Thinking in pictures provides insight into the world of animals
Temple Grandin’s professional resume is impressive: BS, MS and PhD degrees; dozens of awards and professional papers; author, editor and subject of books and videos; and currently associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Dr. Grandin is also autistic, which she credits for her ability to understand how animals see, think and feel. We talk with her about her riveting book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (co-written with Catherine Johnson, PhD).
Claudia Kawczynska: You liken animals to autistic savants. How are animals similar to autistic people?
Temple Grandin: First of all, autistic people don’t think in language, we think in pictures. During my thinking process I have no words in my head at all, just pictures. So if you say the word “teapot,” I start to see teapots, like a teapot slide show of teapots. Animals don’t think in language; they are visual thinkers too. When you think in pictures, it has to be specific in order to form concepts.
Like when I was a little kid—in order to figure out that a dog was different from a cat, I used to sort animals out by size: horses are big, dogs came up to my waist and cats were smaller. But then our next-door neighbors bought a Dachshund—now, there was a dog the same size as a cat! What I figured out was that all dogs—no matter how big or small—had the same nose. I picked out a visual feature that every single dog has that none of the cats had.
People with autism also have tremendous memory and tend to think in details. You probably have seen the Rain Man kind of memory, where people with autism can memorize big parts of a phone book [and] can memorize maps and do number calculations. So let’s look at some of the things that animals do that would be savant-like—let’s take bird migration. Look at Canada geese or other migrating birds. They just have to be shown the route once by the other birds, and they remember the rest. There is no person that could do that.
CK: You point out another difference: Animals don’t have defense mechanisms, such as denial.
TG: It is the same with autistic people—one of the things that blows my mind about normal humans is [their capacity for] denial. When I see that something isn’t going to work, I say so, but when I do, I am accused of being negative! I also think that animals don’t have an unconscious and thus don’t have defense mechanisms. You never see a dog act as if a dangerous situation is safe.
CK: What does it mean to be detail-oriented rather than a generalist?
TG: Visual thinkers of any species, animal or human, are detailed-oriented. They see everything and they react to everything. The big difference between animals and people is that animals and autistic people don’t see their ideas of things, they see the actual things themselves. We see the details that make up the world—normal people blur all those details together into their general concept of the world.
Animals will have place-specific fears. I knew a dog that was hit by a car, and you would think that he would be afraid of cars after that. No, he was afraid of that one spot in the road where he got hit. Because that is what he was looking at the time he was hit. [It was as though] he saw a picture of that spot and would think, “Unh-unh, I’m not going there.”
CK: Do animals have consciousness?
TG: Of course animals have consciousness. The reason that researchers might not think they do is that they can’t imagine thinking without language. But I remember when I was in college, I read that the caveman could not have invented tools without language. I kept saying that is a bunch of BS, because when I design things, I do not use language. I test run equipment in my mind; I can see it in my mind.
CK: You take a rather firm stance on single-trait breeding, citing “rapist roosters” and “needle-nose Collies” as examples of the unintended consequences of this kind of breeding.
TG: I started out in farm animals, and I saw this a lot in farm animals. I saw horrible problems. Like in the pigs who were bred for rapid growth and leanness—they got pigs that were so nervous they were about to jump out of their skin, pigs who had heart attacks and fell over. I don’t think that they thought that breeding for any single trait would result in such hypercrazy pigs.
With domestic animals, we are the main engine of evolution. We’re constantly changing the body of an animal, but we are also changing them emotionally, too. Physical and emotional traits are linked in unexpected ways. If you overselect for a single trait, you are going to wreck your animal. I don’t care what the trait is.
Purebred dogs are bred mainly for appearance, to meet a standard that is heavily tilted toward physical criteria, not emotional or behavioral. One of the reasons that I think mutts are more emotionally stable is that no one is practicing single-trait selective breeding with them. I think that any time you selectively breed for one trait, eventually you wind up with neurological problems; in dogs, it’s likely to be aggression.
