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Creating the best life for animals

Updated January 7, 2009

Look into the eyes of your family dog. What could those bright, attentive eyes and that tail, waving to and fro, mean? You may think you know what your dog needs and wants, but are you missing something?

Animals are conscious beings

“An animal is a conscious being that has feelings,” says Temple Grandin, Colorado State University animal sciences professor and animal welfare activist. The idea that animals have core emotions and that these feelings motivate their behavior is the basis for her new book, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. The book is available this week in bookstores and online. 

Grandin calls the book one of the first of its kind intended for general readership. Textbooks in veterinary science and neuroscience have addressed the subject of emotions in animals, but have fallen short of saying how emotions relate to animal behavior.  

Why do dogs eat sofas? 

Grandin credits her co-author Catherine Johnson with coming up with the link between stereotypical behaviors in animals and their core emotions. “Catherine made that brilliant association,” Grandin says. “For example, the reason a gerbil digs relentlessly into the sawdust at the corner of his cage is that he’s motivated by fear, one of the core emotions. He wants cover from predators.”

In addition to revealing the emotions behind problematic behavior in animals, the book also shows us how to honor our bond with pets by challenging assumptions we’ve held about what makes animals content. We’re asked to “give them the best and happiest lives on their terms.”

The book moves beyond theory to practicality. “We’re giving people useful stuff to think about and work with, such as how to get cats to use the litter box and what to do about a dog that tears up the house while you’re gone,” Grandin says. “And there are insights into even worse behaviors – dogs that viciously attack other dogs or people.” 

Fear, rage, panic, and seeking

Fear is one of the core emotions detailed in the first chapter of the book. The others are rage, panic, separation anxiety, and seeking, which refers to an animal’s need to explore and satisfy its curiosity.

Grandin explains that, in dogs, fear can be exhibited as cowering in a corner or fighting.  A dog chews up the house when the owner is gone due to the panic-separation anxiety emotion. 

Dogs also may fight as a result of the seeking emotion, which motivates them to enlarge their territory and establish dominance.

“I was responsible for a section of the book that includes the research that supports our statements about the four core emotions,” Grandin said. 

Revolutionary thinking

Perhaps more convincing than hard science are Grandin’s unique insights into how animals act upon their feelings. Grandin’s autism, which was diagnosed when she was 3 years old, endows her with a keen sense for detail and a nervous system and emotional makeup that is more closely aligned with that of animals than humans.

“I am hypersensitive to sensory detail, and animals are, too. The normal human brain drops out these details and conceptualizes things.

“Like many animals, my primary emotion is fear,” Grandin plainly admits. Because she understands what frightens animals, she has revolutionized what it means to treat animals humanely. She’s used her abilities to improve the quality of life for animals by working as a consultant and designer of livestock handling facilities.

With her new book, she is advocating that we pay closer attention to what our pets sense in their environments and make adjustments to create less stressful lives for them. 

Too many animals isolated

Grandin also firmly believes that we should have more interaction with our pets. “A lot of dogs are messed up because they are living such isolated, regimented lives,” she says. “So what we have to do is give them a lot of attention, take them on long walks, play with them, exercise them.

“There are genetic differences, of course, between dogs. If you have a fat dog, he might be content just sleeping away the day. But a young, athletic dog needs a lot of exercise, work, and attention.”

Our bond with animals

Some people’s reaction to the idea of spending more quality moments with pets might be, “Where will I find the time?” But most of us are motivated to keep our pets happy.

The human connection to animals is a long-standing one. Researchers believe that dogs have been fireside companions for humans for tens of thousands of years. Some of the most dramatic evidence of this was the discovery in Israel of a woman buried 12,000 years ago with a puppy in her hands.

“Humans have co-existed and co-evolved with dogs,” Grandin says. To be human wouldn’t mean what it means today if we hadn’t been impacted by the fact that we evolved alongside the canine species.

In an earlier book, Animals in Translation, Grandin writes, “People were animals, too, once, and when we turned into human beings, we gave something up. Being close to animals brings some of it back.”

Book signing and discussion at Barnes & Noble on Jan. 23

On Friday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m., Temple Grandin will appear at the Fort Collins Barnes & Noble bookstore at 4045 South College Avenue.  She will be discussing her book and signing copies. 

Photos credit: Angus Bremner, Bremner Photo, 1 Bruntsfield Terrace, Edinburgh EH10 4EX; tel. (01-31) 229-6637; mobile (07-71) 316-1963; e-mail angus@bremnerphoto.co.uk.