Dogs, Horses, Humans, and Other Animals

June 12th, 2010

By Dan Miller

We currently have four dogs, six horses and one cat. Many of us have had animals as pets, yet I wonder whether and to what extent we know them. All are very different, among species, within their respective species and even within breeds. However, they neither lie nor conceal their emotions; perhaps they don’t know how, and that’s probably a good thing. There are plenty of people who do that exceptionally well. I have learned more from our animals than they have from me.

Temple Grandin, who has high-functioning autism, earned her Ph.D. degree in animal science at the University of Illinois. She is now a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. One of her books, Animals in Translation, makes, well I think, the point that animals are generally autistic and “can’t see the forest for the trees;” they focus on detail and don’t merge them into a general picture:

That’s the big difference between animals and people, and also between autistic people and non-autistic people. Animals and autistic people don’t see their ideas of things; they see the actual things themselves. We see the details that make up the world, while normal people blur all those details together into their general concept of the world.

Here is a video of a twenty minute talk on autism. Ms. Grandin, with the help of her own autism, has done quite a lot of work making slaughter houses more humane by such “simple” things as looking at details – shadows and beams of sunlight most of us don’t notice – seeing them as cows do, and recommending fixes. In 2004, she won PETA’s “Proggy” award, in the “visionary” category:

Her improvements to animal-handling systems found in slaughterhouses have decreased the amount of fear and pain that animals experience in their final hours, and she is widely considered the world’s leading expert on the welfare of cattle and pigs.

Ms. Grandin’s Animals in Translation is well worth reading, and I won’t even try to summarize it here; rather, I’ll hit only what I consider the high points. She discusses research tending to show that many animals have their own language systems; prairie dogs, for example, have been found to communicate using nouns, verbs and adjectives. A researcher found evidence that the prairie dogs are not born knowing the various calls but instead learn them from other members of their colonies; the different colonies have different dialects.

Some animals resemble “idiot savants,” now more often referred to as autistic savants, who have specialties; they are geniuses in some things – card counting, spouting off lists of prime numbers, being able to tell the day on which one was born when told the date – but don’t measure up in others. The things which some dogs, autistic savants in a way, can uniquely do are very helpful to humans. There are seeing eye dogs and there are even seizure alert dogs; the latter have been trained to recognize seizures and to help when they happen:

The dog might be trained to lie on top of the person so he doesn’t hurt himself, or bring the person his medicine or the telephone. These are all standard helpful behaviors any dog can be trained to perform.

Some few of them however, perhaps ten percent, have learned on their own to predict seizures. How they do it is unknown, and it seems unlikely that any human can detect signs of a seizure half an hour or so in the future visually, by sounds, or by smells. Yet, some dogs have learned how to do it and to warn their masters of what is coming.

Ms. Grandin makes a good case for the thesis that some animals use musical language, rejecting the automatic “no way” some researchers have come up with:

It’s time to start thinking about animals as capable and communicative beings. It’s also time to stop making assumptions. Animal researchers take a lot for granted: “animals don’t have language,” “animals don’t have psychological self-awareness” – you find blanket assertions like this sprinkled through the research literature. But the truth is, we don’t know what animals can’t do any better than than we know what they can do. It’s hard to prove a negative, and proving negatives shouldn’t be the focus.

Ms. Grandin also notes some research studies indicating that humans and wolves may have evolved together, developing symbiotic relationships:

Maybe the most amazing new finding is that wolves didn’t just teach us a lot of useful new behaviors. Wolves probably also changed the structure of our brains. Fossil records show that that whenever a species becomes domesticated its brain gets smaller. This probably happened because once humans started to take care of these animals, they no longer needed various brain functions in order to survive. I don’t know what functions they lost, but I do know all domestic animals have reduced fear and anxiety compared to wild animals.

