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How Autism Can Help Us Understand Animals
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. Itâs Animal Week on FRESH AIR, featuring
interviews about animals and people who work with and study them. Temple
Grandin has written extensively about autism and the connection she sees
between the behavior of people with autism and animal behavior. Grandin is
autistic. When she was young, doctors recommended that she be
institutionalized, but her mother refused.
Grandin has worked to educate people about what it's like to live with autism.
She's also fought for reforms in the livestock industry. She has her doctorate
in animal science, teaches courses on livestock behavior and facility design at
Colorado State University and consults with the livestock industry on livestock
handling and animal welfare. She spent a lot of her career designing humane
handling facilities for farm animals.
I recorded this interview with her last January, after the publication of her
book, "Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals."
Temple Grandin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. As we've discussed before in the
show, you see similarities between animal behavior and autism. And in your new
book you say that, you know, one of the signs that an animal may be troubled is
if they're engaging in really repetitive, compulsive behavior. What are some of
those behaviors, and how does that relate to autism too, in humans?
Dr. TEMPLE GRANDIN (Colorado State University): Well, when I was a little kid I
used to do stereotypical, repetitive behaviors. Iâd sit for hours and dribble
sand through my hands, sometimes I rocked. Some children will flick their
fingers in front of their eyes. I did this because loud sounds hurt my ears, so
I did it to escape the loud sounds. And then I would just get fascinated
watching all the little sand grains, you know, go through my fingers, you know,
sort of studying them like a scientist, and the thing is, if I'd been allowed
to do that all day, I wouldn't be here now doing an interview. I don't know
where I would be.
Stereotypic behavior, repetitive behavior, is highly abnormal. But there's
different things they can motivate it, and this is the basis of the first
chapter in the book, and I need to get my co-author Catherine Johnson credit
for coming up with the idea of linking stereotypic behavior motivation back to
Jack Panskepp's(ph) core emotions, which are fear, rage, separation anxiety and
And when I first started out, the fear motivated me to do the stereotypic
behavior, because the loud sounds made me scared and then seeking would take
over. I would just study the little grains of sand. I want to say that, you
know, repetitive behavior is extremely abnormal, and the nervous system is not
working normally when an animal or person is doing hours of repetitive
GROSS: What are some of the typical like animal or repetitive behaviors that
are signs that something is wrong, like we've all known dogs who chase their
tails endlessly. Would that be an example?
Dr. GRANDIN: That would be an example of pacing, in a lion or a polar bear. A
tongue-rolling - recently I saw some Jersey cows putting their heads up in the
air and just waggling their tongues all around. That's totally abnormal.
A gerbil just sits in the corner digging and digging and digging constantly,
that's abnormal. But the main thing about a stereotype is it's just sort of -
is exactly the same over and over and over again. An animal that's pacing will
- you know, wear down the floor right where he paces.
GROSS: So how did you break out of your repetitive behaviors like, you know,
watching grains of sand or rocking back and forth?
Dr. GRANDIN: I had very good early education starting at two-and-a-half, and I
was only allowed to have an hour a day where I could do that sort of thing, and
when I was in my bedroom I'd spin this little brass thingamajig round and round
and round that was on the bed frame. The rest of the time I had â I was kept
tuned in: speech therapy, hours of turn-taking games.
I was expected to sit at the table and have table manners and ask to pass the
potatoes, when they needed to be passed. You know, everybody worked with me to
keep my brain connected to the world. I was allowed to only have an hour a day
after lunch where I could space out and revert back to autism.
GROSS: And was that a pleasurable hour?
Dr. GRANDIN: Yes, that's the thing about it. Stereotype is actually
pleasurable. They calm you down, and I think it's okay for an autistic kid to
have a little bit of downtime where they can do these things and calm down, but
if you let them do it all day, they're never going to get anywhere because the
brain is shutting out the world.
GROSS: So do you feel like you have any insights about how to break animals of
that kind of, you know, like repetitive compulsive behavior?
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, you've got to start looking at what does that animal do in
the wild. You take the polar bear. He's a nomad animal. He walks for miles and
miles and miles and miles. Grazing animals like cattle tend to get mouth
stereotypes because what do they do all day? They eat.
Gerbils will get into diggings stereotypes. But what's get interesting is
looking at the motivation. A polar bear is turned, you know, he's seeking,
seeking stuff to do. That's why he walks and walks and walks.
Now the gerbil, you know, they thought, okay, let's make a good environment for
a gerbil, let's just give them more sand to dig in. Well, he still spends 30
percent of his day digging and digging and digging. You know, what the gerbil
really wants is a place to hide because of he's a prey species animal, and he's
trying to dig a hole in the bottom of the aquarium and he can't make a tunnel.
Well, if you give him give a tunnel, even a fake one, he'll go in there, that
gives him cover, and he's digging because he feels exposed. You know, that
stereotype was motivated by fear, where the stereotype in the polar bear was
motivated by seeking.
GROSS: In your new book, "Animals Make Us Human," you describe cats as having a
high level of OCD behavior, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder behavior. What are
some examples of that that you see?
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, you can get a laser pointer out there and boy, that cat
won't stop chasing it.
GROSS: So true.
Dr. GRANDIN: Now, thereâs cats that donât go after the laser pointer, but there
are some cats, you get a laser pointer, they're just obsessed. In fact, you
have to be careful with the laser pointer not to injure a cat because he can
get so much into the chasing that little red dot that he'll - he can injure
himself if you not careful about how you do it.
Dr. GRANDIN: Another thing that can get kind of, you know, weird is sometimes a
cat can't figure out how to get out of a tree. I had a weird situation when I
was a child with our Siamese cat. We had one of these old-fashioned dishwashers
that pulled out like a big file drawer, and Billy(ph) got underneath the
dishwasher, and he was pulling out through the crack out into the kitchen,
meowing, trying to go forward.
All he had to do to get out was to just back up and, you know, go out around
and come out from underneath the sink. And he didnât - couldn't figure out how
to do that. So I had to slowly - very, very slowly - push the dishwasher in and
very slowly let him back up and get out.
GROSS: Now, one of the things you've been doing for many years is consulting to
the livestock industry on humane handling of livestock. You've consulted on
cattle, pigs, chickens, anything I'm leaving out?
Dr. GRANDIN: Sheep, I've done some.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. And I think the first animals you worked with like that were
cows, and you built humane chutes to get the cows to slaughter. In doing this
kind of work and in trying to find humane ways of keeping the livestock while
they're alive and getting them to slaughter when they're killed, you've had to
really understand how animals process information and how their senses compare
to human senses, because some things that would upset animals wouldn't upset
So unless we understand what upsets animals we can't design humane systems for
them. Can you talk - let's start with cows. Can you compare what you know about
how cows process information and what they find upsetting in terms of what they
hear or see or smell that most humans would not?
Dr. GRANDIN: Animals, I mean especially cattle, notice visual detail, things
that move rapidly, things that are high-contrast. When I first started out
working with the slaughter plants, I had to figure out, do they know they're
getting slaughtered? So I'd go over to the Swift plant in Arizona, this is back
in the early â70s, and then I'd go out down to feed yard and watch them in the
vaccinating chute, and they behaved exactly the same way. And then I started to
figure out, what are they really scared of?
So I'd get down the chutes and see what they were seeing, and they were scared
of shadows, reflections, a chain hanging down, seeing a person walking by up,
you know, up in the front of the chute, and if you got rid of these things that
the animals are afraid of, then the animals will walk right up to chute really,
I'm still doing that kind of consulting. Just last week I went out to - out to
two plants, and in one of them I found five distractions that were causing
cattle to balk that they had not seen. And they were simple things: a moving
yellow hose, some spraying water, a flashing light, they were simple things but
they just didn't see them.
GROSS: So, what happens if cattle see a yellow light or a moving hose or
something that distracts them and actually scares them as they're on their way
to slaughter? I mean, they're going to get killed, right? So why are we worried
that they're going to be a little upset beforehand?
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, you could say the same thing. You know, get some old
grandmother in nursing home and say, we'll just throw her over in the corner,
she's going to die of cancer tomorrow, that doesn't matter. I mean, it gets
back to relieving suffering, and there's no reason for it to be scary. In fact,
there's been some research on the cortisol, the stress levels, at the
slaughterhouse and at the farm vaccinating chute. Yes, there is stress in both
places. It's the same in both places.
GROSS: You found that a lot of employees, both at livestock facilities and at
slaughterhouses, don't really believe that animals have emotions.
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, actually, the hourly employees aren't the ones that are the
problem. It's some of these business manager types. I remember one time a vice
president of a great big pig company said - asked me in all seriousness, do
pigs have emotions? Well, if you look at the structure of the brain, that's
really pretty silly because the emotional circuits - let's get back to these
core emotions of fear, rage, separation anxiety and seeking, these are sub-
cortical brain systems.
They are the same in all mammals. They have been completely mapped. Some of
that research by Jack Panskepp and others was done back in the â60s. I can
remember in the â60s in psychology class learning about the rage cat. You know,
you put an electrode in the rage center and the cat goes into a rage.
GROSS: My guest is Temple Grandin. Sheâs written extensively about how being
autistic has given her insights into animal behavior. Her latest book is called
âAnimals Make Us Human.â Weâll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Temple Grandin, and sheâs written
a lot about autism, a condition that she has, and sheâs also written a lot
about the connection between animals and autism. And her new book is called
âAnimals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals.â
You've consulted about cattle. You've also consulted about pigs. What's some of
the worst things that you found about the condition that pigs are typically
kept in, the pigs who are bred for their meat?
Dr. GRANDIN: One of my biggest concerns is overloading the biological system -
just pushing, pushing, pushing for more and more and more production to the
point where their biological system just starts to fall apart: bone problems,
metabolic problems, weakness. You can push it genetically too hard, you can
push it too hard with feed additives and hormones, but this is one of my
biggest concerns. I mean right now for example, I mean, huge numbers of sows,
the mother pigs, are lame and it's just structurally bad legs. Now, the pig
companies are starting to correct some of that, but I'm very concerned about
I'm very concerned about some of the bad dog breeding that's going on where we
just, you know, over-select some stupid appearance trait, or you just over-
select giant muscles or giant milk production. They've got the dairy cows so
over-selected for milk production now that you have a hard time getting her
bred, the embryo just doesn't take.
GROSS: So, because pigs have been bred to create the most meat, we're ending up
with, like, physical defects like legs that can't support their weight?
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, it can support the weight, but you just don't have what's
called good leg conformation. You know, you can like - I don't want to get into
all of different things on leg confirmation but they can be too straight. They
can be, you know, the little dewclaw things can collapse, and they'll be
walking on the dewclaws, and the bottom line is they end up lame. And I think
with all animals we need to be looking at having, you know, animals that are
structurally sound and animals that are mentally sound.
You know, some of when we bred the chicken for more and more and more and more
eggs, one of the problems was the hyper-excitable chicken. When the pigs are
bred, itâd just be super-lean. Some of the genetic lines of the super-lean pigs
were really hyper-excitable.
GROSS: So, what are some of the things you've tried to do to improve the
conditions of pigs?
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, my biggest thing with all the animals is working on
handling. I've done a lot of work with many different companies on, you know,
loading trucks, you know, how do you handle pigs, training people on handling
of animals, the stockmanship. Stockmanship is really, really important. There's
been research on stockmanship by Paul Hemsworth, Jeffreyâ¦
GROSS: What is stockmanship?
Dr. GRANDIN: Stockmanship is just being good at animal care.
Dr. GRANDIN: Like, you work with your animals in such a way that your animals
are not afraid of you. Because if your dairy cows are afraid of you, or your
pigs are afraid of you, they don't grow as well, they don't reproduce as well,
they don't give as much milk.
GROSS: So, how do pigs compare to cows and what scares them and what -
therefore, what you try to eliminate from their world?
Dr. GRANDIN: Well obviously, you want to totally eliminate people that are
slapping and hitting and doing those kind of things. But there's differences in
how pigs will react even with two stockman that are pretty good stockman.
I remember on one farm, there was a guy and he was, you know, a good stockman,
he never abused the animals. But then when they got a new lady in the barn to
take care of the baby piglets, you know, they actually had more litters weaned,
and the sows just felt more relaxed around the lady than they did around the
GROSS: And what are some of the changes that you've recommended in the handling
and the living conditions of pigs?
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, in handling, just, you know, basic things: move smaller
groups, no yelling and screaming. A lot of it's very basic, you know, then they
need to learn things like flight zone and point of balance. If you want an
animal to go forward, I don't care what species it is, you don't stand in front
of the head and poke it on the butt, because now you're telling that animal to
go forward and backwards at the same time. You've got to get behind the point
of balance at the animalâs shoulder. You get behind the shoulder. Then it's
going to go forward. Just teaching them some of the behavioral principles about
animals and, you know, some people have the temperament to work with animals
and some don't.
There's some people that shouldn't be working with animals, but then on the
other hand, to have a good stockmanship, you can't have a place that's
understaffed and where theyâre over-worked because there's no way that, you
know, they can be good at taking care of animals.
GROSS: One of the things you've been doing in a livestock industry is creating
audits to basically measure the welfare of cows and pigs and chickens. What's
an audit like?
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, basically you manage things that you measure, you know, you
manage weight gain, but nobody's measuring handling. One of my biggest
frustrations is I'd go out to a farm or I go out to slaughter plant, and I'd
get their handling really good. And they're using the electric prod hardly any
at all. And Iâd come back a year later and the handling was awful. And what had
happened is, is they slowly reverted back to those old, rough methods, but they
didn't realize it.
So the concept that I brought into it was measuring handling. Okay, how many
pigs fall down? How many pigs are squealing? How many pigs did you use the
electric prod on? If you measure it and count that, then you can tell: Is my
handling getting better or is my handling getting worse?
