Animal Emotions and That Icky Sticky Fear

animal emotions

 “Lacking a shared language, emotions are perhaps our most effective means of cross-species communication. We can share our emotions, we can understand the language of feelings, and that’s why we form deep and enduring social bonds with many other beings. Emotions are the glue that binds.” ― Bekoff

 

Ants teach.  Earthworms make decisions.  Rats are ticklish.  Chimps grieve.  Horses understand and react to human facial expression.  Some dogs have a thousand-word vocabulary.  Birds practice songs in their sleep.  Mice and rats show empathy.  Crows use tools.  Jays plan ahead.  Moths remember being caterpillars.  Cats are worlds wiser than your iPad.

What else will we learn about animals today?

 


In my last post I discussed how our personal and collective fears affect progress, success, and peace with our pets and within ourselves.  This follow up post is intended to help you to become aware of the range of emotions that animals can experience.  When we begin to see our pets as conscious beings who can experience deep and profound emotions we are better equipped with the knowledge and empathy to help them, when life challenges arise.  My hope is that you learn something here so you and your animal companions can live a more fulfilling and peaceful life together, no matter what comes your way.


Emotional Beings

Most people believe that animals have some emotions.  But there is a lot more happening within animals than most realize. Did you know that some animals, when faced with stressors, often respond in body and mind the way humans do? It’s really amazing.

Let’s take a look at what emotions are.

From the scientific perspective, emotions are the internal changes in the body (hormones, adrenal glands, etc.) that cause changes in expression (the animal’s external behavior), and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them.  From the layman’s perspective, they are feelings one experiences in the mind that affect one’s mood and body.

Emotions have evolved as animal adaptations in many species.  Emotions serve as a “social glue” to bond animals together.  Emotions also regulate a wide range of social encounters among both friends and competitors.  Emotions allow animals to protect themselves by using numerous behavior patterns in a wide variety of settings.

To assume that animals are incapable of experiencing the same kinds of fears and stresses that we as humans experience is a common pitfall and misconception of pet parents.  Animals are very capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions!  Like us, many companion animals can and do experience a range of basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, grief, and surprise.

“Common sense and intuition feed into and support science sense, and the obvious conclusion is that at least mammals experience rich and deep emotional lives, feeling passions ranging from pure and contagious joy shared so widely among others during play that it is almost epidemic, to deep grief and pain. There also are recent data that show that birds and fish also are sentient and experience pain and suffering.”


love hormone_animal emotions_conscious Companion


Sentient Beings

We are hearing more often these days that animals are “sentient beings”, but what is sentience? What does this mean?

“Sentient animals may be aware of a range of sensations and emotions, of feeling pain and suffering, and of experiencing a state of well being. Sentient animals may be aware of their surroundings and of what happens to them.”

-CIWF

Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive the world around you and as a result have subjective experiences (i.e. good, bad or neutral experiences). In its most basic sense, sentience is the ability to have sensations and as a result have experiences which then may be used to guide future actions and reactions.

Animal Emotions_fear


Similar Brain Structures

Thanks to research with imaging studies we now know that some animals have many of the same brain structures, hormones, and neurotransmitters that humans do. Just like humans, animals have temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobes of their cerebral cortex. Each region is connected in the same way. We’ve also learned that emotions are centered in the limbic system, (known as the mammalian brain). We also know that emotions such as fear, frustration, and anger drive a lot of unwanted behaviors in animals (just like in people!)

Neuroscientific research has even shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, that elephants have a huge hippocampus. This is a brain structure in the limbic system that’s important in processing emotions. We now know that elephants suffer from psychological flashbacks and likely experience the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder.


Animals’ Advanced Abilities 

Most people believe that a human’s ability to communicate is far more complex and evolved than that of other species, but cetaceans have us beat. Cetaceans have several sound producing organs. They are capable of conveying and receiving 20 times the amount of information as we can with our ability to process sounds!  This surpasses the amount of information we can perceive based on vision (a human’s primary sense).

Research with cetaceans has even discovered that the frontal and temporal lobes (which are connected by their function in speech production and language processing) are capable of astounding abilities.  Communication is so spectacular in cetaceans that scientists believe there is a strong possibility that this species is able to project an “auditory image.” via sonar messages they receive.  The researches at MSU claim, “A dolphin wishing to convey the image of a fish to another dolphin can literally send the image of a fish to the other animal. The equivalent of this in humans would be the ability to create instantaneous holographic pictures to convey images to other people.”

Yeah.  So that’s happening in the ocean and in captivity.  Just let that sink in for a moment.

animal brain_intelligece_play_emotions


Pets, People, and the Mind’s Landscape

Could our pet’s mental map be similar to ours? According to researchers at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, the physical structure of our brain and that of felines are very similar.  Cats have the same lobes as we do in the cerebral cortex (the “seat” of intelligence).  And our brains function the same way, by conveying data via identical neurotransmitters.

In the region of the brain which controls emotion, they are similar as well.  Cats have a temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobe in their brains, just as we do.  Additionally, cat brains also contain gray and white matter and the connections within their brains seem to mirror those of humans.

We also know that cats’ brains release neurotransmitters in a similar pattern to that of humans when confronted with information from their five senses.  Cats also have a short-term and long-term memory, and are able to easily recall information from up to 16 hours in the past.  Researchers are even studying cats’ Brain structures and neurotransmitters that regulate aggression to learn more about the implications for human aggression.

Recently through MRI research doctors have discovered that dogs and humans both house impulse control in the same area of the brain. Both human and dog brains by the prefrontal lobes, but in dogs this area is much smaller relative to brain size.  There is an actual link between the level of self-control a dog has and the behavior they display. Dogs who have more brain activity in their frontal lobes, tend to have more self-control and are better able to control their behaviors, reactions, and responses to stimuli in their environment.

dog brain impulse control_MRI
Brain region in dog prefrontal cortex for impulse control.

The Workings of the Inner Clockwork

All mammals (including humans) share neuroanatomical structures: The amygdala and hippocampus and neurochemical pathways in the limbic system that are important for feelings.  Let’s look at two areas of the brain to better understand the commonalities of the inner clockwork:

  • The Amygdala: The “Emotion Processing Center”:  There are two almond-shaped areas in the human brain that control emotional responses. The most common function of the amygdalae involves synthesizing fear responses from the environment. Animals also have amygdalae that initiate emotional responses such as fear.

 

  • The Hippocampus:  Where Memories Trigger Emotions: The hippocampus is the area in the brain where long-term memories are stored.  The hippocampus feeds directly to the amygdala.  Scientists believe that this is why a flood of strong emotions often follows after we recall a vivid memory.

Our companion animals also have a hippocampus.  If your pet had a fearful experience before, and the sight of something reminds her of that situation, the information from her sensory cortex triggers the memory in her hippocampus, which communicates with her amygdala, which then floods her with fear.princess Amidala_fear_cats_dogs_pet brains

They have found that with dogs who are experiencing the emotion of anger, the amygdala and hippocampus play key roles. When these systems become overactive, they cause the amygdala pathway to bypass the cortex entirely.  This results in an animal who will literally react without thinking.  Ahem, Hocus Pocus and King Albert can both attest to this.  And I know of a cockatoo who lives in this state during the peak hormonal months!

