Archive for August, 2009
I did an unspeakably terrible thing today [hangs head in abject shame].
I wore a hat.
A tan baseball cap with a dog embroidered on it to be exact. It was a cool morning (52F) and along with the warmth the cap provided, I needed something to cover my unwashed hair. I put it on without a thought and I went out to the kennel where Charlie is staying.
Charlie likes me. In fact, he seems to like me a lot. But when I walked into the room wearing that baseball cap he saw me as some kind of ungodly, depraved beast. And he reacted accordingly.
Because he’s small and in a sturdy kennel and I’ve been around a rather large number of staring, snarling, slavering beasts I reacted to his castigation by calling his name out sweetly. He paused briefly, obviously recognizing my voice – then continued his tirade. ‘Cause, you know – I had done this terrible thing.
I took the hat off and calmly, quietly walked to the kennel door. I didn’t affect a passive or assertive posture. I was as completely neutral as I could be. When I got to the door I turned sideways and crouched down. I spoke softly to Charlie and let him decide when he was ready to approach and sniff me. In seconds he was the soft, happy, wagging teenager I know once again.
I stood up and gauged his reaction to my change in posture. Soft and welcoming. So I opened the door, went in, petted and leashed him and walked him out. When we were out of the kennel I made of show of picking up the Hat From Hell and presented it to Charlie. He stood quietly – but suspiciously – at my side and I calmly held it out to him. He slowly stretched his nose forward, feet still locked in place, and tentatively sniffed the rim of the hat. I remained motionless and said nothing. He sniffed The Evil Thing again, then sniffed my hand.
I saw wheels inside his pretty little head click into place as Charlie realized that the hat smelled like me. His posture softened and he grinned up at me with a look that said “Okay, I get it”. So I put the hat, which was now just an ordinary hat, back on my head and took Charlie for a walk.
In The Feeling of What Happens Antonio Damasio writes, “We are about as effective at stopping an emotion as we are at preventing a sneeze.” Like sneezes, emotional states are induced through classical conditioning processes where an innate, involuntary behavior (like an emotion or a reflex) becomes associated with a specific event or context. Their basis in these involuntary processes helps explain why emotional reactions are unpredictable and difficult to control.
In his book, Damasio introduces us to a man with extensive damage to his temporal lobes, hippocampus and amygdula. “David” suffers from some of the most severe learning and memory deficits ever recorded – he is unable to learn anynew fact. Despite this and in spite of the fact that he’s surrounded by people he is completely unable to recognize, David displays consistent preferences and avoidances in his day-to-day interactions with staff and patients. Intrigued by David’s behavior, Damasio designed a good guy/bad guy experiment to examine how David might develop these preferences under controlled circumstances:
Over a period of a week, we were able to engage David, under entirely controlled circumstances, in three distinct types of human interaction. One type of interaction was with someone who was extremely pleasant and welcoming and who always rewarded David whether he requested something or not (this was the good guy). Another interaction involved somebody who was emotionally neutral and who engaged David in activities that were neither pleasant nor unpleasant (this was the neutral guy). A third type of interaction involved an individual whose manner was brusque, who would say no to any request, and who engaged David in a very tedious psychological task designed to bring boredom to a saint (this was the bad guy).
After the week of controlled conditioning David was not able to recognize any of the ‘guys’ from photographs or in person. Yet, when he was presented with photographs of them and asked questions regarding hypothetical situations such as “Which one of these people would you ask for help?” or “Who is your friend,” David chose the ‘good guy’ over 80% of the time. While David’s conscious mind may no longer be equipped to give him an overt reason to recognize, much less choose, one person over another, he is still able to learn to correctly choose the person most likely to react positively with him with an accuracy far exceeding that of pure chance.
So it appears that we can develop preferences and aversions in a completely unconscious manner. This is fascinating and it may help explain why two- and four-legged creatures so often react in apparently inexplicable ways. While we are aware of the emotions we feel, we sometimes have no idea why we feel them. And this can make emotional reactions incredibly difficult to control – even for us allegedly big-brained humans. Because our emotions can be rooted in factors as diverse as previous experiences, health and our base line emotional state – and because many of these factors lie outside our conscious control – our emotions don’t always make sense to us. Or to those around us.
Dogs with emotion-based problems like fear of thunderstorms, fear-based aggression and separation anxiety are notoriously difficult to rehabilitate. The dog has no idea why it’s behaving the way it does. He’s much like David, classically conditioned to react to a situation – and utterly unaware of why he behaves the way he does.
This is why the popular idea of ‘psychoanalyzing dogs’ – collecting obsessively detailed case histories in an effort to discover exactly what events in the dog’s past led to the development of it’s emotion-based problems – drives me crazy. Because these kinds of problems arise from classical conditioning processes – there is likely no single event or simple chain of events that led to the dog’s problem. And, like David, the dog likely has absolutely no idea why he feels the way he does.
