Friday, February 5, 2016

Snake bite avoidance, obedience training and self-consciousness in animals: interview with Heike Hahner

Heike Hahner
The current "gang" and myself. Photo: (c) Suzie Woods.
Heike Hahner is a dog trainer and obedience instructor, journalist, artist, art teacher and host of Pet Tales on Radio 2CC. She has had a lifelong interest in animal behaviour and human-animal interactions. But it was a “problem” dog called Penny who sparked her formal study in this area. She lives with a menagerie of animals in a part of Australia where snakes and snake bites are very common, and shares how she has managed this challenge. She also thinks deeply about our views about animals, their origin, and where there is room for improvement.
What’s your day job?
I run a business advising pet owners on Dog Training and Domestic Animal Psychology issues. A large part of my work deals with aggression related issues as well as working and controlling dogs in a multitude of situations in the country and city environment. I also work as a Radio host at Canberra Radio Station 2CC's Pet Tales, as a freelance journalist, photographer, artist and art teacher.
How did you become interested in animal behaviour and dog training?
I was very much a horse person and working as an artist, photographer and Visual Arts lecturer at the Australian National University and University of Canberra in 1990, when I found a stray dog. This was a female Kooli Collie, Penny, and my then husband and I decided to keep her.
Having come from Germany a few years beforehand I had never met a dog like her before. Her energy levels were off the scale and she was also quite volatile towards other dogs and people. I ended up going to the ACT Companion Dog Club with her to train. I became an Instructor and in 1992 met Terry Ryan, an American Dog Behaviourist. I was blown away by how quickly and easily a good connection could be established between you and your dog, if you understand and accept their motivations in life. In Penny's case her sole motivation in life was a tennis ball.  I owe it to Penny that I ended up studying psychology, of both animals and humans, and working in a field that I find endlessly fascinating and rewarding.
Heike's first "mad" Australian Working Dog Penny, a few weeks before she died.
What training did you do to work in this field?
I am a qualified Obedience Instructor and I studied with John Fisher, one of the founding members of the APBC in the UK, completing his Canine /Human Interface Course in the 1990's. On the advice of Terry Ryan I studied human psychology at the Australian National University and I take refresher courses on a variety of topics and different animal species.
Over the last 33 years I have also been working with livestock such as goats, cattle, sheep and horses and I have experience with other animals such as birds, poultry, fish and wildlife.
One of the things you specialise in is teaching dogs to avoid snakes. How do you achieve this? 
When I teach snake avoidance my goal is to teach dogs to avoid touching snakes and reptiles even when they are unsupervised. This requires the dog to understand that reptiles need to be approached with caution, rather than outright fear or, worse, aggression. Dogs and cats living in the wild learn to be cautious of various situations through trial and error, in the case of poisonous snakes it’s usually a one-off-scenario, and by observing other animals in the same situation.
There are a number of ways snake avoidance can be achieved in dogs. Dogs like many other animals learn from observing each other and other species. So if another dog or the owner is observed to show caution in the presence of reptiles many dogs are inclined to take this warning on and will also be cautious near reptiles.

Captain undergoes reptile avoidance training.

