Review: Animals Make Us Human

Noted animal advocate and researcher Temple Grandin tackles common problems pet owners face in an enlightening narrative about the emotions that drive our pets — and us.

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals
by Temple Grandin & Catherine Johnson
(Paperback, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

I meant to publish this review the week that the softcover edition of this book was released, back in early January. But I’ve been reading and re-reading Animals Make Us Human since I received my review copy, gleaning new insights each time, and had to remind myself to get this article up.

Those who have not yet seen the new HBO biopic Temple Grandin may not recognize the name. Many pet owners have likely not heard of her. But if you’re involved in the cattle industry at just about any level, you probably know or work with a handling system designed or influenced by Grandin.

In Animals Make Us Human,  Grandin applies decades of experience and research in working with animals toward explaining behavior in pets – dogs and cats – as well as many larger animals including horses and cattle, and farm animals like pigs and chickens. She touches on wildlife behaviors as well. This is a pretty expansive field of topics to cover, but Grandin, with co-author Catherine Johnson, ties it all together in an engaging and enlightening narrative.

The main thread of this book is based on research showing that all animals, including humans, are born with four “blue-ribbon” emotion systems, and that stimulating these core systems produces very similar results. The natural environments of both wild and domesticated animals are compared. Grandin does an excellent job – far better than I’m doing right now – of explaining where and how and why animals experience certain emotions, and how they often act while experiencing them.

How does this relate to training a dog to follow basic commands? Because learning how to stimulate positive emotions in the dog can make that training a positive bonding experience for both pet and owner.

“The more I observe and learn about how dogs are kept today, I am more convinced that many cattle have better lives than some of the pampered pets,” Grandin writes in the afterword of Animals Make Us Human. That’s quite a remarkable statement, and a real call to action for pet owners – what is a dog’s quality of life, really? Do indoor pets get the right amount of stimulation through socialization and play that they need?

For the new pet owner who just wants to figure out how, step-by-step, to get his dog to heel, this is not the ideal book. But if you’re a pet owner who wants to know why the heck Fido does the things he does or why  your cat is hissing at seemingly nothing outside the window, this book can provide some illumination and inspiration to keep working toward improving your relationship with your pet. If Animals Make Us Human is not on your bookshelf yet, it should be.

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals