Originally published May 23, 2012
A good friend of mine gave me a copy of Dr. Temple Grandin’s book, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. When I returned it she told me about that there was a movie about Dr. Grandin that Claire Danes starred in (and who does an incredible job portraying Temple!).
I rented the movie and honestly, cried and cried. I was so impressed with Temple Grandin, that thought it would be neat to interview her. But giving that she was so popular, I found it probably impossible. I knew she was a professor at Colorado State University, so I went searching for her email address.
Turns out that she has someone check her emails, so that someone wrote me back and told me to call Dr. Grandin and leave a message and she might call me back.
Dr. Grandin did that next day (I thought I would be setting up a time to interview her and what not) – but I was not prepared with questions and the interview was very impromptu!
Nonetheless, I got a lot out of our 20 minutes on the phone and it has changed some of the ways I think about how Charlie and Trigg interact with the world.
A sincere thanks to Dr. Temple Grandin for calling me back and taking the time to answer my questions. I highly encourage you to rent the movie, Temple Grandin – it’s not only a great story, but well done as far as actors and what not is concerned.
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You can listen to a recorded version of the interview – Interview with Dr. Temple Grandin (click here) or you’re welcome to read through it below.
Jenny: Can you tell me a little bit about what your experience with cats has been?
Temple: We’ve had several cats. I had a cat when I was a kid. My Aunt had lots of cats and I got lots of calls about cats.
There’s certain things that are similar to cats and dogs. Dogs are just hyper social and they have a want to please you way more than a cat does. You could train cats do things, a lot of people don’t think cats aren’t trainable. Cats can be trusted just a friend. Cats are great with clicker training. There’s a great video you can get called “Clicker Magic”. There’s a scene in that video where a cat is trained to go through a mini dog agility course – it’s all done with food motivation and clicker training. You can train them to do all sorts of thing.
But you have to use food motivation whereas a dog will do things for you just for social motivation, praise and petting. Also with any animal you want to stroke it. Don’t pat it, stroke it. Most don’t like patting.
Jenny: I haven’t had a chance but a friend of mine gave me your “Animals Make Us Human” and she said that you have a chapter in there about cats and dogs. Or maybe one individually for cats?
Temple: Yep, there’s a chapter for cats, there’s a chapter for dogs, there’s also a chapter on horses, a chapter on zoo animals, a chapter on wild life and especially we have chapters for pigs that talks a lot about animal welfare issues.
The cats’ chapter just a lot of that is just a lot of tips. I get asked a lot why cats mess outside the litter box. The simplest thing is if you have more than one cat and you have two litter boxes, don’t put them right next to each other.
Jenny: So put him in different spots?
Temple: Yes, put the boxes in different spots. Different cats don’t like certain litter. They also don’t like an unstable floor, no animal like’s unstable floor. So if you put a thin piece of plastic down under a litter box and the cat walks on it and starts to slip, they don’t like that. Any animal doesn’t like an unstable floor.
Jenny: Okay. One of the things that comes up often on my website as being an issue is a cat going poop outside the litter box but goes ahead and pees inside the litter box, you have any insight?
Temple: He pees in it, but it poops outside the litter box?
Temple: Yes, sometimes they just avoid using a litter box but that’s kind of strange. Most time people ask me why they go outside the litter box period.
The first thing, is let’s be honest – is the litter box clean? Some cats don’t like different types of kitty litter. So might try different types of kitty litter sometimes that works. You know, they don’t like one type that sticks to the paws and they don’t like it.
It might have something to do with – you know, I am just thinking that if I am the cat, when I’m pooping, you know, I’ve got to strain a little bit more and maybe that affects how the kitty litter feels on my paws. I’d try a different sub straight, or something like that – make sure it’s not slippery. I want to make sure to fix these obvious things – like keeping the box CLEAN! Another thing that might affect this is if you put the litter box in a laundry room where people are walking by there all the time, the cat might feel kinda too exposed. When you gotta poop, you know, it takes a little longer. You want a little more privacy.
Just think about it yourself; you don’t want to put the litter box down the basement because that’s too far, on the other hand you don’t want to put where everybody is traipsing in and out the back the door.