Sadly there are some dogs that will not respond well to the caution method. These are often Labradors or Cattle dogs or their crosses. Labradors in my experience do not read their owners fear very well or do not care. While Cattle dogs have a strong guarding instinct and when the owner shows fear of something the dog is likely to attack.
Finally there are also those dogs that become frightened of their owner if the owner reacts fearfully and they do not associate the owners fear with the reptile but appear to think that the owner has lost their mind. So teaching snake avoidance to owners and dogs requires careful assessment of the owner’s dog handling skills as well as the dogs innate reactions to situations that require caution or are frightening.
Finally although I teach snake avoidance and awareness I will also encourage owners to take preventative steps to protecting their dogs and cats, such as not leaving them unattended outside during snake season and to get help from Wildcare Organisations should they locate a snake in their environment.
What makes a dog trainable?
I believe that training dogs, and animals in general, is a team effort between you and your dog. So I find the most important trait in a dog is a willingness to engage and affection for people. Dogs, like people, vary greatly in how willing they are in participating in team efforts. Willingness is not necessarily breed depended, though some breeds have more "willing" members than others.
What are the most common misconceptions people have about dog training?
The two top misconceptions about dog training are that a dog's level of obedience and trainability are a result of intelligence. Obedience and trainability have less to do with intelligence but with willingness to engage with humans.
The other frequent misconception is that dogs come trained, train themselves or should learn by osmosis. Dogs need regular training, especially when they are young, like horses and children.
We accept that horses and children need to be schooled for many years, so that they learn what is required off them in society and when engaging with people. Dogs are expected to just "know" how to behave with very little input from the owner. This is especially sad for me when the dog is a classic working breed such as a Kelpie, German Shepherd or a Border Collie. Dogs that are mentally very active and bred do perform a daily job have a strong need to learn their whole lives. They really suffer psychologically if their intelligence and mental activity is not utilised.
How can we rectify this?
Choose your puppy or dog very, very carefully. Train your puppy or dog until he is at least 3 years old. Most importantly be clear in your own mind on how much time you are willing to dedicate to training your dog. Acquire a breed of dog that suits your attitude to training and avoid choosing a dog for his looks only.
Do you live with any non-human companions? Can you tell us a bit about them?
I own three horses, an older mare and two young ones, which I am currently training with Natural Horsemanship and reward based methods. Then there are seven dogs and a flock of sheep. Five of the dogs are Working dogs and three of these are Australian Working Border Collies who I am training for 3 sheep trialling. To this mixture also belongs a cat, who is often more obedient than the dogs. There is also a batch of chooks, the size of the batch varies on how hungry the local fox population is, and fish. The property that I have been living on since 1993 also keeps cattle and is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including snakes, which means we have daily interactions with many of these as well.
How can we make the world a better place for companion animals? 
I think one of the things that would make the world a better place for animals is for people to be more careful about labelling animals. Labelling of any kind assigns animals to groups such as companion animals, pets, live-stock, etc. Labelling usually also assigns a value to an animal group and animals belonging to that group may be treated according to the group that they find themselves in. For example, livestock in general are treated differently, often much more harshly, than pets or companion animals.
Avoiding conceptualising animals only in terms of their types or groups can also help us understand that they feel and experience their environment in the same way we do. We are at a place in Western society that increasingly requires us to view animals as equals when it comes to their feelings, thoughts and self-consciousness. 
Self-consciousness in animals is my particular concern as it is still seen as something exclusive to "higher order" animals such as primates or dolphins, and often the size of the brain, certain cells or the amount of folding in the brain maybe cited as evidence. Also many people at this point still equate self-consciousness with a certain degree of intelligence or the ability to talk. However, I see self-consciousness as an essential part of the psyche of any living being. Self -consciousness is needed to taking care of yourself, both physically and mentally, as well as for engagement with the environment, or with others such as your partner, your group members, or your offspring. Without self-consciousness you cannot fulfil these tasks. 
Any advice you’d like to share with veterinarians and future veterinarians? 
In our society vets are portrayed as experts on both the body and the mind of animals. Very few people know however that our current Western medical system, both human and animal, still largely adheres to a philosophy on how the body and mind function that was devised by RenĂ© Descartes 400 years ago.
The current approach to dealing with the animal mind is still heavily dominated by Behaviourism, a branch of animal psychology, and a direct descendant of Cartesian thinking and attitudes. Behaviourism dates back to the turn of the last century and was spear-headed by scientists such as Pavlov, Skinner and Watson.
Just briefly, Descartes was fascinated by mechanical puppets and clocks, like many people of his day. He came to the conclusion that living creatures were just puppets repeating patterns of behaviour without feelings, thoughts or self-consciousness. Humans, in his view, were a step ahead of animals, because of our language ability. He equated the ability to talk with the ability to think. So if you can't talk, according to Descartes, you also cannot think. If you cannot think, the equation continued, you therefore do not feel and are not self-conscious [And if you think, therefore you are...(ed)].
This way of thinking about animals freed the sciences and everyone else to treat animals, or anyone akin to animals, as if they were not going to be consciously affected by any procedure they might have to endure. We know today this view is not correct, but sadly we are not making the progress we should have, given that the influential natural scientist, Charles Darwin, questioned this proposition more than 150 years ago. Darwin recognised that there is no absolute hierarchy in nature with us at the top. 
Darwin's theory of evolution demonstrated that the physiological structures such as organs and skeletons, as well as morphology, are the same in humans and animals. According to Bernard E. Rollin, Darwin knew the logical conclusion to this line of reasoning—that if humans share all physical and organic structures and functions with animals, then it follows that they share the same mental functions as well. Crucially, this includes the one we have always denied them—self-consciousness. 
So in my eyes the vet of today and of the future has the responsibility, if s/he wishes to advise on the animals overall well-being in general, and on matters of animal psychology in particular, that s/he should be able to address his/her clients’ needs on a level that has moved on from Behaviourism and, ultimately, Cartesian thinking. It will be essential that s/he embraces modern theories that acknowledge and understand animal thoughts, feelings and self-consciousness.
It will be also essential that his/her grasp of animal psychology and the mind includes knowledge and understanding of self-consciousness, feelings and thoughts in animals - not just in those we view as higher order animals, pets and companions - but in all animals, including those we view as livestock, such as sheep, pigs, chickens and cattle.

Thank you Heike. This brings to mind the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, declared back in 2012 by neuroscientists. If you’d like to hear more from Heike, listen to Pet Tales on 2CC