And I developed an audit system called the American Meat Institute Guideline -
did that about ten years ago - and that's used by McDonald's and other big
companies to audit the slaughter plants. You go in, and you count, you know,
how many times they used the prod. Well, sometimes people act good when youâre
there. So the big new frontier right now is video auditing with video cameras
with people looking in at the handling at the plant over the Internet and then
GROSS: So, this is done over time and it's not like oh, we'll just make
everything look good for the one day when Temple Grandin visits, and then weâll
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, that prevents that kind of problem because on these video
auditing systems, they'll - maybe two times a day, you know, they'll score
maybe, you know, 20 cattle, or you know, score a few animals, and they never
know when they're looking.
GROSS: Mm hmm.
Dr. GRANDIN: And there's five plants now on this system, and it's been going
GROSS: Now, you've also consulted to the poultry industry. Have you come up
with ways to improve poultry slaughter?
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, one of the big things I've done on that, again, is the
measurement system. When I first started working with poultry, I remember going
out to this farm, they were catching chickens. It was terrible - running them
over with a forklift. And they thought it was normal to have five percent -
five to six percent of the birds having a broken wing. I was watching what they
were doing, I go, this is just a rough handling. So then, at one of the plants
we start measuring it, and we very quickly got it down to one percent. And one
of the best ways to clean that up is to put the catching crews on incentive
pay, like each person might get an extra $30 a week if they don't bust up the
chickens. And again, just simple measurement improved a lot of things.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Temple Grandin, and sheâs written
extensively about her life with autism. She has written about the connection
that she thinks exist between animals - animal behavior and autistic behavior.
Her latest book is called, "Animals Make Us Human: Creating The Best Life for
You've written about how - because you do have autism - you don't really like
physical contact with people. You've chosen to avoid romantic love in your
life. You choose to live alone. What about, kind of, physical contact with
animals? Do you enjoy petting them? Do you enjoy things like a cat sitting in
your lap and snuggling up against you?
Dr. GRANDIN: Yes. And I really enjoy stroking an animal. You don't want pat an
animal, you want to stroke it, kind of just firm strokes, like mother's tongue.
And I really get a lot of enjoyment if I can stoke an animal, and the animalâs
obviously liking it, like the kitty will rub up against me and the dog is -
Mark, my assistant, had a little dog named Annie, and all she wanted to do when
she saw me was to roll over on her belly and have me scratch her belly.
And you know, cattle, sometimes, you rub them on the neck just right. They put
their head up in the air, and they' kind of go, oh, that just feels so good. I
do get pleasure out of, you know, seeing - stroking an animal and seeing that
animal get happy when you do it.
GROSS: What else gives you pleasure beyond work?
Dr. GRANDIN: Talking about autism with other people, talking about animals with
other people, talking about engineering with other people, talking about really
interesting stuff. And I can relate to another lady that's got Asperger's. She
was giving a talk, and she was telling me that, you know, she and her husband
have these great romantic dinners in a really nice restaurant with candles and
everything else, and that sets the stage for a beautiful, romantic conversation
on computer data storage systems.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I love it.
Dr. GRANDIN: Because that's just so interesting, and I can completely relate to
GROSS: Well, Temple Grandin, I really want to thank you for talking to us and
coming to FRESH AIR again. Itâs really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank
you very much.
Dr.Â GRANDIN: Well, thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Temple Grandin, recorded last January after the publication of her book
âAnimals Make Us Human.â Our Animal Week series continues in the second half of
the show. Iâm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Michael Schaffer: America's Going To The Dogs
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. When Michael Schaffer and his wife rescued
Murphy, a sweet, cuddly and goofy St.Â Bernard from a shelter, it led Schaffer
into the world of contemporary pet ownership, a world of doggie
antidepressants, dog park politics, dog furniture, organic pet food and a whole
service industry of grooming, training and caretaking. In his book âOne Nation
Under Dog,â Schaffer says Americaâs house pets have worked their way into a new
place in the hearts, homes and wallets of their owners. Schaffer is a
journalist who has been a former staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer,
U.S. News & World Report and the Washington City Paper.
Michael Schaffer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now I donât want people to think that
your book mocks people who love their animals and mocks people who spend money
on their animals, but you do take a look at that phenomenon. So what are you
trying to get at in the book?
Mr.Â MICHAEL SCHAFFER (Author, âOne Nation Under Dogâ): I guess I wanted to sit
down and write a book about how it is that we became this pampered-pet nation.
You kind of canât go a week or two reading a newspaper without seeing some
crazy story about what people do for their animals. You know, itâs the dog with
the pink mohair sweater, or look at these people, they feed organic cat food.
And these stories tend to have a kind of undercurrent of derision in them. You
know, this is a sign of frivolity and over-the-top excess. Particularly in
these dark economic times, this is out of place.