CK: Could you talk a little about both the part of the brain that Dr. Jaak Panksepp calls the SEEKING circuit and oxytocin, the so-called love hormone?
TG: Researchers used to think that the reason drugs like cocaine feel good and are addictive is that they raise dopamine levels, the main neurotransmitter associated with the SEEKING circuit. But researchers see things differently now—instead of dopamine being a pleasure chemical, they now think that what is being stimulated is the SEEKING system in the brain—not any pleasure center.
What feel good and what are stimulated are curiosity/interest/anticipation circuits. Just like when a dog is about to be fed—that dinnertime wag-and-smile, one of the happiest moments of a dog’s day. This part of the brain starts firing when the animal sees a sign that food might be nearby, but stops firing when the animal actually sees the food—this helps the animal search for food, but eating the food is something else! It’s the search—the seeking—itself that feels good.
Oxytocin in females and vasopressin in males are hormones related to estrogen and testosterone. [The levels of] both shoot up in brains during sex, and oxytocin levels rise right before a female gives birth. They aren’t just “sex” hormones, they are “love” hormones, too. Oxytocin is important to all social activities, and is essential to social memory—it’s the hormone that lets animals remember each other; it is also the maternal hormone. I think that dogs have fairly high oxytocin levels—they are highly social animals. A dog’s oxytocin level rises when his owner pets him and, in turn, petting a dog raises a human’s oxytocin levels, too. I don’t think anyone has researched it yet, but I think that dogs make humans into nicer people and better parents.
CK: The battle is still raging over the issue of animals and cognition. What is your position on that?
TG: I like the way Marion Stamp Dawkins [a researcher at Oxford] defines thinking in animals. She says that true cognition happens when an animal solves a problem under novel conditions. While no one has ever seen a dog make a tool, dogs can definitely problem-solve in novel situations. There are so many cases of this in guide dogs and search-and-rescue dogs.
And then there are Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s breakthrough studies with Alex [the African Grey parrot], which should make researchers think twice. She added the defining touch to social modeling theory. Basically, it was how she taught Alex. Two people sat in front of the parrot, and one of them would have a cheese puff and would say to the other, “You want the puff?” and the other would say, “I want the puff.” The first person would then give it to him. They did this right in front of the parrot. Back and forth. So then one day, the parrot said “puff” and was given the puff. He finds out that language relates to the object. Then he sees the action.
The moral of Dr. Pepperberg’s story, and the reason she finally succeeded where others had failed, was that she was the first person to consider that maybe it was the researchers’ fault that birds weren’t learning anything, not the birds’. She went beyond classical behaviorism and operant conditioning; she tried a different branch of behaviorism called social modeling theory. It is the way real people and real animals learn in the real world.
Just think of wolves. How could they learn to hunt if they didn’t observe it? The ultimate goal is to get food, but how to find the food? You have to first learn that it is food. They don’t know that the prey is food. Hunting is a predatory instinct, but you have to learn what you eat, and you learn that from Mother. You learn from observation.
Singing sensation puts her voice where her heart is
Neko Case grew up surrounded by more animals than people, and her love and respect for non-humans is reflected in both her life and her music—more so than ever on Middle Cyclone, which debuted at number three on the U.S. album sales chart in March.
“My parents were gone all the time and I was an only child, so it was me and dogs, cats, goats, whatever,” the big-voiced alternative country artist says of her youth. “And we often lived in the middle of nowhere, so I was just friends with them. I felt a lot of empathy for them and they for me.”
Nature and animal themes run throughout Middle Cyclone, Case’s sixth and most successful studio album. A prime example is lead single “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” in which she sings about caged animals getting revenge of their keepers. Earlier this year, Case and her label, Anti-Records, used the song as a fundraiser and donated to Best Friends Animal Society every time the song was posted on a blog or added to an iLike user’s online profile. The campaign raised approximately $4,000 in about six weeks.
Case also donated “Star Witness” to a two-disc compilation titled Giving Animals a Voice Through Music: Best Friends Animal Society 25th Anniversary Collection. Proceeds from album sales support the society’s campaign to stop puppy mills. Best Friends is close to Case’s heart, since her four dogs came from pounds and shelters.
“Somebody might think one thing about dogs but, when you give them a little bit of love, they just blossom and become something totally different,” the 38-year-old says. “They all have so much potential in them.
“Throwing them away is just the saddest thing ever. Dogs give a very specific kind of love that is really necessary. I think that we’re companion species with each other. I think humans need dogs and dogs need humans.”
Case’s previous dog, Lloyd, died of cancer and left a gaping hole in her life, which she filled with a Chow/Shepherd named Liza and three ex-racing Greyhounds: Swan-Y, Guy and Travis, who recently lost a leg to cancer but is still full of vim and vigor.
“I would have had more dogs when I had Lloyd, but he wanted to be the only dog, and I had to respect that,” Case explains. “My new crowd of dogs love having other dogs—they’re hilarious.”
Case, who’s a member of pop group The New Pornographers as well as a solo artist, is on the road touring in support of her albums for long stretches of time, but she says she has trusted friends who take care of the dogs in her absence.
“I don’t even know if they notice I’m gone. They get so much attention and they’re so loved. They get excited and love me when I come home, but they love everyone else, too. They’re not one-people dogs. I like that they feel comfortable enough to give themselves to other people to share.”
For all things Neko, visit her here.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Welcoming the whole flock
Tango went to church all summer. My little black dog even had her own chair—and mostly she stayed on it, except during the sermons, when she would lie down on the cool floor to sleep. Reverend Molly McGreevy, assistant to the rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford, Connecticut, had invited her to come, thinking that her small size and quiet manner would disturb no one.
Tango and I had first come to St. Francis for an exhibit of my photographs of the rescue of Sato dogs, strays that roam the streets of Puerto Rico. I had met Tango in the Puerto Rican Animal Welfare Shelter, where she sat in a crate with her puppies, and had fallen in love with her sad, soulful eyes. Since then, she and I have become inseparable. Naturally, she accompanied me to the exhibit at the church, where she was warmly welcomed by Rev. McGreevy, a lover of all creatures great and small.
For a while, Tango was the only dog to attend the regular Sunday service, and her docile behavior brought smiles to many faces in the congregation. The children flocked to pet her. She seemed to realize that this was a place were you were safe and loved.
Having a dog in church seemed like a good idea.
Soon a gentle Standard Poodle was coming too. And when a large, black and relatively quiet Labrador joined the congregation, the canine contingent was up to three. Everything was fine until one particular Sunday, when, during a service, someone sneezed. “That became a kind of allergy alert,” explained Rev. McGreevy. In addition, a few parishioners were worried that the dogs might get out of hand.
“Some parents,” McGreevy said, “were fearful that during the [church’s] coffee hour, with so many people, a child would pull a tail and a dog would nip.”
But McGreevy wasn’t ready to give up on the idea all together.
Along with rector Rev. Richard Mayberry and associate rector Rev. Mark Lingle, McGreevy came up with the idea of having a monthly service just for people and their pets. Communion would be offered to the humans, a blessing to their animal companions. When the new service began in November, it attracted a small but devoted congregation.
However, an article in the Wall Street Journal led people to believe that the dogs at St. Francis were receiving communion. The WSJ story was then gleefully picked up by the New York Post’s “Weird but True” column on March 12 (“You can say that St. Francis Episcopal Church in Connecticut has really gone to the dogs …”), as well as in an article entitled “All dogs go to heaven?” in the Boston Globe two days later, which practically had the animals trotting up to the altar to receive the host.
Even though the dogs and cats were only being blessed, not given communion, the church was besieged with calls. Episcopal bishops, irate fundamentalist church-goers, and television and radio stations all contacted the church to see what was going on. (One gentleman even declared St. Francis to be an urban legend.) The Wall Street Journal printed a retraction. Then, though they knew the original article had been mistaken, NBC and CNN made appointments to film the next pet-friendly service.
What all the publicity did was attract even more people to the church. Instead of the normal 10 to 12 congregants, between 75 and 80 people and their animal friends were in attendance on March 21.
The service did more than just fill the church.
As Rev. McGreevy looked out over the expanded congregation during the March animal blessing, she noticed that none of the people had worry lines on their faces. As she said later in a sermon, “They literally glowed with the light of the love that they had for their pets.” She observed that she had never before seen so much innocence gathered in one room.
McGreevy believes that it is important to honor the relationship, the great bond, between pets and people. “I saw it in the room that Sunday of the service. The people and their animals were just connecting. They were living in the present—which is where I know God lives.”
When Margaret Canada, a parishioner of 20 years, brought Katie to the service for the first time, the normally jumpy dog became serene and peaceful. “Katie, my Golden Retriever, is a love puppy,” she explained. “But when she sees people she gets very excited because she loves them so much.” Once in church, however, the dog seemed to sense something spiritual. As Canada said, “She just knew that this was a special moment and she was a completely different dog in that space.” Canada found the church to be a place of peace and love—as did her dog, who settled quietly in the front of the church.
Coming to that quiet, holy place was as good for the owners as it was for the dogs. People who had only nodded at each other in church or around town now spoke for the first time. Others came out feeling healed of their sadness. The morning after the March service, McGreevy, who had recently lost her husband, awoke with a sense of lightness that she had not felt before.
Even some of those who balked at the people/puppy services have been, well, converted.
After the latest animal service, several parishioners came up to Rev. McGreevy and Father Mayberry to say that they had been turned around. As at least one parishioner commented to Mayberry, “I’m glad that someone is doing this.”
“So maybe,” mused the rector, “we’re planting some seeds.”
And Tango, the shy dog who started all the fuss at the church, continues to blossom at St. Francis, greeting children and adults alike with a confident wag of her plumy tail.
A cathedral’s must-attend event—dogs are welcomed
Twice a year, the 18-foot-tall bronze doors of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City swing wide. The 106-year-old Episcopalian cathedral, which is also the seat of the Archdiocese of New York, offers daily religious services and hosts artists-in-residence as well as concerts, dances and readings year-round. But the magisterial main doors, three tons each, are only thrown open on Easter Sunday and for St. John the Divine’s most popular event, the Blessing of the Animals, on the feast day of St. Francis (the Sunday closest to October 4).
The ceremony fills the nave with people accompanied by dogs, cats and birds as well as more exotic creatures. (I once lived near the cathedral and can testify that the sight of more than a thousand people with their dogs, cats, snakes, fish and parakeets—plus an elephant, a camel, a pony, a pair of llamas and a cow, all standing in line for church on Sunday—is something to behold!) “There’s never any fighting,” says the Reverend Canon Alan Dennis, who believes the animals instinctively know they’re safe.
The procession into the church is unforgettable. After the humans and their animal companions are seated, the large and exotic animals enter through the great doors. The cathedral has even hosted a giraffe; the main vault is tall enough to fit the Statue of Liberty off her base—plenty of room for a giraffe.
St. Francis’s prayer, Canticle of the Sun, is read, in which Francis invokes Brother Sun and Sister Moon as evidence of the creator's grace. Dancers in white wave banners, the voices of the St. Francis Day Festival Choir rise and soar, and parishioners stand holding hands or raising their arms to the sounds of Paul Winter’s New Age composition, Missa Gaia, interwoven with the haunting cries of whale, wolf and loon. This is a modern spiritual event with deep and venerable roots.
Canon Dennis says he had one of life’s mystical experiences when, during a blessing, he stood next to a bald eagle. “The eagle was this far away from me,” says Dennis, gesturing with his hand a foot away from his head. “Well, I know you aren’t supposed to look into an eagle’s eyes, that that will make them attack, but I figured, the handler has him, so I looked. It was one of the most profound moments in my life. It was like looking into the universe.”
Although people begin lining up with their pets around seven in the morning, the service is so popular that many aren’t able to get in. To make sure no animal is missed, the members of the laity and the clergy rove, spending time outside blessing animals. “It’s the most wondrous thing,” says Dennis. “People will tell us the stories of their animals, and I’ll ask them what blessing they want. Maybe the dog’s having behavioral problems, so they’ll ask that I bless the dog and ask that they be a good dog.” Pro-animal and pro-environmental groups set up stalls, and dancers and musicians perform. It’s one of the Upper West Side’s most popular street fairs—children love the event.
The exotic animals come from a theatrical company, and the farm animals are from Green Chimneys, a 61-year-old school in upstate New York that uses animals, including therapy dogs, to help children with learning and emotional problems. “Everyone loves our llamas, Java and Lily,” says Green Chimneys staffer Deborah Bernstein, “but my favorite is Lucy the goose.”
Students from Green Chimneys, participants in the school’s “Farm on the Moo-ve” program, a project that takes Green Chimneys’ animals into the community, are also part of the procession. Children bring animals to nursing homes, community centers and schools to demonstrate their care and as outreach. Participation in Farm on the Moo-ve is a great honor; students work hard to be allowed to join, and their success as animal handlers (and people) is a tribute to their personal growth.
Farm on the Moo-ve is only part of Green Chimneys’ mission to use animals to help children. Students too shy or lacking enough confidence in their skills to read aloud to a person often lose their shyness when reading to a Golden Retriever. Deborah Bernstein recalls how, when the school had two artic foxes, children with ADD who couldn’t sit still more than a few minutes would wait patiently in silence for half an hour to see the foxes creep out of their dens. “The positive behaviors they learn with animals move into their interactions with humans,” says Bernstein, whose daughter attends the school and has a close attachment to the Green Chimney’s pet rats.
The cathedral initiated the Blessing of the Animals in 1985. A few years earlier, they had commissioned artist-in-residence Paul Winter to write a modern ecclesiastical mass based on medieval traditions. The result was Missa Gaia, an environmentally inspired mass to the Earth. Winter had been mixing environmental sounds with jazz for years, but the Missa Gaia, which debuted at the cathedral in 1981, was radical in its vision of combining spirituality with environmental themes in a piece of Christian music.
Although the Episcopal Church does not formally recognize Francis as the patron saint of the environment, he plays that role for many, so the Feast of St. Francis seemed a natural time to perform the piece. Four years later, the cathedral added the Blessing of the Animals service, bringing an ancient tradition to a modern, pet-loving city.
“I remember at one point during a sermon” says Paul Winter, laughing. “The priest went, ‘And the Lord said…’ and there was a pause, and from the back came a big Woof!”
