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Horse / Dog Behaviour Grief in Animals – Consciousness in Dogs & Horses

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Horse / Dog Behaviour

Grief in Animals.  Consciousness in Dogs & Horses

Welcome to the series of free articles on horse & dog behaviour.  Please feel free to share the articles with others who might benefit … all we ask is that you include our website details so others can consider becoming a Natural Animal Centre Equine or Canine Behaviourist or a Bach Animal Counsellor.

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In considering the notion of animal grief, we need to explore a complex area right on the periphery of provable behavioural science: whether animals have a sense of consciousness.  This short journey encompasses a brief understanding on animal intelligence as well, so by the time you have read it you will understand the true nature of grief and how it relates to consciousness in animals.

People have long been fascinated with the idea of whether animals are really intelligent or not, and of course how intelligent they are in relation to us.  But measuring intelligence is a very difficult question for behavioural scientists to get to grips with.  Few of us can fail to be impressed by the intelligence of a turtle that lays its eggs on a beach in Australia, swims half way round the world and then finds its way back to the identical beach a year later.   Similarly, most of us are awed by the spectacular ability of a dog that can warn his epileptic owner of an impending seizure or another that is able to detect tumours in strangers.

A human perspective

But behaviourists have said that it is difficult to be truly objective about measuring animal intelligence, not least because it is us humans who are doing the measuring.  One of the problems is that we are more willing to be impressed by certain kinds of animals such as chimpanzees that can readily learn to serve tea in china cups than say, spiders that weave webs that should really, in all honesty, bowl us over with their intricacy, complexity and subtlety.

It all comes back to a concept known as anthropomorphism, a mouthful of a word that is the term given to the phenomenon of placing human interpretations on animal behaviour.  We all do it – my dog looks sad today, we say – because we interpret a wide eyed passivity in the dog as being something we would might do if we felt down in the dumps.  In reality, of course, the dog might be displaying a range of behaviours, anything from feeling sick to perhaps simply seeking our attention.

So behavioural scientists  have said that we have to be extra careful when trying to assess animal intelligence particularly because this is an area where we might easily fall into the trap of being anthropomorphic.  Consider the epic, successful adverts which showed chimpanzees making and pouring tea.  This was one of the most blatant attempts to tap into our anthropomorphic senses, it is undoubtedly true that we are often most captivated by manifestations of ‘cleverness’ in animals where the behaviours seem to be part of what we would call private consciousness.  Successful You Tube clips abound with potentially anthropomorphic interpretations of animal behaviour.  Having read this article you will have an essential understanding which allows you to distinguish the true origins of the behaviour.  Understanding consciousness in animals, as you will see, is a crucial element to being able to accurately assess behaviour.

Consciousness is the inner sensory awareness of what is going on around us, the ability to think, make decisions, to reason with ourselves and so on and for a long time it was thought that this was an exclusively human trait.  But there is now a clear recognition in some scientific quarters that animals are conscious of some things – for example, a tiger can express his consciousness of being unhappy by pacing up and down in a cage – and that it is more the lack of our ability at this point in time to scientifically prove this consciousness that is missing, rather than the act of consciousness itself in animals.

Clever Hans

But before we look at consciousness and animal emotions in more detail, consider these two examples of animal intelligence where superficially, one might be forgiven for thinking there was some very clever, conscious behaviour going on which might involve a level of deduction and reasoning that might be on a par with human consciousness.

In the early years of the twentieth century a horse called Clever Hans became famous because his owner, Oskar Pfungst, claimed that his horse could perform arithmetic.  Whenever Pfungst asked the horse the answer to a simple sum, say 3 + 4, Clever Hans would give the answer by tapping the ground with his hoof seven times.

It was later proven, however, that Clever Hans was not being super-intelligent at all.  He was not doing arithmetic but was instead reacting – quite mundanely – to minute signals from his owner, even though the cues were all given by Pfungst quite inadvertently.  Just the tiniest flaring of his owner’s nostril or the lifting of an eyebrow at the time the correct answer was delivered was enough for Clever Hans to recognise it was time to stop tapping.  Based on ethology it makes sense that horses would be exceptionally good at this as they use facial and body posture cues in their innate communication process.