And I felt that way when I got a dog. My wife and I remember - we were driving
to this shelter where we knew this dog we wanted was available. We were driving
â it was about two and a half hours from our house, and the whole way up, we
were talking about how, well, weâre not going to become like those people, the
ones that we had heard about. And we were saying you know, weâre not going to
do this, and weâre not going to do this, and weâre not going to do this. And of
course, then the dog arrives, and all of that goes out the window. And it
doesnât go out the window because heâs so cute and melts your heart, although
that helps. It goes out the window because a lot of the stuff is actually â a
lot of the stuff people do for their pets now is just an inevitable reaction or
reflection of the society we live in.
GROSS: Let me ask you to give an example, and hereâs the one Iâm thinking of: A
lot of people make fun of animals who are taking things like antidepressants.
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: Right.
GROSS: Your dog, on antidepressants because of what?
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: Well, we had jobs, and we had this dog at home. And we live in a
little row house in Philadelphia. And our next door neighbors are retired, and
theyâre home all day. And one night, they came to us and said you know, that
dog of yours yaps from the minute you guys leave in the morning until the
minute you guys come home. And this was a time when he would also go to the
bathroom in the house when we left. We would take turns rushing home at lunch,
you know, hoping to head it off, which didnât usually work. And you know, he
was quite clearly in distress.
And you know, I mentioned this to the vet, kind of in passing, more thinking
hey, do you have any, you know, behavior-type techniques I could do to help him
relax. And the vet said, you know, thereâs a drug for that. Itâs called
separation anxiety, thatâs the condition heâs got, and there is a canine
version of a human, tricyclic antidepressant. The only actual chemical
difference is that the pills are beef flavored.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: And you know, this was this thing where our - my in-laws, my
uncles were saying you know, youâre giving your dog antidepressants? I mean,
whatâs the matter with this country where even our dogs are on antidepressants.
Arenât they supposed to be the happiest creatures in the world? And you know, I
guess if you step back and look at it that way, it seems kind of silly. But as
a very practical matter, we should all be so lucky as to have had the positive
effect he had from the medication. And you know, weâre at a time when we humans
are quite comfortable with psycho-pharmaceuticals. There was a â maybe I
shouldnât say this â but there was a time when, you know, all three members of
our household were using some sort of antidepressant.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: Now heâs the only one. But you know, this is all just to say that
we humans are quite comfortable with this. Lots of people do it. Itâs not
weird. It doesnât mean youâre crazy, and as you â you see this with a lot of
things in the pet-spending world, where things that we experience and kind of
think of as normal, we will go and ask hey, can I do that for my dog or my cat?
GROSS: But as you point out in your book, putting your dog on antidepressants
because of separation anxiety, his separation anxiety, is a reflection on how
humans live now.
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: Absolutely.
GROSS: I mean, there used to be a time when a family that had a dog typically
had a mother-homemaker who was there all day, who was there with the dog, or
there were kids of different ages, and there was a young kid at home to play
with the dog. There was a yard that the dog could run around in. And now youâve
got dogs cooped up at home with nobody home to play with them, nothing to
occupy them. And so it puts the dog in a position of great discomfort because
they have no activity and no company.
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: Thatâs absolutely right. And I mean, you know, I write in my book
that an anthropologist from Mars or something that showed up here and had only
the contents of like a PetSmart to look at could figure out a great deal about
our human society.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What would they learn?
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: Well, they would learn, among other â I mean, looking at just
this question, they would learn that we are a society where two career couples
are the norm in a lot of places, and that has led to a whole bunch of things.
Itâs led to more dogs being alone more of the time. Itâs led to these very
elaborate chew toys that I write about where, you know, these toys are
basically designed to keep the pet entertained during these very long absences
of its people. And they have all of these devices to kind of make it
complicated to get a piece of food out from the middle. And the idea is that a
dog, you know, with this toy thrown to him in the morning as the owner heads
off for the day, will actually spend a couple of hours trying to manipulate it
and chew on it in a certain way that makes the food pop out and so on. And at
the end of that, the dog will be exhausted. Heâll be mentally stimulated, which
is great on a theoretical level. He also wonât spend the rest of the day
destroying your couch, which has a more practical benefit for humans.
So people still want pets. They want them, I think, more than they ever did,
and they are adjusting the nature of pet-keeping in such ways as to reflect the
other aspects of how we live.
GROSS: And thatâs part of the reason why a whole pet services industry, a huge
pet services industry, has blown up.
Mr. SCHAFFER: Right, right.
GROSS: Give us an overview of some of the services available for pets now.
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: You can find some really crazy examples of wealth and excess in
pet services, and you can also find some very practical things.
Mr. SCHAFFER: I spent a day driving around Manhattan with this pet taxi driver.
And his company would take calls from people, saying, you know, I need to take
my dog to the vet. Manhattanâs a place where a lot of people donât have cars.
And you canât just take any old pet on the subway, and a lot of cabs wonât stop
for you. So itâs actually a practical need that was being filled.
Thereâs another â thereâs also this incredibly fast-growing business of
professional dog grooming. And you know, to me, it is connected fairly
intimately with this change in where peopleâs pets have lived, literally lived,
over the years.