Now archaeologists have discovered that 10,000 years ago, just at the point when humans began to give their dogs formal burials, the human brain began to shrink, too. It shrank by ten percent, just like the dog’s brain. And what’s interesting is what part of the human brain shrank. In all of the domestic animals, the forebrain which holds the frontal lobes, and the corpus callosum, which is the connecting tissue between the two sides of the brain, shrank. But in humans it was the midbrain, which handles emotions and sensory data, and the olefactory bulbs, which handle smell, that got smaller while the corpus callosum and the forebrain stayed pretty much the same. Dog brains and human brains specialized: humans took over the planning and organizing tasks, and dogs took over the sensory tasks. Dogs and people co-evolved and became even better partners, allies, and friends.

Is this all abject nonsense based on cooked data and other fantasy? I don’t know, but I do know that it fits well with my own perceptions of horses and dogs.

Our dogs: Sunshine, an Akita, is the half sister of an Akita bitch whom my wife and I loved dearly, Shadow, so named because she tried to follow us everywhere. Shadow had a mind of her own and was the most intelligent dog I have ever known. She lived up to the Akita reputation:

Their devotion is unquestionable when the bonding is strong; their intelligence is remarkable, and each of you with an Akita living in your home know they have a marvelous sense of humor and fun. They are sensitive and intuitive to their families, seeming to read one’s mind.

The quote provided above is from a heart-rending story about a young Akita named Kuma, whose master had died; he very much wanted to join him and finally managed to do so. The Akita breed originate in the Akita Prefecture in the mountains of northern Japan. The link provides a short history of the Akita breed, including Hachi-Ko, one of the most revered Akitas of all time:

He was born in 1923 and was owned by Professor Eizaburo Ueno of Tokyo. Professor Ueno lived near the Shibuya Train Station in a suburb of the city and commuted to work every day on the train. Hachi-Ko accompanied his master to and from the station each day.

On May 25, 1925, when the dog was 18 months old, he waited for his master’s arrival on the four o’clock train. But he waited in vain; Professor Ueno had suffered a fatal stroke at work. Hachi-Ko continued to wait for his master’s return. He traveled to and from the station each day for the next nine years. He allowed the professor’s relatives to care for him, but he never gave up the vigil at the station for his master. His vigil became world renowned, and shortly after his death, a bronze statue was erected at the train station in his honor. Then, in 1931, The Akita was officially declared a Japanese Natural Monument.

During the Second World War, most Akitas died; there was insufficient food, and many were slaughtered for their pelts, much prized for officers’ great coats. There were only a dozen or so left at the end of the war. Two of them belonged to Morie Sawataishi, who was instrumental in reviving the breed.

Nearly four years ago, Shadow managed to sneak out of our house one night, went down to a nearby creek, and was bitten on a hind leg by a fer de lance, a very aggressive and venomous pit viper; they are nocturnal hunters. Shadow came back in the morning, limping on three legs but otherwise joyful to be back with us. She deteriorated and a veterinary friend came to see what she could do, spending the night with us. Shadow died at 2:00 a.m. on December 5, 2006.

Shadow had what may have been an instinctive tendency, but I think was a unique one, to teach other animals how to play; they seemed to understand exactly what she was doing. She and some of our horses took turns chasing each other around; it was all good fun and they enjoyed it and each other. Here is a photo of Sugar, one of the foals, lying peacefully on the ground as Shadow seems to whisper in her ear. Sunshine shares many of Shadow’s traits, including her devotion and sense of fun.

When another bitch, Honey, about whom more later, had pups, Shadow ignored them until they were several weeks old. Then, she tried to teach them some things. I remember looking out the window and seeing Shadow lying on the lawn, with all six young pups lined up attentively in front of her. Shadow was clearly the teacher, and she appeared to be emphasizing her points by gesticulating with her paws.

Whenever a potential conflict seemed about to arise between dogs or between dogs and horses, Shadow sensed it and would intervene – not dangerously but simply by getting between them and preventing any conflict from developing. She was the alpha, and there was no mistaking it. She knew it, other dogs knew it, and so did the horses.

When Honey adopted us, she was in pitiful shape; she appeared on our back porch, malnourished, weak and fearful of humans; it was obvious that she had been mistreated. Reluctantly, because we did not want another dog then, we put out some food for her. She kept coming back. When we finally allowed her into the house, Shadow and our “boat cat,” Pumpkin, who had adopted us when we were docked at a marina in Venezuela, ganged up on her and tried to chase her away – once. Honey wouldn’t leave and they made peace.