Trying to analyze the basis of an emotionally-based behavior problem in a non-verbal species like a dog makes no sense. It’s like parsing a sneeze.
Young Charlie, (aka DickHead, alias Johnny Mac) arrived here yesterday. Charlie’s here for an extended vacation attitude adjustment after spending seven months of his young life at Operation New Beginnings in Billings, Montana.
Charlie and his littermates were born a month or so before the dogs were seized. Their mother was either already dead or got separated from them when he and his littermates were rescued from the Kapsa property, so they grew up as a small, motherless pack. In a perfect world they’d have been put in with an experienced, older female dog who would have whipped them into shape showed them the ropes, but as Charlie knows – we don’t live in a perfect world.
So, Charlie has a few issues. He’s snarky with other dogs and pushy and rude with people. He’s not the least bit house-trained. He’s seen very little of the world and he has a tendency to flight. He’s a poster pup for the abused, neglected dogs you read about in humane society pleas for money.
But the thing is – Charlie doesn’t know this. He’s not aware that he probably wouldn’t have survived his first winter on this earth if he hadn’t been seized as a “feces-covered” piece of evidence. He doesn’t have a clue that he’s the least bit different from any other dog. All he knows is that, after spending an annoyingly long, crappy day in a crate he ended up in a clean, roomy place where really interesting things happen.
Charlie isn’t a victim, he’s freakin’ brilliant. He’s a natural retriever and in a stunningly short period of time he learned to sit before I threw his toy. In twenty-four hours he’s gone from pulling like a freight train while orbiting rapidly around me to walking comfortably on a leash. In ten minutes he learned to wait until I released him with an “OK” to take bits of food I set on my shoe.
But it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses. This morning he decided to try to muzzle punch and intimidate me when I went in to feed him. Note to dog: do not, under any circumstances, try to fuck with a tired, crabby, sleep-deprived, pre-menstrual, caffiene-deficient alpha bitch in a hurry. I took Charlie’s pushy, crappy, annoying energy – multiplied it by ten and tossed it back at him with nothing more than a vile look and threatening posture. The little poser jumped back three feet and stared open-mouthed at me in WTF wonder.
Since then, a raised eyebrow makes him salute.
I think Charlie and I are gonna have a great time.
Do you get a terrier,
Or a carnivorous plant?
Popular Science reports:
Deep in the jungle primeval, Nepenthes attenboroughii awaits its furry prey. But N. attenboroughii isn’t a stealthy cat or poisonous lizard. It’s a plant, and it eats rats.
Scientists recently discovered this new species of pitcher plant on the verdant face of Mount Victoria in the Philippines. It is the largest carnivorous plant ever discovered, and has been named after the famous naturalist and TV personality Sir David Attenborough.
Meat-eating pitcher plants were first described by science in the time of Linnaeus, but the previously discovered Nepenthes species stuck to small prey like insects and spiders — if an unlucky mouse or bird became a meal, that was a rare treat. But the giant N. attenboroughii is a vertebrate specialist.
The plant lures in the rats with the promise of sweet nectar. When the rat leans into the plant to drink the saccharine liquid, it slips on the pitcher’s waxy interior, and gets stuck in the gooey sap. Once it is trapped, acid-like digestive enzymes break down the still-living rodent.
The plant was is named after Sir David Attenborough who is a keen enthusiast of nepenthes. If I had discovered it, I think I’d have named it Nepenthes audreyii.
Alice Wang’s “Hand Leash” …
Inspired Janeen McMurtrie’s “Death Grip Leash“
Or (Hebrew for light) is a truly pampered pooch. The eight-year-old boxer’s owner recently booked the entire business section on a Paris to Tel Aviv flight so that he could ride in the cabin with her. USAToday reports:
The woman said her dog experienced extreme anxiety after being placed in the cargo hold on their last flight together, which was in 2006. For this trip, she is quoted by UPI as saying she thought it would be a better idea just to buy out the entire business class section so that she and the dog could enjoy the four-hour flight together. As for El Al, the airline allows pets in the passenger cabin, though it’s unlikely that a full-grown boxer would fit within the size requirements for that in a typical situation.
Flying dogs on airlines really stresses me out. It stresses me out enough that husband and I, who rarely travel without dogs, drive even on long cross-the-country trips. That said, even if I had 30-odd thousand dollars to spare, I don’t think I’d use it to charter an entire section on a passenger flight for the beasties to share with us.
I am surprised that the airline allowed her to do this. Though given that that the airline was El Al, I’m sure there were plenty of security-related hoops for Or to jump through. I wonder if a private charter flight would have been a cheaper option…