I’m sitting at La Guardia airport, surrounded by rows of passengers-to-be, their stolid baggage waiting by their sides like silent beasts of burden, their agile mobile phones hard at work. I’m on my way home from the Green Chimneys 2017 Conference on Human Animal Interactions and here’s my challenge: What part of the conference do I write about? The amazing work being done at Green Chimneys, a pioneer in animal and nature-based therapy for children with special needs?? The informative and inspiring talk by Dr. Sandra McCune of the Waltham Foundation, about the human-animal bond and the growing field of Human-Animal Interactions (HAI). Or should I focus on one of HAI’s rising stars, Dr. Maggie O’Haire from Purdue University’s Center for the Human Animal Bond, her research on HAI impacts on children on the autism spectrum, and her development of a coding system designed to capture the unique interactions between humans and animals? (See one her articles here.) Or perhaps I should write about the impressive program of the conference’s co-sponsor, The Institute for Human Animal Connection, and the opportunities it is providing for growth and research in the field itself? You see my problem. (Bottom line–lots of great information at that conference!)
If you are interested in the growing field of Human-Animal Interactions (including assistance and service animals), you’re in luck. As Dr. McCune reminded us, it is a field that is growing by leaps and bounds. For example, in 2005, 97 academic articles included the phrase “human animal interaction.” In 2016, there were 539. I’d argue that Dr. McCune and the Waltham Foundation are in part responsible for that, having been leaders in the field, as well as funding studies on HAI and the human-animal bond. Waltham partnered with NIH to develop a Guide to HAI Resources, if you’d like to learn more. You can also contact The O’Haire Lab and request a fantastic list of Human-Animal Bond Centers in the United States and some other countries.
Like all growing fields, HAI needs more good, solid research behind it, not to mention more skilled practioners with the experience and knowledge required to turn good intentions into real progress. But you couldn’t help but be inspired by the participants and speakers at this conference. Based on the presentations and insightful conversations with many of the participants, I’d say the field is clearly in good hands.
Here’s one specific insight from the conference that I’ve thought about ever since watching Nina Ekholm Fry’s presentation on using equine assisted therapy to develop “Core Mind Skills.” (Ms. Ekholm Fry, MSSc, CCTP, is the Director of Equine Programs at the Institute for Human-Animal Connections in Denver.) Core Mind Skills refer to the ability to use and focus your mind as you do your muscles. Similar in many ways to meditation practices, the concept is to train your brain to focus, to not wander willy-nilly (“monkey mind” in meditation), and to be able to pull it back from a state that is overwhelmed, unfocused or even destructive. Teaching this skill is an important part of therapy for children on the autism spectrum, because it is so easy for them to become overwhelmed with sensory and social input.
But here’s the thing: We all know what being overwhelmed feels like, and I suspect, so do most of our dogs. Nina talked about what she called “The Window of Tolerance.” Below is her graphic example, illustrating that every sentient creature has a limited range of experience in which they can function. On the one hand, this is information we all know, because we live it in our own lives. If we get overwhelmed with information, or if we are frightened, or so hot we can’t think, then we are no longer able to learn. Nor are we able to be flexible and to cope well with what’s happening around us. Here’s my replica of her graphic to illustrate it:
Case in point: Before leaving for the conference I injured my knee. (Probable torn meniscus, will know more soon. I’m optimistic, don’t worry.) Having had no life experience with maneuvering through an airport with two bags and only one usable leg, I limped my way to where I was to pick up the shuttle. Things didn’t go smoothly from there. After set backs adding up to many hours–the shuttle was an hour and a half late, it finally came but wouldn’t let me board, after it did it ended up dropping me off at the wrong hotel–I felt barely able to cope, or even ask for help. All ended up well, but when I read Nina’s line “full access to cognitive capabilities” and “rigidity” (versus flexible and adaptive), I laughed ruefully.
We all know what it feels like to sail out of our own window of tolerance when the tsunami of life picks us up like a rogue wave. Think then, of what it’s like to be on the autism spectrum, and to almost always be overwhelmed. I think too of the many dogs I’ve known, whose “Window of Tolerance” is narrow, and who struggle on a daily basis to be flexible and adaptable.
In the dog world, we talk about working reactive dogs around their “threshold” when conditioning them to be less reactive to a particular stimuli. The “Window of Tolerance” is a similar concept, but for me, it adds another dimension. It reminds us that the window widens or narrows, like the height of a tunnel, depending on the situation and the state of mind of the individual. Are you already stressed and tired? Is your dog in pain from a torn cruciate? Trapped in a small place? Given the right (or wrong) context, any sentient individual becomes more rigid, less flexible and less able to think.
Learning Core Mind Skills, including how to focus on the present, can help us all to widen our windows of tolerance. Surely that is just as true for dogs as it is for us, although it’s a little trickier when you can’t ask your dog to focus on his sensory input by asking “what are you seeing right now?” But we can teach dogs to direct their focus on to something they love or a trick they have learned, and ask them to do that in contexts close to their threshold, helping them to widen their own Window of Tolerance.
I’d love to hear if you too find this another way to add nuance to an important aspect of dog training and behavior. (And life.) I always love looking at the same thing from a different perspective–you too?
Here are some photos from the conference. I didn’t take many because of my lack of mobility, but Green Chimneys has a huge campus, which includes hundreds of wild and domestic animals. The llamas say hello on the top left, and clockwise, that’s me and Nina Ekholm Fry (I had just said “I love your brain!” to her), part of the equine therapy demo, canine therapist R0o and friends–one of the dogs who lives on campus for six weeks and then goes back to the shelter and gets adopted–a win/win if I’ve ever heard one, a poignant release of a Red-Tailed Hawk rehabilitated at Green Chimneys, released in the honor of a beloved staff member who died recently, peacock feathers in the sun (love the contrast of the feathers and the cement with peeling paint), and me with Maureen and Jane, who are responsible for the dog program at Green Chimneys. I owe a special thanks to Jane, whose assistance made the demo I did at the end of my talk into an informative (and often amusing!) time for us all.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Apparently the weather was cool, cloudy and rainy while I was gone. I’ve heard lots of complaints about the weather now that I’m back. But hey, it means that all the flowers I left are still glowing. Makes me smile just thinking about it. Here is a crab apple blooming just down the street from my office, in front of the Black Earth Historical Society. I love the contrast of colors.