Jenny: You had mentioned that a cat is food motivated when being trained. What are some the other obvious differences to you compared to a dog than cats?
Temple: A cat can be social, but a dog, we’ve bred this hyper social animal that’s really truly different and will do stuff for us just to please us with praise and stroking. A cat you train with clicker training and what you’ve got to do is pair the click with a food reward. And he’s doing the stuff because you get a food reward.
Once you can do it all after a lot training with no food reward, the dog is more social. I am not saying that cats are totally unsocial but dogs are more social. We breed dogs to be more social than the wolf. There is very interesting research that has been done with a wolf and a domestic dog.
If you take the wolf that’s been tamed and I am not recommending that people have wolves for pets, I definitely I do not recommend that. If you have a tamed wolf and you have him sit in front of the experimenter or stand in front of his master and his two dishes, one to the right, one to the left – so that the dog or wolf see the food put in the left hand dish but the owner points to the right – the domesticated will go where owner points, whereas the the wolf goes right where he saw the meat thing put. In other words, in a dog social cue from a master can override where he saw the being placed. That won’t happen unless we have bred a social in tune animal, that’s what a dog is. That’s why they got so much trouble with separation anxiety – you leave them home alone and they’re chewing up the house and stuff. A lot of dogs don’t handle being home alone very well.
Jenny: Do you have a favorite animal for you as a person?
Temple: Well, the animal that I have worked with the most is beef cattle, so that’s my favorite animal, but I like all animals.
Jenny: When you first called, you mentioned that you have worked with animal behaviourists or was it animal communicators?
Temple: Well, I studied a lot of animal behavior and one of the things I find really interesting is the whole idea that animals are sensory based thinkers and I wrote about this in my book, Animals in Translation. That an animal’s memory is not in words, they’ve got to be in pictures – it’s very detailed so let’s say the animal gets afraid of something – they’ll get afraid of something that they’re looking at or hearing, the moment the bad thing happens. Like, for example you beat the dog up and they’re looking at you and your Nike shoes or any sneaker or anything like a Nike, he’s likely to be afraid of that – so anything without that Nike wingtip, he’s likely to be fine. If you think about it, that’s a different picture, than a Nike type shoe. Its specific because its sensory based. Whereas an elephant that was scared to death that diesel powered equipment, equipment that ran on a gas engine, was just fine. Because somebody had attacked it with construction equipment. But if it had a diesel engine, it was bad. A real common problem with a lot of animals is that guys are bad, hate to say it, but they will tune into some big feature like the glasses, maybe the beard, baseball hats, you know some unique feature like that. And they’ll generalize like, “Okay! All people with baseball hats or black rimmed glasses are bad.”
And you get these fear memories that are hard to undo. The other thing, the reason why feral kitties are hard to tame is because they have missed socialization the period – you need to be touching and petting those kittens when they are real young. I mean, you can tame feral cats now, but you are never gonna get them like a cat that’s been socialized at a very young age. You got barn cats and you want to make them tamed, you need to get them as kittens.
Jenny: Right! Ironically, recently I started emailing with a lady that raises Ragdoll cats to work with autistic children. Have you found an animal in particular or even a breed or species that is best to work with autistic children?
Temple: Well the dog that is the most is the a Labrador retrievers because they tolerate kids tugging on them and things better than other dogs. They are a real good natured. They’re also real calm and sometimes when working with autistic children that’s probably more popular dog breed – now there are different ways to use service animals. So there are three basic ways, one is just to be companion person and I’m thinking now more of autistic kids not somebody in a wheelchair or the dog belongs to a therapist and then it’s used as an ice breaker to get the kid talking and get the kid interacting. Then there’s severely autistic kids where the dog is actually tied to the kid, so that the kid cannot run off. And you’ve got to be careful with that type of dog to make sure that the dog doesn’t get too stressed. Basically when it comes to autistic kids and animals there’s kind of three ways that they work, some of them are instant best buddies, they understand a cat, they understand a dog – they’re best studies with it, they just know how to communicate with it. Then there’s other kids that begin with a little bit of fear of the cat or the dog, but then they begin to like it and then there are other kids where you have a sensory problem – the cat meows and it hurts their ears, so they want to stay away from the cat because you never know when he might meow.