Ruff, one of Honey’s sons, chose his own name. When he was only a few weeks old, I asked him what his name should be. He replied, “Ruff,” and so be it. He is very sweet, gentle and not very bright.

Princess is part Akita and part “finca dog.” On the morning when Shadow died, my wife and I went to cry on the shoulder of the woman who had bred her. We cried together, and she gave Princess, a then eight week old pup, to us. Sunshine came to live with us a few months later when she was about eight weeks old. Like Shadow, Princess has a mind of her own and sometimes behaves in ways I wish she wouldn’t. She has lived up to her name, regal bearing and all. She doesn’t have quite the sense of humor which Shadow had and Sunshine has, but her devotion is indisputable.

There is a clear chain of command. Sunshine is the alpha prima, Princess is second, Ruff is a distant third and Honey is last; however, at feeding time, Honey often mounts her son Ruff from the rear to remind him that she is his mama and to stay away from her food; he does. They undoubtedly recognize their familial relationship; the mother–son relationship is remarkable. Other positions are occasionally challenged. Not long ago, Sunshine developed a dermatological condition and it was necessary to take her to the vet. He had to anesthetize her to shave part of her fur and deal with the problem, which he did successfully. When we drove her back to our finca, she was still a bit wobbly and Ruff sensed it; he tried to challenge her, with no success. Despite her temporarily debilitated condition, she quickly put him in his place; there was no fight.

On rare occasion it has been necessary to break up dog fights, particularly when the chain of command had been challenged, often but not always in the context of food. Doing so can be dangerous. Several days ago, Sunshine managed to grab from the kitchen counter a container of chicken liver I had cooked to mix with the dogs’ food. Sunshine wanted it, and that was that. Akitas are notorious for their possessiveness when food is involved. Generally, I know better than to leave that sort of thing in reach; I goofed. None of the other dogs got involved, so the potentially fatal dog fight I had feared didn’t happen; they are probably smarter as to such things than I am. When I tried to get Sunshine away from the yummy liver, I couldn’t. All else having failed, I kicked her, hard, and she still wouldn’t relinquish the food. I finally grabbed her by the neck and she bit me on the left hand and wrist, missing an artery in my wrist by less than an inch. Within minutes, the dispute was over and Sunshine was banished for a hour from the house while my wife attended to my wound and I took a nap. It is necessary to disabuse any dog of any incipient notion that he is the alpha vis a vis his master, but I went about it the wrong way. I behaved stupidly and now know better how to deal with such a situation. Here is the best advice I have found. Next time, I hope I can do better. Ms. Grandin notes,

Dog owners must establish themselves as the alpha, period. This is the one rule you must not ignore. A dog who thinks he’s the alpha in the house is dangerous, because dogs will fight any lower-ranked pack mate who challenges them. If the family dog becomes the alpha he’s going to be especially dangerous around important resources like food and his resting place.

When Sunshine was allowed back in, she was very submissive — head down, ears back — and seemed to beg forgiveness. She had behaved as her instincts had dictated, and we made up immediately. When an alpha dog attacks one of his subordinates, it is common when the argument has been settled for the alpha to initiate the peace-making process; perhaps it is a sense of guilt and perhaps it is not. The alpha does so by approaching in a non-aggressive manner and licking the face and mouth of his victim; “kissing” on the mouth is common among dogs. That does not mean that similar flareups will not recur.

Our Horses: Unlike dogs, who are predators, horses are prey animals. Their principal defense is flight, though they will stand and fight if necessary. A mare has very little time to teach her foal sufficient survival skills, including the need for flight, and while the foal remains vulnerable will place herself between the foal and the perceived source of danger. While foals are able to walk and run within a very short time of birth, there is much to teach and little time for it.

