Commentaries

Behavioral Jargon: Enough Already!

I confess. When it comes to comprehending what some consider fundamental behavioral terminology, I am impaired. As soon as people start throwing jargon around, my eyes glaze and I can feel my brain cells shutting down, one by one. True, I also experience this problem when it comes to medical terminology, particularly now that I’ve reached the age when micro-organisms and surgical techniques receive make-overs and new names to go with them on what seems like an almost daily basis. However, keeping up with animal behavioral jargon is much more challenging because those working in this area come from

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Animal Behavior, Learning, and Playfulness

A friend recently acquired three kittens and has been in awe of the animals’ playfulness ever since. Ethologist Paul Leyhausen once stated that the more animals need to learn, the more they need to play. For small wildcat kittens and members of other solitary species who must learn all they need to survive before weaning, that makes for a very playful early life indeed! But even though young animals of all species do spend more time playing than adults, adult animals play, too. For many years scientists missed this reality, and that probably explains why some owners (and those

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Ruminations About Fighting Like Cats and Dogs and Dogs as Man’s Best Friend

To me one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work involves observing how animals normally interact with each other. And because cats and dogs are the most common domestic household pets, these supply a rich source of input. However, you don’t need to observe canine-feline interactions very long to realize that some, and possibly many, dogs and cats don’t subscribe to the antagonistic relationship described in the old saw “fighting like cats and dogs.” That raises the question of why some people wanted or may still want to believe this. Given the hypertext way my mind works, the

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Timid Cats, Timid Dogs, and the Human-Companion Animal Bond

Because I spend a fair amount of time working with aggressive animals and their owners, I naturally pay a lot of attention to how the general public and the media respond to these events. Within western society, we tend to take a villain-victim approach to what we perceive as an attack by one animal on another member of the same species. Aside from the fact that this completely disregards the fact that animals normally may communicate with members of their own species with teeth and claws and that what we perceive as an attack may not be an attack

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Unconditional Love, Trans-Conditional Love, and the Human-Companion Animal Bond

Recently I was reading a very well-researched study of human-animal interactions and couldn’t help noticing how often both researchers and those surveyed used the phrase “unconditional love” to describe a cherished quality of a companion animal. As surely anyone with any interest in companion animals knows, that phrase crops up in the mass media so frequently that most of us could write the articles or conduct the interviews ourselves: Interviewer: “And what is it about Ipswich that you like the most?” Owner: “It’s his unconditional love for me.” In the midst of all of this certainty, I found myself

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Owner Loss and the Human-Feline Bond

Regardless of the specific feline qualities that endear a particular cat to a particular person, human-feline relationships can be relatively intense. And because the more intense the relationship, the greater the pet’s sense of loss when separated from that person, it’s important to understand why and how this occurs. In spite of the fact that many domestic cats can and do form quite complex social relationships with others, this doesn’t erase the fact that their physiology and behavior reflects the successful evolution of a small, solitary, nocturnal predator over thousands and thousands of years. Although we may choose to

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The Human-Canine Bond and Owner Loss

A great deal has been written on the subject of pet loss as it affects any surviving humans or other pets, including by me. However, as several recent e-mails have reminded me, little is written about how to help a dog cope with the loss of an owner. Unfortunately, two factors—one canine and one human—may combine to create problems for these animals and make those problems difficult to resolve. On the canine front, if a person a dog perceives as leader of the human-canine pack departs and none of those remaining in the household share that same kind of

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A Twinkling Revisited

I think it’s safe to say that whenever an animal experiences an unexpected and dramatic event—such as snow sliding off the roof, the sudden appearance of a stranger, blare of the smoke detector, an owner’s angry voice—it initially responds fearfully. For years, scientists have acknowledged that frightened animals respond in one of three ways: freeze, fight, or flee. However, research by neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux suggests that this isn’t an either/or phenomenon. His work revealed that threatened animals initially freeze, then opt for another response if that doesn’t work. This raises the possibility that the freeze response might actually serve

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In a Twinkling of An Eye

Not to long ago my cat, Whittington, sat in front of the French door in my livingroom surveying his domain following a major snowfall. As he watched, a section of snow slid off the roof immediately above the door with a whump! He immediately leaped back in surprise, then for the briefest of instants looked at me. This didn’t surprise me because I’ve seen him and my dogs do it many times. Still, why do he and other felines and canines do it? My intuitive response is that my pets want to know my reaction to their reaction: Will

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The Human-Animal Relationship in Troubled Times

For many, the worldwide uncertainties of life highlighted by the attacks on New York City and Washington, DC have made their relationship with animals more important than ever. We hear news that frightens or saddens us beyond words in the company of other people and we feel obligated to summon those words anyhow, regardless how inadequate those words may be. If we’re lucky enough to find ourselves in the company of someone who shares our thoughts and feelings, we gain comfort from this communication. If not, if we must weigh each word lest we upset that person in some

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