A Dog’s Eye View: Animals as individuals

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Sandra Kruczek

— I recently watched a documentary about Joy and George Adamson, the authors of “Born Free,” a book published in the 1980s about the couple’s life in Africa and raising an orphaned, African lion cub named Elsa. There was a movie made about their life, as well.

One thing that interested me was the book and movie were considered pivotal in helping to change people’s attitudes about wild animals and lions in particular. Lions were plentiful in Africa at the time, and they generally were thought of as fair game — some might even say vermin.

After being inspired by “Born Free,” I’m writing about the idea that wild animals, or any animals for that matter, can be thought of as individuals. Remember, this shift in attitude from “just an animal” to “animal as individual” was not that long ago.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen the world of dog and horse training evolve from one-size-fits-all, punishment-based training to a gentler science-based approach to learning and behavior. Because I’ve worked with horses and dogs concurrently, I’ve been interested to see the huge amount of change that has altered training methods and the ability to appreciate the individual within a species.

In general, the principles of learning are the same across the board. Understanding a species and what it needs in order to survive is the exciting part. Being herd animals, horses will use their feet to flee or kick to escape danger. Being pack and pride animals, dogs and lions are classified as predators that can use their teeth and claws as a defense mechanism. Birds can fly away but also have some interesting behaviors such as appearing injured to lure predators away from their young.

In all of these species, there is a multitude of body language cues that could be displayed before the ultimate throw down. Fighting can risk injury, and it’s smarter to try avoidance first.

The Adamsons spent a lifetime in the African bush observing and documenting the nuances of behavior among lions. Studying helped them to see in ways that changed their approach to the uniqueness of the individual. They observed some lions that were bullies and some that were softer in their association with other individuals. And their own experience with the female lion, Elsa, showed them something that previously might not have been thought possible.

Some more modern-day observers and teachers of the animal as individual are Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman with horses; and Karen Pryor, Bob Bailey and Ray Coppinger with dogs. You might want to check them out.

Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training LLC with more than 25 years of experience.

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