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
A Q&A with one of our favorite writers
For Geraldine Brooks, the road from her native Sydney, Australia, to the fraught landscapes of the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans was littered with hair-raising experiences, moments of grace and prizes for the quality of her journalism. As a multipublished author, she continues her winning ways with a Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, as well as critical acclaim for People of the Book, Year of Wonders, Foreign Correspondence and Nine Parts of Desire. Imagine our joy when we discovered that she’s also a dog person! Brooks talks to us about art, her “extremely entitled” pups and more. Bark: In People of the Book, you reference a painting by Francis Bacon—Man with Dog (1953)—that happens to be one we like, too. Why did you include it? Geraldine Brooks: I have always loved that painting. I have had two Kelpies in my life—George, of blessed memory, the dog of my youth and the most remarkable animal ever and, currently, Milo—and though I know it’s unlikely that Bacon would ever have met this Aussie breed, the swirl of movement he captures just evokes their spirit and energetic grace so perfectly. B: When you were reporting for the Wall Street Journal from international locations like Bosnia, did you encounter dogs? Did the memory or a story of any of these dogs stay with you? GB: In the countries I covered, dogs had it tough. Most of the time I was in Muslim countries, where dogs are largely despised. The one notable exception was a Golden Retriever in Kurdistan, Iraq. When the family fled their home during Saddam’s brutal retaliation for the Kurdish uprising that followed the first Gulf war, they headed for the border and took their dog with them. The mother, father and two very young kids lived in their car in the freezing cold of the Iranian mountains for several weeks. The dog was with them the whole time. Everyone got sick from the dirty water, poor diet and so forth, including the dog. But they all made it, and eventually got home. The mother died, suddenly and tragically, soon after. When I met up with the father again, he said: “Thank god my kids still have their dog.” B: Did you see cultural differences in attitudes toward dogs as you traveled in these areas? GB: Yes indeed. In Islamic countries, saying you have a dog is as outlandish as saying you have a crocodile. But also in Africa and underdeveloped parts of Eastern Europe, dogs suffer immensely. We see a cultural difference here in our own home. Last July, we brought our lovely adopted five-year-old son home from Ethiopia. There, dogs are either potentially rabid strays, foraging in the streets, or fierce guard dogs, barking on the end of chains. Our son was chagrined to discover our three extremely entitled dogs would be sharing not only his home, but attempting to share his bed, as they do with our older son. His reaction: “I thought I was coming to a clean house!” B: Tell us about your dogs. How did they come into your family’s life? Do they have a role in your writing life—muse, exercise coach, comic relief? GB: All of the above, and more. Our oldest, Shiloh, is 14 now, very old for a Border Collie, and she has become something of a life coach lately, showing us what it means to accept the necessary losses of aging while never really giving up on what makes living worthwhile for you. Just a day or so ago, we were walking in the woods, and she flung herself into the stream as if she were still the agile, swift dog of yore. I had to wade in and fish her out, as her back legs have no strength anymore. But I love her unwillingness to accept that. She came to us as a puppy and when our son was born the following year, she took him on as her life’s work. She’s a fantastically loyal and very stubborn dog. She was lucky enough to stay with Donald McCaig one year when we were in Australia. She proved to be a good lambing dog, he said, but he also described her as “a mule in a dog suit.” While we were in Australia, we got Milo, the second Kelpie of my life. Milo had had a rough patch with his first owner, who must have been abusive and was certainly neglectful. When his breeder saw him at a yard trial in dreadful condition, he immediately bought him back from that owner and rehabbed him before looking for a second placement, which was us. He’s a lovely dog, with the tremendous intelligence of the breed, but even after nine years with us, still has fear/aggression issues with men of a certain build who evidently recall to him his previous owner. Simba came into our family two years ago when my mom came to live with us. He’s a rescue dog—part Pomeranian, part Papillon, maybe. A strawberry-blond furball with limpid brown eyes and an unquenchable spirit. I was afraid the two bigger dogs might mistake him for a chew toy when he first arrived, but instead, he pranced in and more or less took over the joint. He and Milo have wonderful boyish wrestling matches together, the larger dog never, ever overstepping the bounds of safe play even when they’re going at it hammer and tongs. B: In researching your books, did you run across any intriguing historical mentions of dogs? GB: No. But I always try to sneak in mentions of dogs where I can, especially herding breeds. B: Does living with dogs in any way inform your observations or sensibilities? GB: They, like me, love nature. You see things differently when you walk with dogs, so they are my guides to the natural world. I don’t know how you do without them, really. When I lived abroad in Cairo and London and was constantly traveling as a foreign correspondent, I couldn’t have a dog. It was the worst thing about those years by far. I truly think it was one of the factors in giving up reporting. So you could say I have Shiloh to thank for my fiction career. Read more about Geraldine Brooks here.
MUTTS’ Patrick McDonnell on his new book, Guardians of Being
Q: Tell us about Guardians of Being and how the project came about.
Q: Why is it important to connect with animals?
Q: When did you decide to become a cartoonist?
