07 February 2010

Animals Make Us Human

As a volunteer foster parent with the Humane Society of Indianapolis, I bring into my home dogs that aren't read for prime time - for whatever reason, they can't go out for immediate adoption. I'm nowhere near as dedicated as most of the shelter workers I've met, but I think I do a pretty good job doing my part to help animals. My family usually takes in dogs who have social problems - too shy, too scared or too ignorant of humans to understand how to interact with us. I wonder often how best to help these dogs and read Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson to see if I could pick up some ideas.

Grandin interviewed with Amazon recently:
Q: How will this book be useful to people working with cats and dogs in animal shelters?
A: People often don't recognize emotions in these animals. I went to a very nice animal shelter recently that had group housing for cats that had tree-like things with platforms and cubbyholes for the cats to get in, and a very astute worker there noticed that you can have a situation where a cat seems very calm in a shelter, but he's not really sleeping, he's constantly keeping an eye out for another cat. And people need to watch for that kind of situation, because even though it looks peaceful, that one particular cat that never sleeps is going to be stressed out.
Also at this shelter, I was very pleased that the amount of dog barking was way less, and I think one of the reasons for this is that every day, every dog is taken out for an hour of quality time, playing and being walked and interacting with a person. That's going to help lower the stress. Dogs need to be taken out every day for quality interaction with a person, exercise, and fun play.
Photo of a dog behind a chain-link fence at th...Image via Wikipedia

One lesson I got from this book was to think about how an animal can become conditioned to respond to certain things in a certain way and how that conditioning is very hard to alter. Any dog owner knows that picking up the dog's leash can cause the dog to be very, very excited! That's a positive association, but it is just as possible for negative associations to form. For example, we fostered a dog who hated to be crated. I'm certain in retrospect that the crating experiences this dog had before were probably awful. We worked with the dog to replace the negative crate associations with positive ones. Eventually, going into the crate did not cause the dog to shiver in fear, although the dog was never happy about it. I think applying Temple Grandin's ideas might have helped rehabilitate the dog faster and more completely.

And, relating to my professional life, I also found a reference to animal welfare in a presentation at Dreamforce 2009: Data, like Pigs, like to be clean. Thanks again Paul Young for the engaging presentation!

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