In the old days, it was pretty common to have your dog, especially, sleep out
back for the night, in the doghouse or out in the yard. I actually saw an
article in a business journal that sort of traced images of dogs in
advertisements in womenâs magazines over the course of the 20th century. And in
the 1920s, the sort of prototypical picture would be of a stylish woman out on
the street walking her dog in public. By the â50s, youâd have the dog kind of
curled up on the hearth in the living room. And by the â80s and â90s, you had
this image of, you know, like an aspirin ad, where the mom is supplying
medicine to the sick child, and the dog is literally on the childâs bed. So you
â itâs this kind of progression indoors and into the family and into the
bedroom. I donât think itâs any surprise, given that â I think I saw
statistically itâs at 47 percent of people have their pets sleep in their own
bed. I donât think itâs any surprise, given thatâ¦
GROSS: Sleep in the peopleâs bed.
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: Sleep in the peopleâs bed. I donât think itâs any surprise, given
that those people are going to be a lot more interested in getting their dog
groomed because you donât want to sleep with a stinky dog.
GROSS: In talking about services, one of the services that youâve both
researched and taken advantage of is pet hotels, the more high-end kennels that
you can board an animal in if youâre going away. Give us a sense of the range
of things that youâve seen in looking at the high and low range kennels that
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: Well, for a lot of people, if they go out of town, the easiest
thing to do is they just go to their vet, and the vet will have a few kennels,
and the dog can stay there. This used to be pretty standard. To a lot of
people, itâs now thought of as kind of cruel and that, you know, itâll be in
some dank room in the vetâs office in these mom-and-pop vets. And you have seen
this tremendous proliferation of pet hotels. At the biggest of the pet stores -
PetSmart and, I believe, PETCO - are getting into this business as well because
itâs growing very fast.
But I cited â I visited a place in San Francisco called The Wag Hotel where
there are several types of rooms you can choose from, but the largest and most
lavish of them have TVs and, you know, beds and a video camera that lets the
owner, who is presumably on vacation someplace, log on and actually look at
GROSS: Oh, itâs a Web cam.
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: A Web cam, right. And then the owner can then call the hotel or
e-mail and say, boy, you know, my dog looks hungry. Can you please bring him a
treat? And of course, that costs extra. But this place costs, I believe $85 a
night, which is, you knowâ¦
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: More than a lot of Motel 6s.
GROSS: Yeah. You got your dog from a shelter. And thatâs, I think, for a lot of
people the preferred way of getting a pet because you get to, you get to rescue
an animal thatâs been abandoned or was homeless. How are shelters changing?
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: You know, the world of where pets come from stands at great
contrast to the rest of the pet industry. There are professional market-
research types who can tell you exactly how many brands of high end pet shampoo
came on the market in the year 2006, for instance.
But people have only a relatively foggy idea of where pets come from: how many
of them come from so-called puppy mills, how many of them are purchased in
stores, how many of them come from rescues or breeders, or what have you. But
one of the phenomena of recent years, which is related to this campaign against
cruel puppy mills that mass-breed puppies in often inhumane conditions, has
been that the shelters themselves, and the advocates for adoption, are trying
to compete on a kind of market level.
So you have - in the old days, you would have to go to the pound, which was
often in a bad part of town, and it was a miserable place where all these dogs
are howling, and you know that the ones you donât pick are going to be
euthanized. And if youâre with your kid, your kidâs going to start crying. And
itâs going to be a very unhappy and stressful day for everyone.
Instead, I went to a place in Chicago called Paws, which might have been the
most beautiful space I set foot in in that entire week. It was like a
Restoration Hardware or something.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â SCHAFFER: It was a beautiful retail environment. It had enormous bay
windows, so the sun kind of dappled in. And they had arranged the dogsâ rooms
in such a way as that there were no sightlines from one dog to another, which
is something that causes howling. So there wasnât this kind of cacophony of
unhappy howls. The experience there is so pleasant. I mean, this is the
argument, is that if you make the experience pleasant, make it retail, make it
customer friendly. People will be more eager to adopt pets rather them to buy
them in ways that often abet a really cruel system.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Michael Schaffer. Heâs the author of the new
book, âOne Nation Under Dog.â Weâll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is journalist Michael Schaffer, and
his new book is called âOne Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of
Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics and Organic Pet Food.â
I know that there are dog parks in most cities. Do you have a dog park to take
Mr. SCHAFFER: Not officially.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHAFFER: There is - in my neighborhood there's - you know, but it's
interesting you asked that because when we got Murphy and began taking him to
this park in the neighborhood where everybody takes their dogs, you know, it
was like I was Margaret Mead and I'd just landed in Samoa.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHAFFER: There was this very intricate network of rules and what you're
supposed to do and what you're not supposed to do, and no one wrote them down
and no one told you them, but you just sort of figured them out. And you could
see how the people who were regulars of the park would, you know, shun people
who engaged in behavior that wasn't cool, or subtly remind you of what you're
supposed to do, you know, heaven forbid that you let your dog poop and don't
pick it up because everyone will remind you. But there's other types of things,
which as I went around I visited a lot of dog parks. There's great variation
among dog parks, and even these informal ones, in terms of what is permitted
and what isn't. And I'm not again talking about a written list of rules.