Q: How does your work on books compare to your process producing a daily comic?
Q: You have won numerous awards, not only for cartooning, but also for your work surrounding animal protection issues. Can you speak about how your animal and earth-friendly philosophy influences your work?
Q: Walk us through your creative process.
Q: Is there a life lesson we can take from all the animals we encounter?
Click here to find out more about Guardians of Being, with text by Eckhart Tolle and art by Patrick McDonnell, published by New World Library.
In “Fact or Fiction?” by Sneed B. Collard III, the author tells of his search for the truth about Shep, the Fort Benton, Mont., dog whose loyalty inspired the much-loved children's story as well as Collard's own book, Shep: Our Most Loyal Dog. Now, here's Shep himself, thanks to Fred Arnst, whose father ran Fort Benton’s only movie theater and in his spare time, used his camera skills to record life in Fort Benton in the 1940s and 1950s on 16mm film. This clip is part of the larger story, Historic Fort Benton, Montana, and Shep, a DVD version of that original 16mm compilation; the DVD can be obtained for $19.95 (plus $1.95 shipping) from Fred M. Arnst, 506 Main Ave., La Grande, OR 97850 (phone 541.963.3348 for more information).
Why comedian Carol Leifer loves shelter dogs
Maybe you know Carol Leifer from her guest appearances on Oprah, Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show. Or perhaps you recognize her as the comedic writer and producer of television classics such as The Larry Sanders Show, Saturday Night Live and, most famously, Seinfeld.
How about Carol Leifer, dog lover and animal activist? In her new memoir, When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win, Leifer talks about her love for rescue dogs, and the place her five Chihuahuas and two Terrier mixes hold in her heart.
“Every adoption is a miracle, because you’re taking something dark and horrible and making it light again,” Leifer says in a phone interview from her home in Santa Monica. She first saw her two older Chihuahuas, Cagney and Lacey, both 15, at a shelter, where she learned they were scheduled to be euthanized the next day. “When I called my partner, Lori Wolf, she said, ‘Absolutely not, we already have five dogs!’” But Leifer used her approaching birthday as a way to convince Wolf to agree to fostering the dogs until they could deliver them to Best Friends’ Utah animal sanctuary. “The dogs were jaded from having been in a shelter for so long—they had this “whatever” attitude,” Leifer recalled.
Once in Leifer’s home, though, the dogs morphed into frisky little puppies, and it wasn’t long before Leifer and Wolf failed Fostering 101. “We had to keep them,” she sighs. “I especially love the fact that they didn’t die as seniors in that shelter and are having a happy life, however brief it may be.”
Does Leifer subscribe to the theory that rescue dogs know they’ve been saved and are therefore grateful? “Completely!” she agrees. “You get any shelter dog or cat in your car and you can immediately see the change—they know something really good just happened.”
Another one of her passions is the fight to stop puppy mills. During protests, she often brings Albert, one of her adopted strays, to illustrate that potential dog owners don’t have to rely on pet stores for an adorable dog. “People think Albert is a designer dog because he’s very chichi and so damned cute, but he’s just a Terrier mix,” Leifer says, clearly amused. “When people see that you can get a dog like Albert at a shelter, they’re more likely to adopt.”
And it must be asked: Which does the comedian find funnier, humans or canines? “Oh, dogs!” she quips without missing a beat. “Only a dog can lick his privates and not feel the need to post it on YouTube.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Bloodhound fan and trainer Larry Allen reflects on the delicate bond between dog and handler.
We recently spoke with Larry Allen, dog trainer and working-dog handler extraordinaire. He took time out from his busy day as the emergency management director for a West Virginia county to have a phone chat with us about one of his favorite subjects, training working Bloodhounds. Allen and the rescue Bloodhound, Holly, were featured on “Underdogs,” an episode in the PBS Nature series. In 12 short weeks, Allen turned the “hyperactive” Holly into a working dog who is now a member of the Massachusetts State Police team.