But don’t we all have the ability to react this way at some point in our lives?  I find it fascinating that our animal companions have this hard-wiring as well. 

animal brain
Primary amygdalar nuclei and basic circuit connections across species.

 


Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System At Work

When an animal looks at the world, he or she is confronted with an overwhelming amount of sensory information—sights, sounds, smells, and so on.  After being processed in the brain’s sensory areas, the information is relayed to the amygdala, which acts as a portal to the emotion-regulating limbic system.  Using input from the individual’s stored knowledge, the amygdala determines how they should respond emotionally—for example, with fear (at the sight of a predator or stranger), in affection or love (at the sight of their beloved person walking in the door) or indifference (when facing something trivial).

Messages cascade from the amygdala to the rest of the limbic system and eventually reach the autonomic nervous system, which prepares the body for action.  If the animal is confronting a threat, her heart rate will rise.  Her body might sweat in some areas to dissipate the heat from muscular exertion.  The autonomic arousal in turn, feeds back into the brain, amplifying the emotional response.  Over time, the amygdala creates a salience landscape, a map that details the emotional significance of everything in the individual’s environment.

This internal mind map is a reminder of how to stay safe and alive.

When a threat is perceived, the body’s brilliant sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. The body then releases hormones that are responsible for either Fight or Flight. The hormones are adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These hormones serve a very important purpose: They increase chances of survival.

“Fight or flight is a body’s primal response to anything one perceives a threat, hazard or danger; it is an immediate release of hormones to pump up our body to fight or run from a threat, whether that threat is perceived or real.”

fofbraindiag


Fear Digs In Deep.

There are some fascinating facts when it comes to the subject of fear. We now know that negative experiences effect the brain more deeply than positive experiences.  Fear sinks in deep.  And it holds on tight.  Once a learner (us or an animal) learns that something is scary, should be avoided, or becomes a trigger, the negative effects can be long lasting and hard-wired in the brain.

Remember when that creep who wore a clown costume to your friend’s birthday party when you were a kid?  Or what about that roach that crawled on you once while you were sleeping as a child?  How do you feel about roaches and clowns today?  It just takes one negative experience and that fear sticks to our minds like super glue.

Animals are not unlike us when it comes to how fear can set in and grab a tight hold in their minds.


Fear from Watching

Did you know that both people and pets can learn to be fearful of something, someone, or somewhere just by watching another animal or person?  The amygdala plays a critical part in the physical expression of a fear response in humans as well as animals.  Scientists have shown that the amygdala responds when a person or animal exhibits fear through observing someone else experiencing a fearful experience. This means that the amygdala is involved in learning to fear something even without directly experiencing the aversive event. Animals can merely observe something fearful and learn to be afraid of that person, place, or event!

Knox In His Box


The Scent of Fear

You know that phrase, “I can smell fear a mile away!”, or “They can smell your fear.”?  Well, it turns out there is some truth to that.  Researches in 2014 discovered that young animals have the ability to learn fear in the first days of life. Just by smelling the odor of their distressed mother.  And this doesn’t pertain to just “natural” fears; If a mother experienced something before pregnancy that made her fear something specific, her offspring will quickly learn to fear it too. How? Through her odor when she feels fear.

When the odor of the frightened rat mother was piped in to a chamber where her offspring were located and the juvenile rats were exposed to peppermint smell, they developed a fear of the scent of peppermint. Their blood cortisol levels rose when they smelled it! I mean, come on! How incredible is that?!

“During the early days of an infant rat’s life, they are immune to learning information about environmental dangers. But if their mother is the source of threat information, we have shown they can learn from her and produce lasting memories,” says Jacek Debiec, M.D., Ph.D., the U-M psychiatrist and neuroscientist who led the research.

“Our research demonstrates that infants can learn from maternal expression of fear, very early in life,” he adds. “Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers’ experiences. Most importantly, these maternally-transmitted memories are long-lived, whereas other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish.”

fear learned

Credit: Image courtesy of University of Michigan Health System

But wait. There’s more.  The scientists exposed the rat pups of both groups of mothers to the peppermint smell, under many different conditions with and without their mothers present.  Fear still occurred.

Using special brain imaging, studies of genetic activity in individual brain cells, and cortisol in the rat’s blood, they focused on the lateral amygdala as the key location for learning fears. Note: Later in life this area is responsible for detecting and planning a response to threats; that’s why it would also be the “hub” for learning new fears.

“But the fact that these fears could be learned in a way that lasted during a time when the baby rat’s ability to learn any fears directly was naturally suppressed, is what makes the new findings so interesting”, says the lead scientist, Debiec.

Their research even showed that the newborns could learn their mothers’ fears even when the mothers weren’t present.  Merely the scent of their mother reacting to the peppermint odor she feared was enough to make them fear the same thing.


Fear In Pheromones

Fear can be passed through scent glands.  Not only can pheromones be used to scent mark, attract mates, claim territory, find prey, and identify other animals, but they can be used as alarms.  Our dogs and cats can smell when fear is present in these glands.  I refer to these as FEAR-amones When they smell fear, they instinctively know to Get The Heck Out of Dodge.

sniffing-butt
Butt Sniffing : Think of this behavior as “speaking with chemicals”. It’s how dogs learn about another dog’s diet, gender, and even their emotional state!

 

Our Similar Structures

In An Odyssey with Animals: A Veterinarian’s Reflections on the Animal Rights & Welfare Debate Adrian Morrison provides a great description of just how mammalian and animal-like we humans are. As Morrison explains, we share common brain structures with other mammals:

My cat, Buster, and I both flinch and yowl or curse at a sudden painful stimulus, and our legs both jerk in response to a tap on the patellar tendon of the knee. The spinal organization of the neurons responsible for these activities is the same in cats as it is in humans.

Moving forward into the lowest part of the brain, in both Buster and me the same neurons control basic bodily functions, such as regulation of breathing, heart rate, and vomiting. Farther forward reside the nerve cells that regulate the behaviors of sleep and wakefulness, which are identical in humans and other mammals, and where dysfunction results in similar problems, such as narcolepsy … and REM sleep behavior disorder. In this brain region in all mammals are found the neurons containing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which degenerate in Parkinson’s disease.

At the base of the cerebral hemispheres is the almond-shaped amygdala, where mechanisms leading to fear and anxiety in people and animals operate. Monkeys and rats have contributed much to our understanding of the amygdala. The overlying cerebral cortex is where all of us mammals analyze the sensations coming from the skin, muscles and joints via the spinal cord, or eyes and ears in the cases of vision and hearing.

Where we depart from our animal brethren is in the great development of the front part of our cerebral cortex, the frontal lobes, and the greater proportion of cerebral tissue, called association areas, which integrate the information obtained from the regions that directly receive sensory information. These latter regions are called the primary sensory and motor areas because they receive simple, pure sensations and direct the movement of the body. It is within the frontal lobes that we humans mull over the past, prepare for the future, and reflect on its implications. Animals do not have this last capability in particular, as far as we can discern. Animals prepare for the future in a limited, instinct-driven way: Think of squirrels gathering and burying nuts for the winter. …

His last three sentences get right to the point of why I am sharing with you:  If we have the ability to plan, predict, and prepare, and our pets are instinctively coping, adjusting, and surviving this rollercoaster (we put them on), then we have a lot of work to do as their guardians.

