Posts tagged Animals Make Us Human

Pleasure Seeking – What It Really Means

By now we’ve all heard the rather New Age’y platitude: 

It’s the journey that counts, not the end result.

Right? Well, it seems that’s applicable in many more areas of life than just one’s spiritual pursuit.

I remember clear as a bell riding the bus downtown with my grandmother when I was about six years old and demanding to know from her exactly how long it was until Christmas. Twelve weeks, she told me. This made me very excited as Christmas now seemed finally within reach, and my brother and I could start counting down the days! Do you remember that too? How exquisite the anticipation was? But then how once you began opening presents your ‘Christmas high’ sort of seemed to deflate? Somehow the end result was never as exciting as it had seemed it would be 12 weeks or so before.

A few other examples: the courtship phase of a new relationship; thinking about the kind of new car you would like to buy; plotting a new business; planning a vacation . . . even working a crossword puzzle. I’m sure you get the drift — all of these activities or periods of anticipation can be absolutely thrilling, while their end results can sometimes fall a little flat.

Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University, calls this anticipatory state “seeking” and classifies it as one of seven core emotions that he claims all animals and people possess. Temple Grandin, in her recent book Animals Make Us Human, talks a lot about the emotion of seeking and how important it is in terms of quality of life, to the extent that when deprived of it animals and people develop neurotic behaviors, slump into depression, even become ill or die.

Seeking equates to the feeling of looking forward to, being curious about, or wanting something. It takes the form of exploring new territory, whether it be mental or physical. Stuff like figuring out new ways to do something if you’re a human . . . or maybe digging a brand new tunnel if you’re a prairie dog. But seeking is not only fun and pleasurable, it literally enhances brain growth and development.

We all know by now how important it is for our puppies and kittens to be exposed to lots of different stimuli while growing up. In fact, in an experiment where kittens were raised in a stark white room with dark parallel bars as the only visual stimulus, they were then unable to see dark perpendicular bars when moved to a room with only those, and would run into the perpendicular bars as if they did not exist. The kittens had very little to explore and learn about — no seeking opportunities, so after a certain developmental phase had passed their brains simply did not accommodate new stimuli.

I no longer have small children, who we all know need tons of stimulating activities while growing up, but I do have 14 animals and try to create an environment for all of them that provides plenty of seeking opportunities. Whether it’s new toys, bones, or walks in unfamiliar territory for the dogs; lots of different kinds of greens or other exciting foods for the chickens; hiding flakes of hay in various places in the pasture for the horses to go find; or allowing my cat into a new outdoor territory doesn’t seem to matter. What matters to them is that they get to be doing something new and different, whether it’s with their food or their environment.

If you have an animal exhibiting neurotic behavior — something as simple as your dog constantly digging holes in your backyard — start thinking about how you can enhance and expand their world. And check out Grandin’s book, Animals Make Us Human. It’s very informative and will help all of this make better sense.


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Dog Training: Who’s First Through The Door, You Or Your Dog? And Does It Really Matter?

In dog training does who goes first through the door really matter? Yes, it really does. But not for the reason you may think. At least according to Temple Grandin.

Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University, has a PhD in animal science, has written five books, and is one of the most cutting edge authorities on animal behavior — largely due to the fact that she is autistic so can relate to animals and understand them in ways most of us cannot. I have read her books and am a great fan of hers because she has revolutionized many of the slaughter house processes in our country, making them much more humane for the animals. But more than that, her observations about animal behavior and what animals respond to just make good sense to me.

Dog training techniques have evolved into several different schools of thought in the last few years, but the older, more classical approach of dominating your dog and making him relate to you as an alpha is still very predominant. We all know the drill: choke chains, barked commands, harsh jerks on the lead to get the response we want, etc. In other words . . . proving we are alpha.

I’m not passing judgment here and do prefer the milder techniques of dog training myself. But I do believe there are those dogs among us whose aggression or lack of control almost demands that these dominating techniques be used. I found it to be true myself, in fact, 25 years ago when my 100-lb. Old English Sheepdog, Samson, who required three 6-week courses of training to even pass the basic level of obedience, could still not restrain himself from loping across the park to leap on terrified toddlers, or, sadly, to scoop up unsuspecting cats (usually ending in their untimely death).

Samson’s brain, from day one in his litter,  was in some kind of mindless overdrive, and the only thing that finally jarred it into a state where he could think clearly and hear a command was a few carefully devised sessions with a shock collar. Yes, I said a shock collar. Two or three well-timed shocks, along with appropriate commands, enabled Samson to start thinking instead of just reacting and totally changed his life . . . and mine of course. Samson turned out to be a great dog after all . . . but that’s another whole story.

So what’s the deal about who goes through the door first – you or your dog?

