Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ranger Recommends Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior
Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

In my journey to understand the new creature in my life this is one of the books that really made a difference. Ranger would highly recommend this book.

Temple Grandin is a noted animal behaviorist and a person with autism. During her long professional career working with animals she's had ample opportunity to observe them. Grandin's observations lead her to the conclusion that animals process the information their senses provide much like an autistic person does. The subtitle of the book captures that thesis very well "Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior."

Most people have a verbal narrative that runs in the background of their brain providing descriptive labeling for things being experienced. "I bumped my leg on the coffee table and it hurt." Many of those with autism and, in Grandin's thesis, animals don't have a verbal narrative. Instead, for them there is a silent movie that records experiences. In my short example above where I would have the narrative Grandin would have a movie of herself bumping her leg on the specific coffee table and of herself experiencing pain as a result. She argues that the way animals experience the world has a lot in common with the way autistic people experience the world. Where my internal narrative allows me to fudge a lot of details or ignore information that doesn't fit in the narrative autistic people and animals have no such luxury, for them all details are recorded. This is why it is often so difficult for most people to figure out what is spooking an animal. The coat hung on the fence post for example isn't important in the narrative and people don't see it but to a cow or horse that coat is something new in the environment and possibly a threat. To an autistic person the coat on the fence post is an observed detail that is part of the whole picture.

For a person with autism or an animal, generalizing is very difficult. I see a brown truck of a certain shape and shade and immediately identify it as being a UPS truck no matter what angle I'm seeing it from or what it is doing. For an animal or someone with autism this generalization is absent. Because Grandin does such a great job of explaining how a mind that interprets the world through pictures rather than narrative handles information I'm a much more mindful partner for Ranger and Finna. Ranger has seen UPS trucks in our neighborhood a lot. He's viewed them from the front, from the back and both sides. He's seen them driving past him both forwards and backward and driving toward him and to me he should recognize and understand that UPS trucks are not a threat as long as we were on the side of the road. Yet early in our relationship as we were walking home there was a UPS truck backing down the street and Ranger freaked out. I'd already seen, labeled and dismissed the truck so I was very startled by his reaction. Fortunately, I'd read Grandin's book and could look at it through his eyes. He'd never seen a UPS truck behave in that fashion and it was frightening, he wasn't able to generalize the other behaviors he'd seen from UPS trucks to the current behavior. Because I knew what was going on I was able to calm him and help him through the initial fright.

It's a fascinating book. As "Entertainment Weekly" put it "At once hilarious, fascinating, and just plain weird, Animals is one of those rare books that elicit a 'wow' on almost every page." That's a pretty good summation of a book that is well worth reading. Ranger highly recommends it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

One Year Later--12 month Finnaversary

When we brought Finna home I confidently announced that if everyone would give me a year she'd be a different dog. Looking back I've both succeeded and failed at fulfilling that boast. Physically Finna is much healthier, she's eating better, she smells better, her coat feels soft and sleek. When she first came to live with us the only things she'd eat reliably were marrow bones and cat kibble. She craved protein. She still loves protein but now she gets it eating her Primal Raw nuggets. Her coat that was greasy feeling and shedding in handfuls is soft as satin and sheds surprisingly little for a short coated dog. She has very little odor now although when she came to live with us she had a very powerful doggie smell. I didn't want to traumatize her by giving her a bath immediately--there was still so much she needed to learn about living with a family--and as her health has improved her smell as dissipated and I still haven't given her a real bath.

The dog that had no idea how to play has learned to play fetch, catch, and tug. She's learned to solicit games from her humans and she's learned how to learn and that she can affect her environment in positive ways by her behavior. The dog with no idea of the kind of manners humans value in a dog now waits politely at the door to be released before going out. She now waits, most of the time, to be invited to jump into my lap. And she knows that sitting and eye contact are the best default behaviors.

We recently had to have a lot of work done in our yard dealing with plumbing related issues. Eight months ago the only way we could have done this would have been by tranquilizing Finna. Today, while I was exceedingly careful not to let her outside into the yard while the crew was working she was able to stay in the house and cope. She did bark some but it was never the frenzied, over the top, out of control barking that we used to get at anything out of the ordinary. We could easily call her away and reassure her that it was OK the crew was allowed to be there.

Finna is a different dog, a better, more relaxed, more confident, less fearful dog today than she was a year ago. She's come a long long way and overcome a lot of her bad beginnings. In the year I so casually boasted it would take to rehabilitate this dog we've made huge strides. Sadly, however, she was even more damaged than I originally estimated. For all our strides, for all the progress and improvement Finna remains a very damaged dog. She will not let anyone outside myself and my two children touch her. She still will not let my husband touch her. In some ways this is the most frustrating of her problems. She will gently take treats from "Dad," curl up against him on the couch, and rest her chin on his knee; as long as the contact is initiated by her and he is only the passive recipient all is well but if he moves his hand toward her she'll growl, bark, and even snap at him. Her relationship with "Dad" remains suspicious. He can engage in activities she considers 'normal' for him but she'll bark and growl at him for things he does that she doesn't expect. Generally once he comes home he doesn't go back to the garage until he's leaving for work the next morning. If he tries to go back to the garage Finna will bark fiercely at him. After almost 25 years of marriage I expect that his behavior will be unpredictable but Finna has a herding dog's need to anticipate movement and control it. Not being able to anticipate where he'll go is a serious problem for her and her choice to address this problem with barks, growls, and snaps is a serious problem for us.

Finna has also turned into a resource guarder although she generally only guards one resource--me. I'm told that German Shepherd bitches almost universally go through a phase of wanting to guard their person and Finna's paperwork identified her as half GSD and half Corgi. We're working on the problem but it is a real problem. It is incredibly frustrating when my husband tries to bring me something and Finna leaps between us barking at him to get back or my son comes downstairs to do schoolwork and Finna must leap on my lap to keep him from getting to me.

Going back to the car analogy that I've used in previous posts, Finna was adopted on the assumption that she was an econo-car sedan that we could put some work into and have a nice reliable family 'car.' Instead, we as we worked on getting this 'car' running again we discovered that Finna was really a high performance sports car with no brakes or steering. Our first plateau in her rehabilitation she was that high performance sports car that had brakes and steering that were only reliable below 35 mph, not a good thing in a vehicle designed to work at 120 mph. Today her brakes and steering are reliable to about 55 mph, after that they start getting dicey but expert handling can sometimes compensate up to about 70 mph. However, she remains that high performance sports car without reliable brakes or steering. Until she's safe at any speed she's not a safe dog.

Finna has come a long long way in a year. And the fact that she has made such a lot of progress gives me hope for the future. We'll continue to work with her, train her, teach her, and love her and we'll see what another year brings.