Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Talking to the animals is not as daft as it sounds

Libby Purves (very irritating Radio 4 presenter) has just been speaking to Miranda Carey, a woman who gets people to talk (and listen) to horses as a form of psychotherapy (Midweek, Wednesday 24 September). Sitting alongside her in the studio was actor Ted Danson (ex. Cheers), who amusingly objected to Libby’s suggestion that this was all a bit “Californian wacko”. But is she right? An article I read in New Scientist (23 August) suggests this might not be quite as barmy as it sounds.

I wasn’t convinced by all the arguments put forward by Miranda Carey. She uses horses that have been traumatised (e.g. racehorses who’ve been stabled too much when they should have been out running in a herd in the fields), and gets her patients (one example was an abused and confused former prostitute) to work with the horses in a form of mutual therapy.

I could see the point of getting ex-cons to work with horses as a way of boosting their confidence. Why should a horse (or any other animal for that matter) care about your criminal record? They take you as they find you, and if you treat them right, you’ll be a friend for life. But I’m not so sure about the work she does with people who have more serious mental health problems. Even Libby expressed some concern (albeit in her infuriatingly jokey way) over the question of whether the animal needs to have been traumatised in order to fully appreciate the human’s worries… (Thank goodness Paul O’Grady – a well-known animal fanatic who apparently takes a sheep for a walk through the woods near his home in Kent – was in the studio to lend a bit of Northern commonsense to the proceedings!)

But there is something in Carey's argument. Kate Douglas, writing in New Scientist (23 August, pp33–35) says that over the thousands of years we’ve lived alongside dogs, the human-canine relationship has had a significant impact on dogs’ mental skills. If you think your dog’s trying to tell you something, you’re not just anthropomorphising.

Dogs, it seems, have developed an acute sense of right and wrong; they also have a repertoire of barks to tell us different things; and researchers in Cambridge (UK) have found that dogs can use human-like gestures to get their message across (e.g. pointing or staring at the thing they want). Dogs even learn in the same way as children – watching others complete a task, then copying and experimenting until they achieve the same goal.

None of that is really new to me, as a dog owner. I’ve learnt as much from my dog as he’s learnt from me (that’s why he can wind me around his paw to get what he wants). And if it’s true for dogs, why not also for horses, who’ve also been close companions to Homo sapiens for millennia?

And, if Paul O’Grady is right, why not sheep too?

Yet again, I’m glad I’m a vegetarian.


wordsmith_for_hire said...

It's also true for cats. I've lived with cats for years and they too are very good expressing themselves and empathising with humans (I was going to say owners, but cats usually own us rather than vice versa!).

ms_well.words said...

I'm sure you're right (though I'm definitely not a cat person), but I dare say the scientists find it much more difficult to do that sort of research on cats…

Best known cat-related science experiment was by Mr Schroedinger, who had to put an imaginary cat in his box; whereas good old Pavlov was bound to be on to a winner with his doggy dinners.