Sunday, February 22, 2009

From My Bookshelf

Whenever life presents itself with something I don’t understand, I often retreat into books. That’s been the case in my search for answers about Emma and her canine world: from her high drive and emotional intensity, to her intelligence and keen eagerness to interact with me, to her ability to be so strong willed yet a cuddly companion at night. From the time I brought her home until our most recent struggle for leadership, I have an on-going curiosity about why she acts like she does.

The latest book I pulled from the shelf is Temple Grandin’s recent release, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Many animal lovers and enthusiasts may know of Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. A high functioning autistic, she has revolutionized the livestock industry with her understanding of how animals, particularly cattle, think and behave. Temple has designed and created cattle chutes that take into account their prey instincts and therefore are successful in keeping them calm during handling.

In her book, Animals Make Us Human, Temple and her co-author, Catherine Johnson, discuss the core emotions system developed by researcher, Dr. Jaak Panksepp, from Washington State University. These core emotions, experienced by both animals and humans, organize and drive behavior. They include seeking, a desire to understand the environment: rage, a frustration born out of physical or emotional restraint; fear, a response to any threat to one’s survival; panic, a response to the fear of losing social attachment; lust, a desire for sex; care, a desire for maternal love and caretaking; and play, an expression of overall well-being.

Temple discusses the importance of this model of core emotions in working with dogs, horses, cattle, pigs, chickens and poultry, wildlife, and zoo animals. I was naturally most interested in the section on dogs. What I was most intrigued by was that it was so easy to see all of these core emotions in Emma’s life and behavior, as well as my own. It provided a richer and more complex view of her interaction with me and her environment.

In addition to laying out how these seven core emotions influence behavior in dogs, Temple discusses the debate over whether or not domestic dogs are pack animals and whether or not they respond to or need a pack leader. She offers an interesting perspective on the nature of modern day dogs and their artificial environments, which may set up an unnatural pack environment, from fenced-in yards, to increased use of leashes, to doggie day care. She offers the example of Cesar Milan’s Dog Psychology Center in which he cares for a large group of unrelated dogs. He takes on the role of pack leader, controlling their behavior in a situation where the dogs need to join as a pack in order not to kill one another. She says in this case, Cesar does a good job of controlling unrelated dogs in an artificial environment.

However, Temple goes on to say that dogs don’t need a substitute pack leader if there’s a natural setting in which they live. What they need is a parent. Dogs are genetically juvenile wolves and young wolves live with parents and siblings. And if dogs and owners are in settings where dogs are related by family or by their neighborhood, they will not have a need for a pack leader, but for the same kind of parental leadership and demand for socialization that children need.

I’ve struggled over this issue of whether or not I’m Emma’s pack leader or should act as her mother. I kept thinking that a pack leader is something other than a mother. But after reading Temple’s work, I understand that under most circumstances I’m Emma’s mother and I need to provide that kind of leadership. I now also understand when we are with other unrelated dogs, she has a different perspective of her place and her survival, particularly because of her terrier breed and her early and poor socialization as a puppy to older dogs. In that setting, I believe it’s necessary that I think like a pack leader. I appreciate this distinction and Temple’s ability to integrate and see such a broad and historical perspective in the lives and behavior of modern day domestic dogs. Emma and I will be much happier for it and in that way, Temple has helped us both create a better life together.

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