If fear is sticky and hard to remove, then as animal guardians we need to know how fear sets in, how we can minimize or prevent it, and how to effectively remove it.  We have serious business at hand if we want them to live in our human world with minimal stress and fear, and with a maximum sense of security and safety.  If we want them to thrive, rather than merely survive, then we need to get to work.


Emotions Matter. 

The willingness to recognize that animals have emotions is key.  Their feelings matter, their fear is real to them.  Animals are sentient beings who experience the lows and highs of their live with us. We must respect this.

To continue with the status quo, because that’s what as always been done isn’t enough anymore. Now that we know more, we do more. Now that we know better, we must do better. For them. For us. For all species.

All that we once believed about animals has changed, and so should our relationships with the animals we live with, care, for and are stewards for.  When it comes to what we can and cannot do for animals, it is their capacity to feel, experience complex emotions that can be a catalyst for how we change the way we view them, and how we act on their behalf.


“Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other
animals. We must never forget that”. ― Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy – and Why They Matter




My next post in this “Fear Series” will address both the causes and effects of of emotional and environmental stress on our pets, so stay tuned!

And the last post in this Fear Series will be chocked full of fun tips and techniques that you can implement to help your pets reduce their fears and live a fearless life!

Until then, I am going to plan, prepare, and be proactive about our upcoming Big Move with our animal companions!

All my love to you and yours.

-Amy & The Critter Krewe

 

Do you practice Anthropomorphism or Anthropodenial?

Inky the ocotpus
Anthropomorphism In the News: Inky the Octopus was recently compared to El Chapo and The Shawshank Redemption

Hello Again, Friends!

Full disclosure:  I am breaking my no-more-blog-posts-until-I-finish-writing-my-books-and-move-out-west rule.  Again.  But it’s so hard not to share things with you all, especially when I am passionate about something!

The topic on the table is something that every single person on this planet has done at least once in their life.  For many, it’s something we all do almost every day.  We anthropomorphize.


 

What is Aɴᴛʜʀᴏᴘᴏᴍᴏʀᴘʜɪsᴍ?

The big “A” word is the attribution of human traits, emotions, motivations, and intentions to non-human entities (objects, animals, natural phenomena).  Anthropomorphism is derived from its verb anthropomorphize, which is derived from the Greek word ánthrōpos, meaning “human”, and morphē , meaning “form”.  It was first attested in 1753, originally in reference to the heresy of applying a human form to the Christian God.

The practice of anthropomorphism is an innate tendency of human psychology.  We all do it.  We see it everywhere:  The Easter Bunny is an anthropomorphized rabbit.  Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree anthropomorphizes the tree.   I named my first car.

It’s natural for us to want to relate to an animal, a plant, the weather, an object, the gods, goddesses, deities, angels, God, and anything else that seems to be outside of us.  We want to connect!   We want to create a connection that helps us to feel good.  We need connections that help us to feel safe and supported.  These connections can be powerful.  They can heal.  They help.  They can foster loving connections.

But this natural tendency can also be very unhelpful and sometimes detrimental.

 


Eye of the Beholder

Let’s set the plants, weather, and goddesses aside for now.  I am going to address our human view of animals’ behavior today.   How we perceive behavior is key.  When we don’t know how or why an animal is doing something, we tend to make it about us; we personalize it.  We place the meaning that a behavior has for us, onto the animal.  We anthropomorphize.

Let’s use two common examples of cat and dog behavior.

When we see a cat languidly rolling around on the floor, stretching and yawning in front of a child, or in front of another cat or dog, we see this behavior and think, “Awe, he’s so relaxed! He wants someone to love him!”  But what could actually be happening with that behavior is very clear in cat language: Calm Down, Dude.  It’s all good.  I am not a threat.  Be Cool.  Chillax man.   The cat is most likely offering a displacement behavior.  But from our human perspective, we see sleepiness and invitation.

When a dog interrupts play to sniff his or her uro-genital body parts, we most likely will be embarrassed or grossed out, then label the dog as “nasty”.  But the dog is far from nasty. The dog is offering a behavior that helps him/her to feel safe, or to feel better in that moment.  What is most likely happening is the dog is performing a displacement behavior that occurs in stressful situations.  But from our human perspective we have labeled the behavior and interpreted it much differently from the dog’s reality.

An animal’s particular behavior may seem to be “adorable”, “annoying”, “affectionate”, “rude”, “playful”, “disgusting”, “excited”, “happy”, “bored”, “mean”, “loving”, or “spiteful”, but there may be more than meets our human eye.  Behaviors have functions. They are not always what we perceive them to be.  The behavior that we have chosen to label as “excited” may actually be stress arousal.  The behavior  that we labeled “affectionate” may be used as a distance increasing behavior, or even scent marking for security.  Fearful, unsure, overwhelmed, and incapable could be easily labeled as “stubborn”.   What we perceive from our humanistic viewpoint is often way off the mark of what the animal is experiencing.


Pitfalls of the Big “A” Word

Misreading those two examples of behavior are not harmful in and of themselves. But some of the ways we misread, mislabel, and anthropomorphize animal behavior is harmful.  And sometimes it’s dangerous.

One pitfall of anthropomorphizing animal behavior can be harmful and unfair to our pets.  When we perceive our pet’s behavior from our human perspective (beliefs, intentions, and motivations), we miss the mark.  We are unable to see what’s really happening with the animal.   We see a behavior, assume it’s happening for one reason, then we get frustrated or upset with the animal.  All too often the result from these kinds of misunderstandings and misperceptions is detrimental to the animals: They are the ones who are punished. All because of the belief, projection, or label that the person has placed upon them.

But in the animal’s reality – from the animal’s perspective- the behavior was performed for an entirely different reason or need.  It was necessary.


 

Perception is consistent. What you see reflects your thinking.
And your thinking but reflects your choice of what you want to see. -ACIM


All Behavior Serves A Purpose.

Many pet owners truly believe that animal companion is behaving  out of spite or malice.  This is not true.  Animals do what works for them.  All behavior serves a purpose.  And that purpose is not to piss us off.  Period.

Pet owners are simply unaware that the stool they found on their antique rug was from a very painfully constipated cat who needs medical attention.  The dog who chewed their favorite shoes is suffering from anxiety.  The cat who howls all night is suffering from a variety of aging ailments.  The dog who barks at strangers is suffering from deep-rooted fear issues.

But what does the human see?  A mess. Embarrassing behavior. Disruptive behavior.  We miss the reality of what’s behind each of those behaviors:  A call for help.

We are the ones who can respond to their calls for assistance.

When we don’t know how or why an animal behavior problem exists, we tend to make it about us; we personalize it.  We make it into something that we can relate to.  We label the animal.  In the animal behavior world, this Anthropomorphism at its worst.


Hidden in the complex world of behavior science is a simple, often underutilized, fact that there is never just behavior.  Behavior never occurs in a vacuum or sprays out of an animal haphazardly like water from a leaky showerhead, independent of conditions.  Behavior always depends on the environment in some way.

– Susan Friedman. Ph.D.


