Leashes are great for walking dogs in busy neighborhoods. But they also cut down on socialization and can make animals more aggressive toward each other, says Temple Grandin.
"When we were growing up, animals ran free and played with each other. There was no snarling, growling, lunging," she said. "When dogs are on a leash, they think their job is to protect the owner. When they are off leash, it's time to play,"
The animal behavior expert, author and subject of an award-winning film spoke about animal welfare to 330 people Sept. 6 at the August Wilson Center, Downtown. The talk was sponsored by Animal Friends and Huntington Bank.
Dressed in her signature cowboy shirt and khaki pants, Ms. Grandin talked about how her autism and being a "visual thinker" has helped her to understand animal behavior. Dogs are also visual thinkers and store images in their head in "files," she said. Because dogs can close these files but not erase them, it is important that new experiences are positive for them, whether it's going to the veterinarian, meeting a new baby or meeting other animals.
Dogs place children in one visual file, adults in another, Ms. Grandin said. So it is imperative that dogs are socialized with small children from an early age so that they don't see the child as a peer or prey.
Ms. Grandin lamented that fewer children today are raised with dogs than when she was a child. With more structured activities, many children don't own dogs, aren't exposed to pets and often aren't taught how to treat them. She said this can lead to interactions that make a dog feel threatened and some dogs retaliate.
For instance, children are inclined to grab a dog around the neck and give it a squeeze to show their love. In the dog world, that is a dominant gesture. A hug around the torso is much more welcoming to the dog, she said.
Animals need time to interact with the world, humans and one another, according to Ms. Grandin. Too much time in a cage or being confined in a small area results in behavioral problems. To remedy that, Ms. Grandin recommends spending at least one hour a day with a pet in a combination of playing, exercising and socializing with children and other animals.
In a tour of the Animal Friends shelter in Ohio Township earlier that day, Ms. Grandin commented on how relaxed the cats and rabbits were and how quiet all of the dogs were.
"They don't bark, and they are BIG and don't bark. Clearly these animals get a lot of attention," she said, adding that such positive attention results in more adoptions and an easier transition to home life for shelter dogs.
Ms. Grandin also took part in a two-way video conference with students from Avonworth High School. She answered questions and talked about how to interpret animal behavior and see things from an animal's perspective. After her talk that night, she answered questions from the audience about how to handle separation anxiety, fear of thunderstorms, car rides and other situations. Ms. Grandin said the key to handling problems is to understand that animals have emotions just like humans: fear, rage/anger, panic, lust and seeking (curiosity).
"They have the same neurotransmitters as we do, and they know this because Prozac works on dogs."
When animals face a stressful situation, they have a choice to go into "seek" or "fear" mode, she said. The key is to find a way to encourage seeking. If a dog is afraid of thunder but also enjoys playing ball, the owner might throw a ball at the first rumbles of thunder to distract the pet. For a trip to the vet, Ms. Grandin suggested giving the dog a favorite toy to hold onto during the ride and gently playing tug of war. And for the dog who would not step outside once it gets dark but loves riding in the car, she said to put it in the car at dusk and drive it around until it's dark.
"You want to reward the confident behavior that you want to see" and ignore the undesirable behavior, she said.
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978. Lynn Barber contributed to this story.