The importance of first impressions, why “draconian leash laws” are hurting dogs, and more insights from the renowned animal behaviorist
How do animals perceive the world? Differently than us, animal behaviorist Temple Grandin told a Tufts audience on January 8. But it’s important to remember that even though that’s the case, she said, they have emotions like ours.
Grandin visited Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine to give two full-capacity talks on animal cognition. She has been named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine for her work to develop a less-stressful system for handling beef cattle at processing plants and for her powerful advocacy for people with autism. Her books, Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human, have garnered critical acclaim.
“Dr. Grandin has more than anyone else shown us the value of diversity in the way that people think about the world and has brought us insights that many of the rest us of would have never have come up with,” said Allen Rutberg, director of Tufts’ Center for Animals and Public Policy, in his introduction of Grandin to an audience of students, faculty, and staff.
Here are seven insights we took away from Grandin’s talk.
Animals see the world very differently than humans. “Theirs is a sensory-based world. When I started working with cattle, I started by looking at what they were seeing in the chutes. [Cows] are very controlled by their vision; it’s amazing how you can [improve] things for them just with lighting.”
But they have emotions like ours. “It’s stupid to say that animals don’t have emotions. You can express feelings in a much more complex way with language, but dogs have the same neurotransmitters [that humans do]. And [our] psychiatric drugs work on dogs—Nick Dodman has done work on that.”
Something new can be frightening or interesting. “In the [human and animal] brain you have fear, but you also have another emotion: seek. There’s a really funny video online of cattle chasing a remote-controlled toy car. When it’s first put in the pasture, they run from it. And then they start to chase it.”
Animals’ first impressions are lasting. “Make sure an animal’s first experience is a good first experience. You have to introduce each new thing very slowly, so as not to scare it,” Grandin said. If your puppy is ready for its first vaccinations, give your puppy a treat in the veterinarian’s lobby, leave, and then come back an hour later for the shots. The same slow, positive approach should be applied to all introductions to new people, pieces of equipment, vehicles, and environments. “Often horses and other animals will be less fearful if they have a familiar person with them,” she added.
Specifics matter. “If you train a horse to tolerate a blue-and-white umbrella opening, that doesn’t transfer to a tarp. Think about it—an umbrella and a tarp look completely different. The animal is very specific. This may explain why in some circumstances a horse may suddenly go berserk at a show. You have new things there that your horse has never seen before.”
We’re doing our dogs a disservice. “There have been lots of studies comparing wolves with dogs. A wolf will solve a problem; a dog is so busy asking us to help it solve a problem that it doesn’t pay enough attention to watching another animal solve a problem. We bred them to be hyper-social and now with today’s draconian leash laws they have to stay at home. And they’re having a really bad time. I think a lot of the behavior problems today are because dogs aren’t getting socialized. Dogs need people.”
Animals can teach us to better understand people. “I was severely autistic as a little kid. I didn’t talk until age four. A brain can be more ‘thinking’ or more ‘social-emotional.’ I tend to be more ‘thinking.’ There’s an interesting paper on solitary mammals as a model for autism. Lions are more social than leopards and panthers. Is there something wrong with leopards and panthers? No. It’s just a personality difference. Different kinds of minds can complement each other.”
Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.