Well, as in the case of Samson, what’s important here is your dog’s ability to control his reactive behavior. Not whether you let him go through the door before you or not.

To put it very simply, a dog who can WAIT is a much safer dog than a dog who can’t. A dog who can WAIT (or ‘stay’, or both) has learned to deal with the emotion frustration. And, for dogs (as for many other species), frustration leads to rage, which is one of what Temple Grandin identifies as the seven basic, hard-wired emotions in almost all animals. And rage happens to be the one that leads to out-of-control aggression.

So for a dog to learn to deal with frustration, especially if he is hyper-reactive or classified as a ‘dangerous’ breed, is not only crucial, but is almost tantamount . . . as dramatic as this may sound . . . to his survival. You can see why including this in your dog training program, no matter what method you employ, is paramount.

Puppies begin learning to deal with frustration immediately, almost from day one, because they are constantly pushed aside while nursing and have to seek out another teat to clamp on to. These informal dog training lessons continue amongst the littermates, and then continue within the context of your own family, once that puppy has become a member of it. I could go on and give dozens of examples.

But the point is, teaching your dog to deal with frustration — whether that be by taking his bone away or by teaching him to “wait” when he is eager not to — is one of the greatest forms of insurance you can buy for shaping him into a happy, healthy, well-integrated member of society.

Your dog doesn’t really care who goes through the door first or whether you include this lesson in his dog training. He doesn’t have an agenda about who’s alpha. At least most dogs don’t. He just needs to learn to be a willing family member, just like one of your kids, who sometimes has to wait his turn and sometimes gets to go first.

If you’re a dog devotee — and especially if you’re having a dog training problem of who goes through the door first — I urge you to buy Temple’s latest book, Animals Make Us Human, and read very carefully the chapter on DOGS.

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Litterbox Blues – Does Your Cat Have a Problem?

Does your cat:

  • Prefer to pee outside her litterbox?
  • Poop on its rim?
  • Avoid his litterbox at all costs when it comes to pooping and peeing?
  • Pee or poop on you or your clothes? (Ick.)
  • Spray? (The worst!)

These are just a few of the almost countless ways our cats try to send messages to us via their personal elimination preferences. For us humanoids, the thought of using one’s potty habits as a means of communicating is about as gross and foul as one could get. But cats have a lot to say to each other, and to us, by leaving all those smells and marks around to make their point or protect their territory. Sorry. It’s just who they are and one way they talk.

Animal communication can help, but if you engage in it be ready to become involved in some serious negotiations. Barring a urinary or systemic health problem, you are probably going to be pressed to the wall to do things like, oh, get rid of all your other cats for example, so the offending feline will have her domain all to herself. Or to please stop seeing your most recent paramour, of whom she is very jealous. Trivial life changing stuff like that.

Before you go running for the hills, or contemplate moving to Alaska to satisfy your picky kitty who happens to like things cold, try some of the following things first. These have been put forth by Temple Grandin Ph.D., world-noted animal advocate and behaviorist. Temple is autistic so is able to relate to animals and understand them in ways most of us cannot. Plus she has a solid educational and scientific background to back up her theses.

In her newest book,  Animals Make Us Human, Temple addresses the dilemma of litterbox problems and has a few basic recommendations to try before shooting yourself in the head. I paraphrase here in order to keep things short and sweet (and not to “reprint without permission”) and hope one or more of these tips might help solve your litterbox blues and please your finicky feline.

  1. Try different kitty litters. And pay close attention to how they smell. If you don’t like them your cat may not either — or vice versa. Let HIM decide.
  2. Move the catbox! Sounds too simple and obvious doesn’t it, but this one can be a biggie. More privacy may be desired. Or perhaps more quiet. Factors that would affect you too while sitting on the potty.
  3. Check the floor UNDER the litterbox. Make sure it’s not slippy slidey, or noisy, or uneven. Stuff like that. Cats are coordinated and careful and don’t like weird surfaces.
  4. Change the litter more frequently. Duh. Do NOT let your catbox get to looking like the one in the picture above! Would you be drawn to use a box like this?
  5. If you have more than one cat, get at least one litterbox each. Locate strategically. Do not line them all up like the men’s urinal in an airport.
  6. Change the type of litterbox. For instance, some cats like hoods, some don’t. My own kitty, Lily, prefers a huge, deep, round, blue bin that would accommodate about four cats and whose previous life was a free-choice mineral tub for the horses. My thought on this blue behemoth that dominates my mud room? “Whatever floats your boat, Princess!”

Do not despair. These problems can be solved. After making darn sure your cat doesn’t have a health problem, get creative and shake things up a bit. If that doesn’t work, then you might think about calling an animal communicator and beginning joint therapy with your pretty kitty.

Oh, and be SURE and check out Temple’s book!

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