behavior, the title of which escapes me. You touch upon so many things that were outlined in the book in terms of dog society as it is to dogs. The author had a few dogs, one of which was half wolf. His observations of their relationships to one another and to him were insightful and at times, entertaining.

    As a former (hopefully future) dog owner, I have witnessed many of the dog behaviors you write about. We were of the guilty sum of New Yorker's who allowed our dog off-leash everywhere. He was such a well behaved dog; waiting patiently outside the store (no leash), avoiding small yappy dogs on the street, stopping at corners without our having to say so, the list goes on. He is sorely missed and always loved. He was that one in a million dog you get once a lifetime.

    On yappy, small dog types; kill 'em. Ok, I'm being extreme. I have always said they have Napoleonic complexes. You could certainly see parallels to humans on this front.

    As to why humans keep doing things that don't work, my guess, and perhaps it's obvious, we don't adapt to change well. We are creatures of comfort and familiarity, we know what we like and we like what we know. Stepping outside our "box" is tough, and impossible for some; it's frightening. My triathlon training has taught me this in spades. I am still a person resistant to change in any form, but I keep pushing myself outside my comfort zone.

    Now, if I could only get someone to scratch my belly when I roll over.

  2. There was so much more about dog behavior in this book that I could have written about, but I had to draw the line somewhere. For instance, wolves don't really live in packs that much. They are usually in family groups. They form packs if they have experienced some kind of human intervention.

    I am so glad we did not end up with a yappy little dog. I've met enough of them out in the neighborhood since we got Oreo. Shocking behavior!

    Oreo likes to have her belly rubbed first thing when I open her crate in the morning to take her out. She won't get up unless I do it. She has definitely made me step outside of my box!

  3. Neoteny---permanent adolescence: Cyril Connolly



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New York, NY, United States
Overeducated mom, addled by constant interruptions due to demands of family and dog, trying to read books and write coherent sentences about them. Luckily, yoga keeps me centered. Sharing my love of yoga through teaching helps make sense of it all. I have a yoga blog at Since 2015, it has been my pleasure to serve as a reader for Epiphany, a literary journal publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art; on Twitter as @epiphanymag.


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