Safety Compromised

Another pitfall of anthropomorphism is a lack of safety.  Take for instance the dog and baby or toddler who are “the best of friends” in the parent’s eyes.  But dog and baby are not the best of friends.  Dog is tolerating, and baby is on the borderline of dog’s boundary.   The parents want to create a connection between dog and baby that helps them to feel good, and maybe even to feel safe.  But the parents are unaware of the danger because they want so badly to  connect. They want their dog and baby to be best friends, so that is what they see.  But that is not the reality.

One example of this is “The Kiss To Dismiss.”  A parent might assume her dog loves her baby because the dog is often licking  the child’s face.  But this is often not so.  The behavior of face licking appears to be stemming from affection, but it certain circumstances, this behavior is intended to increase the distance between the licker and the lickee.  This is a very effective way for a dog to get someone who is pestering, threatening, or annoying them them to go away.    In dangerous situations like this, the unaware parents have placed their human attributes, human traits, emotions, motivations, and intentions onto the dog.  Anthropomorphism is at work here.


 

The Desire to Create a Connection

Do you see a theme here?   People want to connect with their pets.  They want their kids and other people to connect with their pets.  This makes people feel good.  People ultimately want to feel safe ans secure.  But when their pet’s behavior becomes unacceptable, or is labeled as something familiar and relate-able to the person (ex. spiteful, vengeful, malicious, rude, annoying, or aggressive) they lose trust in the animal and they don’t feel connected anymore. This loss of connection only widens the gap of communication and understanding.

 


Viral Vidz

When it comes to people, pets, and wild animals, anthropomorphism is usually at the root of many misperceptions and many mishaps.  People not only want to connect with their pets, but they also want to connect with animals in nature.  Part of the fun of indulging in a bit of anthropomorphizing of animals allows people to feel that animals are “just like us!”  Of course we want to connect to animals.   Connecting makes us feel good.  But our lack of awareness, combined with our desire to connect with species who should remain wild can cloud our judgement.

The video that went viral of the kids petting the Lemur is one example.  At first glance it looks adorable.  And the children even appear to be practicing the “Pause Pet Respect” Rule, which is pretty cool!   But, just like almost every animal video that goes viral, there is more going on than meets the eye.

Having worked with nonhuman primates in captivity, I have seen all too many of them who are abandoned and discarded as a result of the all too common must-have-it pet trade.  The desire to own an exotic animal, or even wanting to interact and connect with it can be a very slippery slope.  Unfortunately and all too often, lemurs like Sefo, and other exotic animals are taken from their natural habitat, sold or orphaned, and in return have poor quality lives; they are left alone in the unfamiliar and foreign human world, no longer able to survive in the lemur world.

What we are seeing in that “adorable” video is only a fraction of what’s the truth; Sefo was taken from his family and abandoned.  The ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta)  live in large family groups. These groups preen (groom) each other all day.  If Sefo was with his natural born family he would never consider letting a human approach him.

Everyone anthropomorphized what we saw in that video.  It’s a natural response for anyone, if we don’t know about healthy and normal primate behavior.  But that’s the point.  When we lack knowledge of an individual animal’s needs, when we don’t know the natural biology and behavior of an animal, the only perspective we have is from our limited human point of view.

 


And Then Came “Anthropodenial”…

So by now you are probably realizing that how you view your pets, wild animals, and even the weather is largely based around anthropomorphizing.  Attributing human characteristics to the weather and animals does create great material for humorous cartoons, but it’s not helpful if we want to understand why things happen they way they do, and why an animal behaves a certain way.

Placing human-like intentions on animals is often thought of as unscientific.  But there are some who argue that anthropomorphizing’s opposing position, “anthropodenial” — an unwillingness to recognize the human-like traits of animals — is too prevalent in our attitudes toward other species.

I have to ask: Could the absence of anthropomorphism be just as harmful?


Similar Species?

Through decades of analyzing animal-cognition research, animals have exhibited many of key behaviors that were once thought to distinguish humans from animals. Some of these abilities and behaviors include the ability to consider the past and the future, the ability to demonstrate empathy and self-awareness, and the awareness and ability to anticipate the motives of others.   Certain skills are considered key signs of higher mental abilities. These skills and abilities were once reserved for the human species, but now the animal kingdom shares many of these abilities!

These include, but are not limited to:

– a good memory

– ability to recall a specific past event

– a grasp of grammar and symbols

– self-awareness

– grieving

– understanding others’ motives

– imitating others

– being creative

– cheating

– lying


Animal cognition research humbles us.  We are not alone in our ability to invent or plan or to contemplate ourselves—or even to plot and lie. -“Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal


Superior Species?

Over the years and through ingenious experiments, researchers have documented these skills in other non-human species, gradually eroding the deep-seeded belief that human beings are the superior species.  But there is research to show us otherwise.  Animals can be incredibly complex cognitive creatures. Animals’ abilities can and do rival ours.

Darwin even suggested that earthworms are cognitive beings!  Based on his close observations, earthworms have to make judgments about the kinds of leafy material they use to block their tunnels. Darwin did not expect to discover thinking invertebrates.  He shared that even a hint of earthworm intelligence “has surprised me more than anything else.”


Behind The Scenes of Each Species

I have found myself thinking similar surprising thoughts with the species I have worked and lived with over the years.  What I have learned from them has revolutionized the way I perceive animals and their behavior.   I may not understand the motivation behind an animal’s particular behavior, but I do understand and I do recognize and respect that every behavior serves a purpose for each animal.  Whether this behavior is a choice, a preference, or it serves a vital outcome, it must be respected.  Even if I am unable to perceive it at the time.

There is indeed, more happening “behind the scenes” in an animal’s world than we are aware.


If an octopus were to measure human intelligence, it might test us on the number of color patterns we can produce on the skin of our (pathetically few) appendages. Seeing us flunk the test, it might conclude that we are pretty stupid.

-The Soul of an Octopus” by naturalist Sy Montgomery


Not All Are Created Equal.

 

Thanks to science and observing behavior, we now know that animals do have abilities and skills that rival ours:

– Scrub jays are aware that other jays are thieves and that their stashed food can spoil

– Sheep can recognize faces

– Capuchin monkeys can experience envy

– Chimpanzees use a variety of tools to probe termite mounds and even use weapons to hunt small mammals

–  Crows can hold grudges against the biologists who capture and tag them

– Orcas use highly coordinated synchronized swimming to push seals off ice floes and into the water

– Sea lions can associate symbols (if A goes with B, and B goes with C, then A and C belong together as well)

– Dolphins can imitate human postures

– The archerfish, which stuns insects with a sudden blast of water, can learn how to aim its squirt simply by watching an experienced fish perform the task

– Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas have been taught to use sign language and symbols

– Alex the parrot turned out to be a surprisingly amazing speaker

– Betsy the Bodercollie has a vocabulary of more than 300 words.

– Octopi can be shy, playful, cantankerous, or sneaky. They crave attention and play with toys.