Jenny: Okay, interesting.
Temple: So that’s three different ways that autistic kids will interact with animals. And they also need to make sure that they’re not getting too rough with their animals – they need to learn how to pet the dog properly, they can’t be pulling its ears and things like that.
Jenny: When I watched the movie about you – you know, it obviously it talks about how you designed the livestock handling facilities? I was curious, have you ever thought of what would be the best way to design a shelter or rescue facility for cats and dogs?
Temple: The most important thing in a shelter is that volunteers, especially with dogs, come in everyday, take that pet out for an hour of quality time. Now there are a few things with a shelter – like with noise control, don’t face dog runs facing each other that tends to encourage barking. The problem you’ve got is that the kind of materials that absorb noise are difficult to clean. One of the biggest problems in the design of animal shelters is that animals are barking and it’s like the sound of a jet plane taking off.
One of the ways to reduce that barking would be to have volunteers come in especially for hte for the dogs and take each dog out for 45 minutes each day and spend quality time with the person – that would help reduce the stress and in fact, one of my students did a study on that. We found if you took the dog out for 45 minutes a day and worked with it that the solitary stress hormone, cortisol, went down. But then it went right back up again because they didn’t keep doing it. But giving those animals quality time – now, I have been in some of the shelters where the cats have been in group housing. Well if you have a cat that never gets out of sternal recumbency, now what that means is that [inaudible] – that’s a stressed cat. If they lay on their side, then they are not stressed out.
But if you get a little kitty and he’s down on the bottom, and he’s laying on his chest, you know tucked up underneath, then that cat is not relaxed.
If it’s always laying in that position, then if another cat comes along than he can just jump up instantly, whereas if he is laying down his side, he can’t jump up quick.
The other thing is that you don’t want to let cats escalate into fights – you just don’t want to go there. You want to make sure that they are looking like they will get along, so no serious fights happen.
Jenny: Are you considered an animal communicator?
Temple: Well, I know a lot of animal communicators and I think a lot of them are just good behaviorists because they pick up on a lot little posture things like how the eyes look, the posture of the cat ears, is it tense? They’re picking up just a lot of their body cues from the dog, the cat or the horse.
You know, they’re just good animal behaviorists, but they don’t consciously process those signals.
I’ve got a lot of people that are really good at taming animals and working with animals; and they can’t explain how they do. They just get a feeling from the animal. For example, if ears are back on a horse, it’s obviously not very happy. And the eyes show that it’s not happy. Now, if the eyes are nice and soft and brown, then it’s calm. You can see these things in horses and cattle, and I think that some of these people are just really good at picking up these signals, but they don’t realize it.
Jenny: I really thank you for your time, I am really blown away by the fact that you called.
Temple: Well, I try to return my calls but I get inundated with emails and I can’t answer them all. So often, I have to refer to them my webpage and the frequently asked questions or refer them to the books. But if they take the time to call me, I try to call back. You know, I am really busy, but just happened to have an hour in the hotel room and had some time before I have to meet some people about 20 minutes.
Jenny: Well, it was very kind of you and I appreciate it. Is it okay to publish our conversation on my website?
Temple: Yeah, you can. I want get people to think about sensory based of thinking. You got to get away from words if you want to understand any animal. It thinks in pictures, it thinks in smells, it thinks in touch sensations – little sound bites like, it’s a very detailed memory.
Jenny: Right! My mom’s cat, he’s 7 years old and when he was 18 months old they found something in his colon so he had surgery. When he was coming out of surgery and heavy on drugs, he was in a metal cage. And the sound of that metal cage is very similar to the sound of my parent’s oven door when they open it.
Temple: Oh, ok, that’s a good example of a fear memory there. That’s just what I’m talking about. He’s afraid of that oven.
Jenny: Yes, exactly. So, I understand what you’re saying. I understand the sound thing but I hadn’t thought of touch so I’m grateful for that, for my own knowledge with my own cats.
Temple: Usually in fear cases, it’s sound, but I have heard some cases of a smell thing, where a guy with alcohol and the dog was getting beat – well, I am getting beeped, so I am going to have to go.
Jenny: Okay, thank you so much I appreciate it.
Temple: Good to talk to you. Ok, bye.