Horses will also defend their turf from other horses and establish chains of command. When dogs put their ears back flat against their heads, they are signaling submission or lack of aggressive intent, whether it be to another dog, to a horse, or to a human. When horses do the same thing, they are signaling that they may attack; it is a warning. The next signal is a baring of the teeth, soon to be followed by a bite if the warning is not heeded. The warning signals and their sequence are universally recognized, respected or not, by other horses. Perhaps strangely, our horses recognize that the first signal they use to show hostility means the opposite when displayed by our dogs.

Horses and dogs are very different animals. That horses are prey animals explains why their eyes are located on the sides of their heads (similar to chickens), giving them roughly 270o rather than 180o vision. They can nevertheless be surprised by an approach from their blind spot, directly to the rear, which is why doing that is a bad idea likely to result in being kicked. Some are more easily frightened than others – just as people have different personalities, they all have different “horsealities.” Due to their eye placement, horses have poor three dimensional vision and can’t well gauge the depth of streams when asked to cross. Until they learn to have confidence in their riders, they trust their own instincts which can be frustrating to all concerned. That is why gaining their trust is the most important part of training them.

When we bought Flash, a handsome three year old jet black Colombian Paso Fino, he had never been saddled. I spent over a month grooming him, doing other things he seemed to find pleasant, getting him accustomed to the saddle pad and then to the saddle – first, showing them to him and then putting them on his back. He was frightened and that’s why it took so long. He had previously been treated poorly, and that’s probably part of the reason. Genetics may well have been involved as well. When Flash came to accept the saddle, I put some weight – with my hand – in the left stirrup and repeated the process until it no longer seemed to upset him. At the same time, I did lots of dismounted ground work, teaching him to yield to pressure where I would later apply it for communication: where the reins would press on his neck and where my legs would press against his body. When I finally mounted him, there was no problem. In less than six months, he became quite an enjoyable ride but remains very “spooky” and is afraid of strangers. He would be dangerous for a novice, or one unable to deal with vigorous shying, to ride.

Several years ago, we decided to have Flash gelded; as a stallion he had been very sweet and gentle, most of the time, but had started to show some undesirable stallion characteristics. Before doing so, we wanted to breed him to one of our mares, Pimienta, a Paso Fino – Quarter Horse mix. The mating ritual was beautiful. Eleven months later, Pimienta gave birth to Sizzler, and Shadow was one of her first friends; they met within hours of Sizzler’s birth. An immediate bond of trust was apparent. Flash recognizes his familial relationship with Sizzler, and they seem to get along as a father and his daughter should.

Teka is a Paso Fino – Quarter Horse mix, rather a dark gray gelding when we bought him but now almost white. Teka was at first a problem. He wanted to do what he wanted to do, rather than what I wanted him to do. We eventually got over that problem, and he now seems almost to read my mind. When I want to turn left, he senses the shift of weight accompanying the turn of my head in the desired direction and responds accordingly. A barely perceptible shift of my weight to the rear tells him I want him to stop. He will go from a dead stop to a full gallop with the slightest signal, a minor shift of my weight to the front and gentle leg pressure.

What does any of this have to do with human interactions? A lot, I think. Humans are predators, not prey animals. We are also to a great extent pack or herd animals, similar in that respect to dogs and horses. Perhaps as Ms. Grandin suggests, this is an evolutionary development. Humans want to have leaders who will care for and protect us — or in any event claim to do so. Unlike other animals, human leaders sometimes lie, and we often believe them. Instinctive or not, we have long been conditioned to these things. Over time, that may be why we developed ideologies, religions, tribes, and political parties. Perhaps if we didn’t have them we would find ourselves adrift. That’s one of the reasons I suggested here a need for an artificial god if there is not a real one.

It strikes me as unrealistic to expect us to behave any time soon much differently than we do. If it happens, it will be a very long evolutionary process and I see no clear signs that it’s happening. It’s all very well to wish that we would all sing Kumbaya and just get along with neither hostility nor rancor. It ain’t likely to happen, not with opposing packs of dogs, opposing herds of horses, or opposing packs of humans. On the other hand, ….

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9 Responses to “Dogs, Horses, Humans, and Other Animals”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Dan, this is an excellent article, and I really enjoyed reading it. I didn’t know that much about Akitas, but now I’m at the point of thinking maybe I should get one! Of course, Cat might take offense at that idea. I don’t think he would get along with a dog as well as the cat in the video at your last link.