Squirrels may fail at memory tasks that are important to humans, but, whereas we need apps to help us find our misplaced cell phones, they can remember where they’ve hidden tiny caches of nuts.-de Waal


Awareness, Knowledge, and Intelligence Coexisting

So, let’s say for a moment that some species of animals are capable of the full spectrum of intelligence and awareness of we humans.  Does that mean that our pets ARE doing things out of spite and malice?  Does this mean that our pets “should know better?” Does this mean that we shouldn’t use anthropomorphism?  Does this mean that all conscious beings are fully armed knowledge of absolutely everything in the universe?

My short answer to all of those questions is NO.

History has shown us that extreme anthropomorphizing of animals can lead to blaming animals for crimes and it can end terribly for the animal.  For example, in medieval and early modern Europe the animal’s mind was considered sophisticated enough that domesticated animals such as dogs and pigs could be put on trial for crimes.  Seriously, this happened.

As crazy as that case was, similar situations still happen today.  Pet owners tell me (all too often) why they blame their pet for “deliberately” behaving in ways that are “clearly meant to piss them off”.  They claim the animal “knows what she’s doing!” They are convinced that he is “doing it on purpose!”

Then they punish the animal.  Or they toss their family pet out like the trash.


Of course animals are behaving in ways that serve their needs.  They are not mindless creatures.  They are sentient beings who are trying to live in our human world the best way they know how.  But the animals with whom we share a home are not doing things for the reasons that we humans might be doing them.

Our pets are not being spiteful, vengeful, or malicious. They are behaving in ways that help them to coexist in our human world.  They are behaving in ways that help them to feel better. They are behaving in ways that help them to feel safe.  They are behaving in response to their internal and external environment!  Their behavior always serves a purpose.  That purpose is not to upset you.   I promise you this.


Your job as their guardian is to discover what they are trying to communicate.  Your duty is to learn why their behavior is happening.  Your job as their guardian is to learn their language.  It’s not enough to love, shelter, and feed them.  We have to learn to communicate clearly.  We must set aside our human perceptions and limited beliefs.  And we must learn as much as we can.

Our duty as an animal guardian is to become fluent in their needs, their biology, their health, history, and their species-specific language.  We need to know about each species’ natural behaviors!   And if you don’t know them, learn them.  Read about dog or cat behavior. Read up on the particular species of lizard or parrot that you have.  Read about the requirements of rats.  Know what your kid’s guinea pig needs.  Read about the red flags to be aware of in cat behavior and health.  Know what your cat needs to thrive!  Learn what dogs need to feel safe and secure in our human world.  Know what your dog needs to feel safe and connected.

Our animal companions want to connect with us, but it may not be in the way that we know how to, or how we prefer to connect.  Each animal is an individual.  And each species has their unique needs.  Our pets want to feel safe.    They need to be supported in their environment.  They want to thrive.  They are no different from us when it comes to wanting their individual needs to be met.  And they will do what they can to ensure all of this.  This theme is one that connects us all.   Animals know what they need.  They feel.  They respond to their world. They behave in ways that work for them.

The question is I feel we need to ask ourselves is:  How am I viewing all of this from my human perspective?


“It’s easy to project our own feelings onto animals—and that’s a mistake, but it’s a worse mistake to think that we are up on some kind of pedestal and that animals can’t also think, feel, and know.” – naturalist, Sy Montgomery 

 


Recommended Reading:

Why Training Is Essential

Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.

Zazous, the rescued Moluccan cockatoo with "Flat Stanley" at the Audubon Zoo
Zazous, the rescued Moluccan cockatoo with “Flat Stanley” at the Audubon Zoo

There are many reasons people choose to train an animal.  Some people train animals to avoid being bitten, attacked, or crushed by them.  Some people train animals to avoid being their next meal.  Some people train animals to make their lives easier when working with them.

Those are a few of the reasons why I started training animals, but over the years I started to appreciate other reasons for training them.

I became dedicated to training animals because we had fun together!  I enjoyed training them because it enhanced our relationship.  I looked forward to training them because it was fun challenge, where everyone would win!   I appreciated training animals because I always learned something new about them.  I became humbled when training animals because they always found a way to “train” me in the process.  Training became one of my favorite forms of communication.  Training became an essential part of my life.  Training was an essential part of their life.

Something else I learned while training animals:  If someone acquired the skills, understood the techniques, and practiced patience, they could do it, too.

I am not special.  I merely took the time to learn the techniques.  I practiced the skills.  I learned patience.  I made mistakes.  And I tried again and again.

That’s why I want to talk with you about training.  You can train animals the force-free way, too!  But before we begin, you have to understand what training really is.


What Is Training?

 

Training is “teaching”.

When we make a conscious effort to train an animal to display a particular behavior, we are training the animal.  However, sometimes we influence (train) our animal’s behavior inadvertently, without being aware that we are teaching them.  We do this through our actions, or through other stimuli present in their environment.

That’s why it’s so important that we become aware of that fact that we are always training.

Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, you influence what your animal companion learns.  You are their teacher.  As their caretaker, you are teaching the animals that you care for 24 hours a day!  Now ask yourself, what are you teaching them?

ALL ZOO PICS FROM WORK PC 026
When Menari, the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) was born, we made sure that every interaction she had with us was a positive one. She was gradually exposed to people, places, and things that would help her to feel safe and secure in our human world.

Training is all about associations.

The key to an optimal environment at home (or in captivity) is to assist an animal’s opportunity to make associations that enhance its overall well-being.   Simply put, as their guardians (or caretakers), we help animals to feel more secure, safe, and content in their environment by creating scenarios where the animal feels good about who and what they encounter every day.   As various training methods are being applied to an increasingly diverse number of species, it is important to understand what methods are appropriate (and which are not appropriate).

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Dedicated animal trainers teaching one of our giraffe that people = only Good Things!

Training is about building a relationship.

When we are training an animal using positive methods, we are building trust.  Trust is the foundation on which all relationships are built upon.   Positive-based training is one of the best ways to enhance the relationship between a person and an animal, and maintain this trust for a lifetime.  Training increases trust and builds confidence. It builds bonds that last a lifetime!  Training creates a happy, harmonious environment.

 

Reward-Based Training is how you gain the trust of animals, like our handsome Tapir, named Melon!
Reward-Based Training is how you gain the trust of animals, like our handsome Tapir, named Melon!

Trust is one of the most important aspects of any training plan.  What defines a good relationship between trainer and trainee is a strong positive reinforcement history.

 


Why Training Is Essential

Training is a key component to an animal’s well being.  Training is the key to safety, harmony, and well-being in our homes!  A home without a well trained, well behaved animal is chaotic and stressful.  Most – if not all – animal behavioral issues can be successfully managed with a formal training plan.  From trips to the vet, to trips to the park, training is at the heart of having these experiences be a positive one for everyone involved.

This Rhino learned through positive training that people are safe, which allowed our zoo guests to interact with her.
This rhino learned through positive training that people are safe, which allowed our guests to interact with her on a daily basis. She could choose if she wanted to interact with them, or not. These same methods of learning can be used on your pets at home!

 

Animals deserve the best care we can possibly provide. Training should not be considered a luxury that is only provided if there is time; it is an essential part of good animal care.  Just as one would never consider developing an animal care program without a veterinary component, a nutritional component, a social component, and an environmental component; nobody should consider caring for an animal without a behavioral management component integrated into the program. ~ Ken Ramirez

 


Every year, Ken Ramirez leads a sold-out seminar for students and professionals in the animal training field.  Ken was one of my greatest teachers as I was learning about the science of animal training.  Watch Ken’s interview, as he explains why training is essential, how we are training animals every day- whether we realize it or not, and how the laws of learning work on all species, including people!

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CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO WATCH the VIDEO!

We are limited in what we can accomplish because of preconceived notions of what is possible.  When we limit ourselves or our pets, we also limit our view of what is possible.  Of course, there are limits to what we can train.  But sometimes we don’t give our dogs credit for being capable of far more than what we see them do traditionally.  

~Ken Ramirez, Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Animal Training at the world-renowned Shedd Aquarium; Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer at Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT)


Why Training Your Pet Improves Their Life, and Yours!

In the video below, Ken Ramirez share tips on how to train your own furry friend using the same world-class training and care that endangered species receive in captivity!  He also explains why clickers and “targeting” are helpful when training pets.  Ken demonstrates these techniques with a shelter dog that was once trained for dog fighting.  See how force-free, science-based training has transformed this Fighting Fido into a Canine Companion:

My message would be simple: Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.  Everyone who has a pet should understand that basic fact.  Training is a way to enhance the quality of life for our pets.  It is far more than just teaching a dog to do a cute trick.  Training is about teaching a dog (or any animal) how to live in our world safely.  ~Ken Ramirez

 

hocus pocus
Positive, reward-based training has transformed my relationship with Hocus Pocus, and it has helped her to live in our human more safely and securely.

 

Animal training should be about mutual respect.  The goal is to build a relationship based on trust.  When we build trust while respecting the animal’s individual needs and preferences, we enhance the bond between the animal and the human.  The results improve our life, and the life of our animal companion. ~ Conscious Companion

Coming Up Next:  How Animals Learn – It’s Not an Opinion; It’s Science!


Recommended Reading:

Thinking Beyond the Cue: Ken Ramirez Takes Animal Training to a New Level

Shedd Aquarium Participates in Beluga Conservation Research Program

Holy Moly Hormones!

“Why is patience so important?”
“Because it makes us pay attention.” 
― Paulo Coelho

These are a few behaviors that parrot guardians often see during The Season of Hormones!

It’s that time of year again! … Spring is here. The hormones have kicked in. Get Ready.

Many of you know the scenario: One day your affectionate parrot is a content, happy member of your family, and the next minute he or she is acting like a psychotic monster attacking everyone and everything! Hormones are on the rise, feathers are flying, and beaks are gnashing!

These Jekyll and Hyde personality changes are often due to “mating” season (AKA Spring to us humans).  Bird hormones tend to kick into high gear as their bodies prepare for ‘breeding season’. Don’t be mad at your feathered friend. They can’t help it, and their behavior only serves a greater purpose for them in the wild: Hormones dictate breeding success in birds.

Some animals produce more offspring than others. Hormones like prolactin and corticosterone can exercise a crucial influence on the behaviour of birds in the breeding season and therefore on their reproductive success. ~ Princeton University researchers

In the world of birds, the arrival of Spring means one very important thing: it’s time to get their bird breeding on!  Mating is how their species survives!  So strap on your patience pants, and maybe a harness for yourself, because this is most likely going to be a bumpy ride!

For many parrot guardians this is a very trying time of year. Here’s are two things that you can do to get through this without losing your mind – or a finger: be patient and compassionate.  This is a difficult time for your feathered friend as well.  Their hormones are changing to prepare for breeding. This affects their bodies, and their moods. Remember how awful your hormonal years were?? These changes can make them more irritable. You can expect more screaming, biting, more destruction, and more unpredictable mood swings. Again, you must be patient; this won’t last forever.  It will get better if you know how to help them.

Read on to discover some of the common signs of hormonal behavior in birds, and how to help your feathered friend cope with these hormone surges, so you can have a safer, healthier home environment.

It’s very important to recognize the signs and symptoms of a hormonal parrot, so we don’t merely label them as “crazy” or “mean”. Remember that every behavior serves a purpose to that animal.  It’s up to us as their guardians to be the detective and help them cope in our human world.

What To Look For:

• Eye pinning (pupils dilating and constricting)
• Wing flapping
• Tail fanning
• Trembling, with wings dropped low in a ‘begging’ posture (he/she is asking you to feed him as a mate)
• Panting when touched outside of the head and neck area
• Regurgitating for you or for his/her toys
• Increased appetite
• Lifting the vent while cuddling (if female)
• Mounting your hand by gripping your thumb (if male)
• Head-bobbing, hopping/bouncing, or making ‘heart wings’ for you
• Plucking or barbering feathers
• Territoriality over the cage, room, you, or a family member
• Excess aggression; including biting, screaming, and beak-bashing

Hormones (triggered by weather changes, increased daylight hours and a variety of other factors) start coursing through the blood stream bringing about chemical changes in the body and some pretty odd behaviors.

Other companion Bird Hormone Surge signs to be aware of:

Note: Depending on the species, age, and individual animal, nesting behavior can last from a couple of weeks to a month or more.

 

If you are seeing any of these behaviors, read on to learn a few tips to help a hormonally charged bird:

  • Gently avoid encouraging amorous advances from your feathered friend.
  • Be more aware of your bird’s body language; aggression can be avoided if you are paying attention to their signals.

 

Please note: “Serious physical and psychological problems can develop if pet birds remain in reproductive hormone behavior for prolonged periods. Such birds are considered to be in chronic reproductive status (CRS), and owners should seek the assistance of their avian veterinarian and/or a parrot behavior consultant to help resolve this situation.”

 

fearless

Sited Sources:

http://www.birdchannel.com

 

Cat Agility Is Here To Stay!

The only difference between your abilities and others is the ability to put yourself in their shoes and actually try. ― Leonardo Ruiz

The world is full of crazy people doing crazy cool things, so it takes a lot to impress me these days, but a young girl from the Czech Republic has trained her cat, Suki, to do agility.  So have many others.  Yes, you read that right: Cats are now doing agility.  The sport no longer belongs to just dogs.

If you haven’t heard about dog agility, then you are missing out on some pretty amazing dog and handler skills.  My dog Hocus Pocus and I absolutely love to do agility together!  Nothing has strengthened our bond more.  We are not experts by any means, but we do have a blast, and I discovered that she is incredibly skilled at this sport.  Dog agility competitions are so much fun! Dogs soar through the complex obstacle courses with determination and speed.  Now, just imagine a cat doing that.

Well, they can and they DO!  Most people (even the most loving cat guardians) don’t realize that cats are easily trainable.  If you have a cat that is willing to follow a dancing feather toy, or favorite food treat anywhere, then you have the tools to begin cat agility!

cat tricks cat agility training

The videos below show cat agility in action.  It’s amazing not only because cats are doing agility – quite well I must say – but it’s so inspiring to clearly see the bond that the cat and the person share together.  This makes my heart sing, because it’s what I strive to teach young people; that they are capable of doing this and more with their feline companion!

Watch the 16 month young Suki’s agility in action, and performing cat “tricks” with her person! What a team!

suki the agility cat

 

Suki the cat at 8 months young and her person run the homemade agility course together:

You can view more of their happiness here.

