Sunday, June 8, 2008

Understanding Animals and People

My May read for the TBR Challenge was Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. I had been really looking forward to this book, and it didn't disappoint. I don't know why I hadn't read it sooner, other than my life had been consumed by pregnancy and the baby.

Here's the story behind my buying the book. I'm an avid researcher. I research EVERYTHING! It's what I do. So when Londo and I first got a cat, I bought all sorts of books about cats--raising cats, how cats were domesticated, why cats behave the way the do, etc. When we got a dog, I looked into dogs--training dogs, the history behind different breeds, how to read their body language, etc. This of course carried over into pregnancy and raising a baby, and I have shelves of books dedicated to all these things. But once I research until I'm comfortable with an area of knowledge, I usually stop reading about it regularly.

When I was pregnant, a coworker and I were talking about our dogs and I mentioned some interesting books I read when I was in my dog research phase, especially my favorite book in this area How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication, by Stanley Coren. My coworker told me about the Animals in Translation book, which he had seen in passing at an airport bookstore. He didn't buy it because he didn't want to carry it on his flight, but he said it looked interesting. It sounded fascinating to me, so I found it and bought it. I didn't read it at the time, because I was busy with my pregnancy books and then baby books. But finally, I read it for my May read, and I'm really glad I did.

The author of the book, Temple Grandin, is a prominent animal behavior expert who is also autistic. She believes that in many ways the way animals see and experience the world is the same as autistic people. For example, she says that she and other autistic people think in pictures (she has another book about this called Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, which also sounds fascinating), and she believes that animals also think in pictures. She talks a lot about how autistic people think and behave, how animals think and behave and how non-autistic people think and behave. I learned so much about all these areas, and just psychology in general, from reading this book, which I was immediately able to start using in real life.

In fact, the book made me realize that I need to think of things from my dog's perspective and keep realistic expectations of her. I realized that I've been trying to do that for my child, but since she was born, I've had much less patience and understanding for both the dog and cat. The rules have changed in our house since the baby was born, and the dog especially is having some trouble adjusting to it.

One great example of what I learned from this book that I'm trying to apply in real life is that dogs (and apparently autistic people) don't generalize. So if we are trying to teach our food-driven beagle that she can have the food that the toddler drops on the floor from her highchair but has to wait until the end of the meal, she does not understand that this will apply every single time for every single meal. She just doesn't get it. Food drops, she wants it, she tries to get it. We have to instruct her every. single. time. to wait outside the kitchen, and we have to have realistic expectations that she will try to sneak in when food drops. She wants the food, and she does not understand the human reasoning that we place on her waiting until the baby is done. We have to give her clear commands and reward her good behavior.

I learned that and much more. Because I'm now thinking about how animals think again, I find that I'm able to have more patience for the animals. I really needed to find my patience again, so I'm really happy that this has helped. I'm also much more creative in thinking of ways to train the dog and help both animals adjust to the constantly changing rules of having a toddler. One who now wants toddle around eating (and dropping) crackers that the dog is not supposed to eat--and especially not supposed to take from the toddler. Yeah, that one is tough, and I'm still trying to figure out how to work with the beagle on that one!

So, I highly recommend this book. I really enjoyed it, and I learned a lot. If you are interested in animals, autism or how people think, this is an excellent book.

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