GROSS: Give me an example.
Mr. SCHAFFER: Well in my neighborhood, I live in a sort of college-y
neighborhood right by a university. And one thing dogs do in dog parks is they
hump. And, you know, most of the time people have a kind of dogs will be dogs
attitude - well, you know, that's what they do, they're dogs. And, you know,
sometimes if there's a new person people will try to get their dogs to not do
that because they don't how the new person will react but that tends to be how
it works. There's another very nice, actually legal, official dog park in a
kind of ritzy part of town that we take our dog to sometimes, and there, itâs
really not okay.
And there, again, thereâs no sign that says no humping. But you can tell from
the way everyone else is reacting that when Murphy is mounting another dog,
that itâs not at all acceptable and they really donât like that and they donât
know who you are and they kind of want you to go away.
GROSS: So are you a regular now at the dog park? You know all the rules?
Mr. SCHAFFER: Iâm a regular there, not because I know all the rules, but
because itâs the closest thing to my house.
GROSS: Right, right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHAFFER: And itâs actually been a place where, you know, I spend an hour a
day there. And Iâve made a lot of friends. And some - one of our - my wife and
I - one of our closest friends in our city is someone we met through the park.
And I think this is quite typical, this idea ofâ¦
GROSS: Thatâs a point you make in your book, that dogs are a way of connecting
to other people, in addition to having a connection to the dog. And in a
society where weâre growing increasingly isolatedâ¦
Mr. SCHAFFER: Right. And this is â I mean, this is something thatâs been the
subject of a certain amount of scholarly research. But itâs something Iâve also
sort of experienced in my own life at my neighborhood dog park. And I've also
sort of seen it in action and - and I've written about some of the business
people who are trying to take advantage of it. In Austin, Texas, I remember
visiting a bar that had a Yappy Hour, I believe, every Wednesday or Thursday
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHAFFER: â¦and it was a great idea. I mean, whoever thought of thisâ¦
GROSS: That you bring your pet with you?
Mr. SCHAFFER: Bring your pet with you. And, you know, it was outdoors and they
had put out some dog bowls and - probably a quiet night of the week, and it was
a great way of drumming up business. The people who were there loved it because
for them, you know, having to rush home from work everyday and walk the dog
while a pleasure also, you know, sort of impeded on their social life a little
bit, and this was the way to combine the two. And as ornate as a lot of city
dog parks may be now, very few of them serve beer.
GROSS: You know, you mentioned earlier that more people seemed to have pets now
than ever before. And if that's true, have you thought about the reasons why
that might be true?
Mr. SCHAFFER: The most convincing of the reasons I've heard, and I can't claim
to have come up with it myself, you know, traces the point where the growth of
the pet population began to grow faster than the human population, to the
1960s, late '60s. And the argument is that this is the same time when we began
moving further from families, and more divorce, and people leaving tight knit
urban neighborhoods in favor of a more isolated suburban lifestyle, and that
kind of broad array of social support mechanisms going away.
And that one thing people did was turn to pets to help fill that void. And I
think it also explains the role that pets were given in this new world, that
they were considered much more as full-fledged members of the family with all
of our obligations to them than in the old days. And if you walk through a pet
cemetery, you know, you can kind of see this in real time, some of the very old
graves are likely to say, or liable to say, you know, here lies Fido, a loyal
And newer ones, you'll find, you know, here lies Fido, my best friend. Or often
- and there are all these Internet sites where people can write tributes to
their recently deceased pets, and it'll say, my baby, or Fido was my child -
except that his name is not so likely to be Fido anymore. I actually saw some
statistics from a pet insurance company about what the most common names of
policyholders was, and it was like Max and Jake and Chloe and Julie - which are
also pretty common names for babies nowadays.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Michael Schaffer, author of the new book âOne
Nation Under Dog.â Weâll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is journalist Michael Schaffer, and
heâs the author of the new book âOne Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New
World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics and Organic Pet Food."
You have a chapter on, basically, dog training culture wars. You compare two
Mr. SCHAFFER: Right.
GROSS: â¦of dog training. And what are the different styles and what do they
tell you about our culture today?
Mr. SCHAFFER: Right. Well, there is - the number - according to the federal
government, the number of animal trainers in the country tripled in just six
years, between 2000 and 2006. And, you know, one of the reasons for this is, as
I said, that getting dog training has become, for a lot of middle class pet
owners, a kind of basic, normal, responsible thing you do to be a good citizen.