Young people are practicing and perfecting cat agility in their homes all around the world.  This young man has taught his cat, Cashmere, to rebound off of walls, all through the use of clicker training!  Check out Cashmere and Puff!

cat agility

Feline agility competitions have rapidly grown in popularity all around the world.  The Cat Fancy Association started agility competitions in 2004, and other clubs have “jumped” at agility courses! The International Cat Agility Tournament is another example.  The first agility competition was held in Portland, Oregon as part of the Oregon Cats show.  It was titled, “Let the Cats Entertain You”.  Forty-five cats entered. Some were pedigreed and some were moggies! They ranged from kittens to adults!

You can find upcoming cat agility shows (where you can enter your cat, or just watch the event) on the CFA cat show schedule and here.  You can see a video of a kitten in training for the CFA Feline Agility here.

cat agility

With the insight and right tools, you can train your feline friend to do all of this!  Once you begin training your cat, you will interact in ways you never thought possible.  It’s really quite easy, and it’s FUN for both you and your feline friend!  Clicker training is how you can do it!

cat-training-kit-3

 If you can dream it, you can do it. ― Helen Keller

That Guilty Look

 “Calvin : There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.” 
― Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

guilty dog_dog shaming

 

Common Myth: When our pup puts on that doleful, guilty look, they must be guilty of something, right? He/she clearly feels bad for doing something wrong.

TRUTH: Your dog knows you are angry or upset and is using that particular body posture in their attempt of using dog language to get you to calm down and avoid any punishment from you.

 

The Science-Based Truth Behind That Guilty Expression:

Nearly 75 percent of dog guardians believe that their dogs experience guilt. Just watch Denver Dog, as he is presumed to feel very guilty in this video. It’s a natural tendency for us to interpret animal behavior in our human terms, but when we anthropomorphize (compare animal behavior to human behavior) we can overlook what is really happening.  Guilt is a human emotion.  Humans often project this guilt onto their animal companions.

Dog guardians observe particular behaviors: “avoiding eye contact, lying down and rolling to the side or onto the back, dropping the tail, wagging low and quickly, holding one’s ears down or head down, moving away from the owner, raising a paw and licking” – and owners believe these behaviors correspond with a dog’s feeling of guilty.  However, these are normal and very common dog behaviors that dogs display with each other, depending on the circumstances. These displays are called “appeasement behaviors” – behavior that inhibits or neutralizes aggression in a behavioral partner.

 

When a dog owner reprimands their dog, especially with loud, deep tones, the dog will attempt to calm the aggressive behavior of the owner (note: aggressive does not necessarily mean violent) with appeasement gestures: lowered head, ears, tail and body and squinty eyes. To the owner, this looks “guilty.”

In reality, the dog is only reacting to the behavior of the owner in the present moment and not associating the owner’s behavior with the actions of the dog that occurred hours before. The owner, however, is gratified by the dog’s appeasement gestures, taking it as evidence that the dog has learned he’s “bad.” ~ 4Paws University

 

dog guilt _dog shaming _Guilty dog
Denver the dog is displaying appeasement behaviors to his human. This does not equate to proof that Denver feels “guilty”.

“In wolves, guilt-related behaviors are believed to reinforce social bonds, as in primates, by reducing conflict and eliciting tolerance from other members of the social group. The same could be true of dogs, though their social groups would primarily include humans. Submission serves to keep a social group together, to foster group cohesion.”

 

The “guilty look” — head cowered, ears back, eyes droopy — is a reaction to the minor (or major) tantrum you are now having over the damage fido did hours earlier. They are not making the connection that you must be upset because of that poop they dropped on the rug, or the shoe they chewed that you left out. They only know you are upset about something, so they are doing what dogs do best to appease each other through nonthreatening body language.

The dog’s guilty look is a response to the owner’s behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds.

A study discovered that the “guilty” look people claim to see in their companion animal is directly related to whether or not the person expected to see the look, regardless of whether or not the dog had actually done something to be “guilty” about.  When a dog looks guilty it is because they are reacting to a change in our body language that tells them something is wrong.   This leads to a dog’s body language that appears worried or nervous to us.  In reality the dog has learned to exhibit these behaviors in order to appease humans who display angry or upset body language.  Details of the research studies are here and here.

Unless your dog has been going to canine church behind your back, and has been taught to feel guilty for moral or religious reasons, it’s safe to assume that they are not actually feeling guilty; they are using their canine senses and behavior to carefully appease your anger.

paw print

 You can learn more about this subject from dog behaviorists, and read their take on it here and here.

Learn more common myths and truths about dog behavior in Decoding Your Dog, a new book from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Drs. Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi.

Myths About Dog Behavior
Myths About Dog Behavior

 Sources:

Scientific American

Discovery

Boredom Busters!

boredom busters

Rainy days and Mondays don’t have to get them down! There is always something that we can do as pet guardians to help our animals when they are bored, frightened, or frustrated.

There is a very popular homemade game that dog guardians have been playing with their dogs for years, and now you get to play along too!

Here is what you need to do: Get a 6 muffin tin and put their favorite treat or food in each cup. Place tennis balls in about half the cups. Once the animal sniffs out the uncovered treats, s/he usually figures out that removing the tennis balls reveals more tasty goodies. This game uses at least two of an animal’s senses – sight and smell – and it’s mentally challenging!

Watch these dogs learn how the game works in the videos below.

 

NOTE: This game was created for dogs of all ages (puppies, adult dogs, and even geriatric dogs!), but it can be modified for ferrets, horses, cats, pigs and parrots!

Once the animal gets the idea and is performing well at the game, you can start hiding treats under only some of the tennis balls, and use a 12 muffin or 24 muffin tin.  Increase the difficulty to keep their brains working!

A bonus to this homemade game is that it’s also great for helping shy animals to increase their confidence. It can also help distract an animal to focus on something exciting and fun when you leave the house, or if they are afraid of storms, or new guests in your home.  It is also a great tool for shelter animals in kennels. This is a great tool to help alleviate boredom. This game also helps them to practicing their hunting or foraging skills, while increasing the bond between you and your animal companion!

paw print

Game Tip: If your pet is shy, confused, or uninterested, be sure to encourage him/her as they approach the tin. Make it a huge success each time they discover the hidden treat! Be their biggest fan when they succeed!

Safety Tip: If your animal starts to toss the tin around, you can try a nonslip mat or attach the muffin tin to a large piece of plywood to anchor it.

Toy Dog Tip: If you have a very small dog, use tiny tennis balls or golf balls.

 

paw print

Kitty Tip: Most cats will play the game for their regular food, and even fresh catnip! Use ping pong balls or golf balls.

Parrot Tip: Use walnuts, pecans, or other assorted nuts that they rarely have access to. They will quickly learn to love this game!

Ferret Tip:  Use their regular diet, or for a special treat use cooked egg whites, cooked yolks, or dried muscle/organ meat.

Smart Cookie Tip: If your pet’s intelligence level is anything like our critters’, this game will be over fairly quickly. One way to extend the game is to ask your pet to “wait” while you hide the tray in another room, then have him/her “Find It!”.


What kind of boredom buster games do you play with your animals at home? Please share with us!