    I’d encourage everyone to follow the links — very interesting!

  2. Dan Miller |

    Thanks, Tom

    Akitas are wonderful dogs, but they very much need human interaction and sometimes don’t do well with small children or any other creature likely to run away or otherwise to exhibit fear. Akita puppies raised as puppies with small children do just fine and are extraordinarily protective of them and the rest of the family. They seem to be genetically closer to wolves than most other domestic breeds.

    When you look at the links, please do pay attention to the Akita rescue societies’ links. Many Akitas are adopted for the wrong reasons, and it is unfair both to the Akitas and to their adoptive masters. They also shed quite a lot twice a year and, like most big dogs, have a life span of only ten to fifteen years. Male Akitas weigh about 100 pounds, females (such as Sunshine) about 70 pounds.

    As to cats, they are all different. Pumpkin, who adopted us at a marina in Venezuela, is a great cat. There were many feral cats there; even though we and other cruisers took turns providing food, they were very shy and would disappear when the food was delivered. They would appear only after the humans had disappeared. Pumpkin was very different. I think it was her survival mechanism; feral cats don’t live very long. One day, when I was walking down the dock, Pumpkin — then a very young kitten — approached me. She looked up at me, put her paws on one of my legs and looked me straight in the eye. She wanted human companionship, or at least care. I asked Jeanie to take a look. Same reaction from Jeanie and from Pumpkin. She adopted us, rather than vice versa. Later, when she became a “boat cat,” she seemed to look forward to pot luck suppers and other social interaction with people. She became the darling of the cruisers.

    Pumpkin, now about thirteen years old, seems happy and healthy but quite obese; most of the time, she stays in our small casita, where Jeanie has her art studio. It took Pumpkin many days to recover from the “post traumatic syndrome” of being chased by some of our dogs when she went outside.

  3. larry ennis |

    Dogs have played a big part in my families life. I believe that our canine friends contributed a great deal to peace and tranquillity in the family unit. They serve as a coming together point for each member of a family. Differences of opinion are set aside when love for a pet intervenes. A pet creates a common ground or bond between members of what might otherwise be a less than cordial relationship.

  4. Tom Carter |

    Larry, I agree. When I was a kid, I had a dog that was a collie/shepherd mix. Her name, not very imaginatively, was “Lassie.” (Ah, well, it was the 50s….) She wasn’t as big as either breed usually is, and she was smarter than some people I’ve known. So smart, in fact, that she could play touch football, grabbing the small, soft football we used in her mouth and running for the right goal line, stopping if someone touched her. I know; no one believes this (Doris was too young to be a witness, I’m sure), but it’s true.

    I guess she was more the family’s dog, but I thought she was mine, and I’m sure she agreed. Many times when I was a teenager, typically in trouble about something and angry with the world, I’d go off alone with her and talk things out. She listened carefully, and it really seemed like she understood. (No, she never spoke back to me, but I wouldn’t have been too surprised if she had.)

    I’ve never forgotten Lassie.

  5. d |

    Nor I,Tom. I remember well,she did. Lassie was one of a kind,I will never forget the day we found her dead in the pasture,snakebite,we guessed. Trying to protect us,I am sure.
    Dan,no kicking dogs,ever,unless they are trying to kill you. Good article. You should have exerted your alpha leader role around food. My dog or dogs,as the case may be, never have bitten me over food,never been kicked,either. Roll the puppy over on it’s back, hold them down as long as you can stand it,you are now alpha leader,and always keep it that way. Being aggressive around food is dangerous,espially for children and should never be tolerated. Why only one cat,also,cats consider a direct stare as a threat. Your gelding,Flash, maybe needs sacking out and shying therapy. Possibly a vision problem? A well trained horse should not shy over much. Loved the article and enjoyed reading it.
    I,agree they are very intelligent and should be respected as so. We do not give cats,dogs or horses nearly enough credit,for their brilliance,they see life differently than we do. They are realists,not dreamers. We all need leaders,and most of us are followers,looking for someone or something to believe in,as do animals,only difference is,animals are way better judge of character.