In another study, a zoologist named Hans Kruuk who was studying the behaviour of hyenas in Africa, realised that the hyenas showed preferences for one type of prey over another.  But what he also realised was that the prey – zebras and wildebeest – seemed to know whether it was a bad day for zebras or wildebeest.  It would have been easy for Kruuk to wax anthropomorphically about these behaviours: the fact that on a given day, the zebras would behave quite nonchalantly in the close proximity of the hyenas because they knew that they were safe because it was the wildebeest that were on the menu.  Whereas on another day they would be skittish and jittery and would not allow the hyenas near them.  On these days, sure enough, Kruuk would find that zebras would be the object of the hyenas.  So is this proof of consciousness?

Both these examples are in fact, displays of normal behaviour that reflect how well horses and zebras can adapt to things happening around them.  It is easy to interpret the behaviours as being breathtakingly clever whereas in reality behavioural scientists know that the equid is not only equipped to detect body language signals of  his own species, but of other animals as well.  All of this makes sense, when you think about it, because it this ability to adapt which enhances their chances of survival.  And in this case, remaining vigilant as a zebra on a ‘wildebeest menu day’ means you miss out on grazing and hence your fitness is diminished.  Successful species adapt so that they not only avoid predation, but are able to maximise their fitness as well, leading to a complex web of strategies.  But we can explain this adaption through learning theory – lots more on this in our Behaviour Courses take a look at the course prospectus which shows you the detailed content of every module … Behaviour Courses

So no matter how disappointed we might be, these are not examples of very special consciousness and although these animals are clearly conscious, what is going on in the brain might be something a lot more ordinary like going about the business of trying to survive.  Clever Hans, of course, merely used these behaviours in a slightly more unusual context but ultimately, all we can say is that he was using a perfectly natural behaviour.  We include the learning theory which explains all of the above in our Behaviour Qualifications so, as a behaviourist, you are able to firstly unpick how a behaviour developed, and secondly apply the learning theory to change or replace the unwanted behaviour.

So what sorts of behaviours impress behavioural scientists – or put it another way, which behaviours are we still finding difficulty in trying to prove in terms of just their function?

First, you need to understand that scientists differentiate between the brain and the mind.  When we talk about the brain, we mean the different parts that we can see, we can dissect and in many cases assign some sort of function.  So for example, if I was trying to understand what was going on inside a horse or a dog whilst it was sleeping, I might notice that at a certain time, whilst in a deep sleep, the area of the brain known as the visual cortex suddenly begins to show an increased level in blood flow (during REM sleep).  In human beings, this change in blood levels has been associated with dreaming and of course, we know that the visual cortex is highly instrumental in the brain’s presentation and interpretation of visual images, an important part of dreaming.

But in reality, we cannot know for sure that horses or dogs dream (although the physical evidence in the brain is difficult to ignore) because ultimately, dreaming belongs to that more ephemeral area called the mind, or consciousness.  So scientists are left in a state of some dilemma at this point in time – they can prove the changes in the visual cortex (and even seemingly coordinated movement and vocalisation in dogs), but they cannot prove with one hundred percent accuracy, the presence of dreaming.  Science simply does not have the tools or techniques to resolve the issue.

The case for animal grief

One of the questions that most vexes behavioural scientists is the concept of whether animals grieve or not.   Some of the greatest poetry ever written in the history of the English language recognises the concept of grief (witness W.B. Yeats’ Wild Swans at Coole), usually in relation to animals that have lost their mate.  Without doubt, it is true that many animals – like swans – that enjoy a strictly monogamous relationship will indeed die shortly after the death of their mate.

Closer to home, many vets report anecdotes of elderly cats that become quickly ill and are dead within six months of the death of their feline companion, this time, not their reproductive partner.  A survey of the types of cases that dog behaviourists were most often consulted upon, revealed that one in five cases were related to separation anxiety – a form of grief, some might say.  Separation anxiety is the destructive behaviour that a dog displays when separated from the individual to which he is most attached, such as when his owner goes to work, or in horses the anxiety shown when their pair bond is removed from the field.