Thank Them for Showing Up

bonding with your dog

He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader.  He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart.  You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion. ~ Unknown Author

Last night while most of the world watched the Olympics, I was wide-eyed, giddy, and on the edge of my seat watching the Westminster’s Masters Agility Championship live from New York.  Yeah, I know, it sounds riveting. Let me explain.

For the first time in its 138-year history, the famous Westminster Kennel Club allowed mixed-breed dogs to compete in a brand new competition called the Masters Agility Championship. For nearly 140 years, the Westminster Kennel Club has closed its doors to mixed breeds, known as “All American dogs”, focusing only on the conformation, physical abilities, and skill of only purebred dogs.  This inclusion allowed dog guardians from all over the world to show that everyday dogs can go nose-to-nose with their purebred peers.

I, along with many others felt that this was a huge step in the right direction of celebrating and recognizing all dogs, regardless of their pedigree.  Many of these high-spirited, high energy dogs are all too often dropped off at shelters by people who just don’t know how to deal with their energy and enthusiasm. So it really was such a joy and pleasure to see the All American Dogs go paw to paw with the purebreds.

Reese, a four year young Papillon from North Carolina, is a great example of what this new sort of competition means. Reese was surrendered to a rescue organization as a puppy because his original owner thought he had too much energy. His new owner is an X-ray technician who doubles as Reese’s handler.  They found a way to channel his energy by working with a qualified trainer, and Reese now competes in trials about twice a month.  He even became a bit of a celebrity last week when The Charlotte Observer published an article about his appearance at Westminster.  Another “All American Dog” named Emma is one more example of an incredible but true, underdog success story. Emma went from doggie death row to Westminster row!  Emma was abandoned, found and taken to a 48 hour high-kill shelter, rescued, and then three years later, Emma was chosen to compete at Westminster!

As cool as all of that is, something else really moved me. Even with all the pressures of being at the very first Westminster agility championship, and being live on international television, the handlers (trainers of the dogs) praised the heck out of their dog at the end of each agility run, no matter how well or how poorly their dog did.  Even if the dog stopped on the course, refused an obstacle, or performed less than desirable in any way, the handler treated the dog as if they had won best in show. It moved me to tears to see that kind of love, loyalty, and support from a dog trainer toward their beloved canine companion while under such pressure.

Let’s back up here for a bit so you can really understand why this is So Huge, and such an act of love and devotion.  These expert handlers and dogs practice for hours on end, for weeks and months at a time to perfect these obstacles on the agility course.  Many have been practicing agility training for decades, and some for only a few years.  Regardless of how long they have been working together to master the obstacle course, they train day in and day out to get it right.  The handlers and dogs go through rigorous (but fun) training to get to where they are so they can compete with the best of the best at the Westminster Agility Trials.  About 225 dogs, including 15 mixed breeds, were entered in Saturday’s agility drills.  They are given a map of the course to review (the people, not the dogs) and then they are expected to perform at their very best, having never run on this course before.  Yesterday each dog and their handler took the ring twice for qualifying rounds, with the best performers moving to the championship round. The dogs, representing 63 breeds from 23 states, were randomly selected from a pool of 653 entrants. Eventually they are narrowed down to 50, and then as more are eliminated, the best of the best get their Game On.

Our dog, Hocus Pocus, and I are very new to the agility world. We started agility training in September of last year.  I had no idea the bond that it would create between us, how much we would both love doing it, how amazing of a team we were together, and how additive it is!  Once a week for an hour and a half we were both pushed to the max both physically and mentally. I always knew that training can be stressful for all animals, but during our agility training together is when I really started to understand and appreciate the phrase “learning can be very stressful” for you and the animal that you are training.

So when I watched the agility trails last night I was so amazed when I saw the love, pride, and joy in the faces of the handlers after the dogs finished the course, no matter how poorly or well they or their dogs did.  They weren’t frustrated or angry. They were genuinely proud of the dog and they celebrated their dog’s success of just showing up and trying their best!  They didn’t get mad or frustrated with themselves or the dog for making mistakes! They went with whatever happened, and not only accepted it, but also celebrated at the end, no matter what it meant! I was amazed at how genuinely happy they were and how much they lavished their dog with love and praise, even when the dog or the handler totally screwed up! It was a tough course and one that really challenged some of the best agility dogs in the world, but the dogs and trainers showed up and gave it 110 percent.

I could see this happening and I appreciated it because I knew the feeling. I knew what it was like to try so hard and want yourself and your dog to succeed. Every night that Hocus and I went to agility I was nervous. I wanted to have my timing right for her, because she is a wicked fast learner, so I knew that if I was tired or distracted, her results would suffer because of me.  Before we went into class I would affirm that I wasn’t going to forget the cues, and I was going to do it right this time, for her. But the most important thing that I would remember was to say to her, “No matter what happens tonight I am so proud of you. You make me so proud every day. I love you. Now let’s go have some fun.”

Last night while watching the Westminster Agility Championship I was so moved to see every one of the remaining competitors give their dog the same love and respect that I gave to Hocus before every practice session.  I really hadn’t expected to see that.at a world famous competetion.   I figured that if I could be stressed and nervous before agility practice with no one there, they had to be out of their minds stressed beyond belief!  I know that the handlers were stressed, anxious, and nervous. I know those dogs felt their anxiety, nervousness, and tension, but they ran the difficult and complicated course, accepted the mishaps and mistakes, and still celebrated their dog at the end. It was truly amazing.

This is what competition is all about. Showing up, having fun, accepting the results, and praising your partner!  It’s not about the outcome, the finish line, the well behaved moments, the perfect timing, the correct cues and behaviors. It’s about the connection you have together. It’s about them trying. It’s about you trying. It’s about knowing you can lose, but giving 100 percent anyway. It’s about the bond you are strengthening. It’s about just showing up.  That’s all that either of you have to do; just show up. Smile. Breathe. Just get out there. Have fun with your dog.  Because that’s all your dog wants from you. And thank them for just showing up.

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Purebred and mixed-breed dogs show off their grace and skills in the Westminster Kennel Club’s first agility competition.  Handlers raced against the clock while directing their dogs through a complicated obstacle course with tunnels, jumps, weave poles, teeter-totters, A-frames and dog walks.  Instead of being judged on appearance and temperament, they earn points for their speed, jumps, and turns through the obstacles.  

You can view some footage of the day trials in the video below. 

 

Note: This video was not footage of the final agility contestants. Video of the finals was on FOX Sports 1 last night. It was an incredible LIVE premiere of the Masters Agility Championship at Westminster in New York.  If you missed it, check your local listings as it’s scheduled to replay again a few times this week! It was amazing!

Agility, particularly is exciting for spectators and for the dogs themselves, as that it’s a race over a number of obstacles and it gets great fan support and, in fact, is the fastest growing area of the dog world in terms of events. ~ Sean McCarthy, President, Westminster Kennel Club

“You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a dog for it to surpass your wildest dreams.”

If you want to learn more about the Westminster Dog Agility Championship trials, you can:

  • Follow them on Facebook here
  • Visit their website here:
  • See pics on their Instagram page here.
Hocus Pocus and me at Agility Training here in NC
Hocus Pocus and me at agility training here in NC

Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole. ~Roger Caras