Q. Holly didn’t seem like the typical pet dog. Do you often find “talented” dogs in shelters and rescue situations?
Q. Do Bloodhounds only work with a lead attached to a harness? Are there ever opportunities for them to run off-lead ahead of the handler?
Q. So being on a lead is for their own safety?
Q. How are the signals transmitted? How can you sense, through the lead or other mechanisms, that the dog is actually getting close to the subject—what is that connection? And do you help her?
So when her head starts to come out of the bag, the starting command is given to her. That is the only time that word is given during the entire trail, whether it is 100 feet or 10 miles. And from that point, depending on the tension, on how hard she is pulling on the leash—because if she is not really sure, she will start slowing down—you will pick up slack in the leash. Sometimes it may be an environmental thing she has never encountered before, maybe it is a smell of a particular plant or flower. So then it is the human praise, the “Good girl, you can do it, come on, baby let’s go, let’s go to work,” that reminds the dog that I’m okay here …
So that is what we were doing on Holly’s evaluation trail up in Massachusetts. As she is getting close to the subject (I had no real idea where the guy was other than when we started, they said, “He is out that way.”), as she is coming up, literally from 10 feet away, I see this wiggle starting from the nose and going all the way back. She is trying to run at a full speed and trying to wiggle from one end to the other. She comes flying around this six-foot-high bush, and there is her “runner,” tucked up, sitting on the ground, against this bush. She kind of leans back and takes one of her big front paws and smacks him, jumps back, and goes Woof! Woof! I knew with the tension that she was pulling and her body language—with the Bloodhounds, body language is 90 percent of it—that she found him.
Learning how to read the dog’s language, interpret her clues, is critical. If she was going to make a turn to the left, you would see her head cast off to the left, and then back on the track. If you see her look the second time, you had better be prepared, because the third time she looks, she will be making a turn.
And the helping part—in the training trails, virtually every one of them, you know the solution to the problem before you run the dog on it. That way, you can help the dog rather than just wander aimlessly. But coming up to a decision point, whether it’s a turn or a T-intersection, you basically just start slowing your pace down a little so it allows the dog time to think about what she is doing rather that just charging through. Then, when she makes the correct turn, it is just that quick one or two words of praise, and boom! You’re off and going again.
Q. At the beginning of her training, Holly had a fear of thunder and loud noises. Have you heard about the recent study out of Penn State that measured cortisol levels (as a stress indicator) in dogs with thunderstorm phobia? They found that the dogs’ human had no affect on their stress level, while living with other dogs decreased the levels. Have you seen this effect with your dogs?
It is ironic we have three dogs who are each trained for a different type of work. When the pager goes off or the phone rings, they instantly cue in on my behavior. If they see me putting on a certain type of clothing, or pulling out certain types of equipment, they know which one will be working that day. For instance, if I start pulling out life jackets, my human remains dog goes nuts, because she knows that when she sees that PFD, we are going somewhere. The Bloodhound seems to be thinking, It’s her and not me. I jokingly tell people that with the working dogs, my job is to drive the car, carry the radio and have water. I am firmly convinced that if the dogs had opposable digits, they wouldn’t need me at all.
Q. Why did you start Holly with sight training before scent?
Q. Like clicker training, marking each and all of those little things adds up, and then needs to be reinforced. Training is needed throughout their life, isn’t it? Is Holly still being trained?
Q. Some people say that a human can actually “break” a dog. In other words, the dog has to trust you, and if you give the dog the wrong cues, the wrong direction—and the dog invariably knows better—that confidence between the two of you can be broken. Have you seen this with Bloodhounds?
Each time a dog taps a leather Poochie-Bells doggie doorbell, she’s helping people in southern Africa improve their lives. On a visit to Botswana a few years ago, Poochie-Bells’ owner Cheryl Pedersen made friends with the folks at the Tsienyane Leathercraft Village. Today, village workers hand-cut and dye leather straps exclusively for Poochie-Bells, and in return, receive much-needed income to support their community.
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