  6. Dan Miller |


    Thanks. I know that I behaved stupidly when trying to get Sunshine away from the food she had taken off the kitchen counter — where I should never have left it even briefly in the first place.

    Here is the best advice I have found on breaking up dog fights and it should have worked in the food situation:

    The safest way to break up a dogfight requires 2 people. Each person grabs the back feet of one of the dogs. The dog back feet are then picked up like a wheelbarrow. With the legs up, both dogs are then pulled apart.

    Once the dog fight is broken up and the dogs pulled apart it is critical that the people do not release the dogs or the dog fight will begin again. The two people need to start turning in a circle, or slowly swinging the dogs in a circle while they back away from the other dog. This stops the dog from curling and coming back and biting the person holding their legs.

    By circling the dog has to sidestep with its front feet or it will fall on its chin. As long as you slowly continue to back and circle, the dog cannot do any damage to you. To insure that the fight will not begin all over again when you release the dogs, one of the dogs needs to be dragged into an enclosure (i.e. a kennel, the garage, another room) before the dog is released. If you do not do this, the dogs will often charge back and start fighting again or if you release the dog to quickly the dog will turn and attack the person who had his feet.

    Next time, that’s what I shall try.

    As to rolling Sunshine over on her back (she weighs about seventy pounds, lots of it muscle), I’ve read about that but never tried it in a hostile situation. They generally love to roll over on their backs to have their tummies scratched; it’s also a signal of submission. However, when food is involved and is a big strong dog’s sole focus, I would be concerned about being bitten rather badly on my face and elsewhere.

  7. d |

    Good way to break up a fight,I shall use that one if ever necessary. No,I meant when they are pups,you do that and they respect you more later.Funny to think of you grabing a huge dog,who is mad,and rolling her on her belly,and how she would react,badly,I fear. Like children,the bluff must be in,even over stolen food,before they are bigger than you.:) Liver is a pretty tempting delicacy. Your gelding could also,have a hearing problem,but most likely,needs a great many sackings.

  8. Dan Miller |

    Thanks again, d

    I have tried various desensitizing techniques on Flash, and they do work – for a while. A few years ago, I was riding him in our training area on a windy day when some workers were mixing concrete about 100 meters away. An empty cement sack took off in the wind and was blown in our direction. It flew less than ten meters and then ceased its “attack.” Flash saw it and shied, jumping sideways a pretty good distance, pulling the tailor muscle in my right leg. He calmed down almost immediately. I debated briefly whether I should dismount and walk him back to the place where I unsaddle the horses but decided that it would be less painful to ride him; I did that. When we got back to the unsaddling area, I got off and it took me about five minutes to walk that many meters. A few days later I started desensitizing Flash to sacks. After half an hour or so, he calmly accepted the waving of a sack in his face, being rubbed over his body, etc. We continued the process for several days and he was OK. I have also used a feather duster attached to a five foot long pole, rubbing it on his body, shaking it in his face, and that sort of thing. That also took several days and at the end he didn’t mind at all. Flash and I have done other desensitizing things, but it’s a slow process. Unfortunately, being desensitized to one thing doesn’t seem to carry over to other things and there is always something new. He is also quite nervous with new people around, even at a distance.

    A veterinarian has checked Flash’s vision, and it seems fine. I hadn’t thought about a hearing problem, and that’s possible. However, he seems to be most upset by visual stimuli, not aural.

  9. d |

    Hmmmm, I will think on that one. The worse shying incident I ever had was a peacock screaming, was not ready for that one, and my companion was jabbering away to me one moment, the next I was behind her, me and my steed on the ground. Both very surprised at how slippery the road was, when my great mare spooked sideways and slipped down. A perfect ride all other times. Then a really upsetting noise to most horses is a rattling of a drink styrofoam cup, with ice in it, a great despooking device. I do not, however, recommend the peacock, who probably would not scream at your command. Very startling, because you might not even see the bird, as we did not. Still a funny story my best friend and I share, over my sitting on the ground, while she talked away.

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