And there has been this wildly popular and really good TV show called "The Dog
Whisperer," starring Cesar Millan, which is like a weekly advertisement for the
concept of dog training. You see him go - you know, you might imagine hiring a
dog trainer is something that only, you know, absurdly rich people do, or you
only do if you want to train a seeing eye dog or a stunt dog or something.
That's how it used to be, or at least youâd only do if you had kind of a
And, you know, watching "The Dog Whisperer," you actually see him go into these
houses of perfectly normal people - and granted, normal people whose dogs are
acting in ways they don't want, but people who are not fancy, spendthrift
types. The thing is, though, that this growth of this industry has masked or
hasn't made up for the fact that there are wildly divergent views about what
the most effective and most humane way to train a dog is.
For most of the 20th century, since the sort of dawn of kind of modern dog
training, which was geared, again, towards police dogs and Hollywood dogs and
whatever â it was this very rote military style training. Actually, the first
prominent dog trainer was in the Prussian police force. So you can imagine it
was sort of in his image, and it was - if the dog, you know, doesn't behave in
the right way, jerk its chain. And that idea kind of carried through most of
the 20th century. There was this pedagogical revolution in the '70s and '80s
among trainers who thought, hey, maybe, actually positive reinforcement, you
know, hitting him with a reward as quickly as possible after he does something
well is a more effective way to train.
The argument was that dogs are too dumb to figure out why it is you're kicking
them. So if you were trying to correct some bad behavior, it's difficult to do
that through these purely negative ways. And this positive reinforcement model
kind of became the standard among professionals. And - academically based
professionals, as well as trainers and who might hang out a shingle, and so on
- until Cesar's show went on the air, and his idea is quite different. It's
that, you know, there is this natural order of things, as existed in a pack of
wild wolves, where the alpha dog was the boss and the other dogs were
And his idea is the way you - that the problem for American dogs, the problem
with their behavior is that we have lost touch with the natural order of things
and that the way to shape a dog's behavior is to remind it that you, the human,
are its alpha - which seems good in theory, but to a lot of the positive
trainers, the ways he gets to that are considered cruel, or at least
impractical. And they see all this sort of talk about nature as just a mask for
a return to this old fashioned, dominant top-down model. And to my mind, it all
plays out kind of like a version of the culture wars over how to raise a kid,
you know? We've got one side based in institutions and universities that has a
softer, more positive approach. You have another side that says our society has
gone amiss because we've lost our discipline and lost our sense of authority.
And, you know, it sounds awfully familiar.
GROSS: Which kind of - which approach did you go with your trainer?
Mr. SCHAFFER: We hired a woman who - because we didn't know anything about this
- we, you know, hired a woman at a good Web site and we liked her a lot, who
had a kind of alpha approach. And it was this, you know, when you go through a
door, you go first, Murphy doesn't go first. That way heâ¦
GROSS: You've got to teach him who's boss.
Mr. SCHAFFER: â¦right. And when you come home, don't pet him. Once he has calmed
down, call him over to the couch and then pet him. And she was a - we really
like her. And she, you know, things I'm saying might sort of - removed from the
experience, might sound kind of monstrous, but the argument was this is what
will make him feel better. That, you know, any behavior problems he has have to
do with anxiety over who's the boss and that dogs, unlike humans, are not
sitting around scheming, hoping to become the boss, but what they do need is a
secured sense of where they are in the order of things.
So it was, you know, put out his food for exactly 20 minutes a day, then put it
away. He has to know that he's going to eat on your schedule, not on his. And,
you know, he doesn't get to come on the bed, and when you walk him, you know,
hold the leash tight and he doesn't get to decide where you go, and that sort
of thing. And that, you know, it worked.
GROSS: Michael Schaffer, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SCHAFFER: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Michael Schaffer is the author of "One Nation Under Dog." Our Animal
Week series continues tomorrow.
FRESH AIRâs executive producer is Danny Miller. Iâm Terry Gross. Weâll close
with a recording by jazz singer Chris Connor. She died of cancer Saturday. She
(Soundbite of song, âStrike Up The Bandâ)
Ms. CHRIS CONNOR (Singer): (Singing) Let the drums roll out, let the trumpet
call, while the people shout strike up the band. Hear the cymbals ring, calling
one and all to the martial swing, strike up the band. There is work to be done,
to be done. Thereâs a war to be won, to be won. Come, you son of a son of a
gun, take your stand. Fall in line, oh, oh come along, letâs go. Hey, leader,
strike up the band.
Let the drums roll out, let the trumpet call, while the people shout, strike up
the band. Hear the cymbals ring, calling one and all, to the martial swing,
strike up the band.
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