Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Animal Psychology

Long before Eddie Murphy set out to destroy every classic children's film through the power of potty humor, there was a charming movie starring Rex Harrison.  As Doctor Doolittle, he wore a top hat and tails and he could talk to the animals, learn their languages.  I wanted to be just like him, without the top hat and tails.

Like Doctor Doolittle, I never paid much attention to the people around me, but animals fascinated me. At the time, stories like his were rare, although I found a few scattered books with similar characters, and I read them over and over again.  I wanted to be able to talk to the animals. More importantly, I wanted them to talk to me.

The closest I came was in training my dogs. Obedience training was harsh and focused on punishment with little communication in the 80s. You told the dogs what to do and they did it, or else.

In college, I took a class on comparative psychology, but it taught animal behavior as a complex sequence of instinct and mechanical responses to stimuli.  I was told that animals don't have feelings and their thought processes were rudimentary at best. Even the smart animals like dolphins, elephants, and dogs were not really capable of true thought as we understood it.  There were a few scientists who claimed animals were more than just biological machines, but they were in the minority.

In the 90s I started hearing about this new book, Don't Shoot The Dog, by Karen Pryor, but about that time I had lost interest and was too busy with the internet to pay attention.  Over the years I heard about clicker training and have trained my Rat Terriers in classes that used clickers, but I still hadn't done much reading.  However, in the last few weeks I have read Kicked, Bitten and Scratched and What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage, both by Amy Sutherland, and Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor.  I've also reread Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.  I am delighted by the new way of looking at animals and seeing their potential.  Did you know, for instance, that rats laugh?

Maybe Doctor Doolittle is still fantasy, but, with the right training, we now have ways to talk to the animals and they can talk to us.  It is as if I suddenly learned you can sprout wings and fly, if you learn from the right teachers.  If I can swing it, I am going to go to ClickerExpo in March.  The best part? Your dogs are not only allowed, they're encouraged.

Gotta go, the dogs have something to tell me. Chances are it involves food and/or toys, but that's ok. That's what I like to talk about, too.

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