But again, we need to be careful of anthropomorphic interpretations.  Well-known dolphin trainer, Karen Pryor, reported the behaviour of a dolphin that stopped eating and swam around with its eyes shut after the death of its only other companion.  Although the dolphin did not improve until another dolphin was added to the pool, one would need to be cautious about simply attributing this to grief because the dolphin was in the unnatural situation of having only one other companion in captivity and therefore its loss, was disproportional to what would happen normally in the wild.  If we want to get to the truth about consciousness in animals (and hence grief) we need to be stringent in how we analyse overt behaviours.

Human psychologists have long recognised that bereavement is one of the most stressful experiences a person can undergo during a lifetime and an enormous amount of research still continues today in studying both the external behaviours and the private consciousness of people that are grieving.  But whilst both the physical changes that the body undergoes during grief are well-documented in humans, animal behaviourists have by and large, gone out of their way to ignore the possibility of grief as an emotion found in the normal behavioural repertoire of an animal.

Partly this is down to the fact that some species of animals seem to display no interest or any behaviour that might simulate caring feelings, when they come across the dead body of a member of their species.  But then we have the repeated and oft-documented example of elephant behaviour when they lose a member of their herd.  Here, behaviourists find themselves on shaky ground in trying to disregard animal grief, mainly because of the frequency and consistency in the occurrence of the behaviours.

Elephant tears

Since the Eighties, many zoologists have documented sightings of elephants banding around dying elephants.  One observer described a situation where the dying matriarch was repeatedly lifted onto her feet by members of the herd as well as other ruses used to try to rouse her up such as feeding leaves directly into her mouth, stroking her with their trunks and calling to her.  In another incident, after similar attempts to rouse her dead calf, a mother elephant (in good health herself) remained at the body of her baby for several days, stroking it quietly and not once leaving its side to either drink or eat.  This is no mean achievement in an animal that readily consumes 300 kg of food every day.  The rest of the herd had moved on by this time but then a second adult female returned to collect the calfless mother and seemed to persuade her to leave the body, although the zoologist noted that she remained lethargic and trailed way behind the rest of the herd for several weeks.

Elephant reactions to even just the bones they find of other elephants led to the misconception that elephants even had special graveyards where they went to die.  Although this has now been disproved, their clear interest in the bones – they will lift them, turn them over and appear to caress them with their trunks – all testify to behaviours that are difficult to describe without some sort of reference to the human grieving response.  Cynthia Moss, an elephant behaviourist, even cites an example where an elephant calf who lost her mother seven years previously showed an enormous interest in the dead mother’s jawbone when she came across it in the bush.  Much later, she left the herd and made a specific detour to visit the jawbone on her own.

As long ago as 1872, Charles Darwin, the evolutionary biologist, cited examples of elephants that he had witnessed shed emotional tears (the functions of these tears is still a problem for the scientists that try to ignore the validity of elephant emotions as they cannot be associated with the fluid that flows from an elephants temporal glands) all of who did so, whilst they were lying down and apparently depressed.

So the gathering evidence, although yet to be formally, scientifically unexplained,  indicates consciousness is not limited to animals that live in pairs that display grieving-type behaviours.

Veterinary equine behaviourist, Paul McGreevy noted that there are changes in the behaviour of a mare who loses a foal and that in the wild, some will even begin to suckle the previous year’s foal again.  Whilst McGreevy hesitates to apply motivations such as grief to such displays, he does acknowledge that these behaviours do imply attempts on the mare’s part to bring comfort to herself.

One of the best ‘proofs’ (outside of behaviour) of horse grief comes in the form of complementary medicines.  The homeopathic remedy, Ignatia, the Bach Flower Remedy, Star of Bethlehem and the essential oil of Neroli have all been administered to ‘grieving’ horses with repeated success.

Perhaps those of us dedicated to helping animals should acknowledge that there is still much that has to be learnt and ‘proven’ in the world of animals, but none of this means that grief and other emotions of consciousness do not already exist in animals.  What is absolutely clear is that we need to guard against anthropomorphic interpretations as these can only lead to inaccurate interpretations of animal behaviour.

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