There are thousands of books to choose from on dog, cat and horse behaviour and more being published every day, but this book really stands out as a masterpiece. Karin Pienaar is a professional behaviourist with decades of experience under her belt, and she’s finally got round to telling the rest of us how she works.
Whether you’re working as a professional behaviourist, a trainer, or just interested in wanting to know more about how you can build better relationships with the animals around you – this book is for you.
What I like most about this book, apart from the content, is its no-nonsense style. It’s very personable and feels like I’m in conversation with the author which I find really refreshing.
Following a short introductory chapter, Pienaar throws us head-first in at the deep end with Chapter 2, which is the murky world of emotion neuroscience. But no need to panic. She’s holding onto our hand tightly as she reassures us that we can dismiss most of the 100 or so different definitions for what emotions are. The first couple of pages give us a potted history of emotion science, the thorny issues of the politics, and its importance (and neglect) in animal welfare. We then dive right into the practical application of emotion science which lays the foundations for the rest of the book.
Of all the emotion theories out there, Pienaar has broadly adopted 2 of them that are historically irreconcilable because they are at opposite ends of the emotion spectrum. However, she manages to seamlessly combine them into MHERA, the tool she has developed to facilitate a step-by-step, systematic approach to solving behaviour problems in animals. MHERA itself is the subject of Chapter 3.
The first emotion system of MHERA is Jaak Panksepp’s 7 core EMOTIONS, namely SEEKING, PLAY, CARE, FEAR, RAGE, PANIC/GRIEF and LUST. The CAPS indicate Panksepp’s unique categorisation of his system. This is a really important (and equally confusing) point because the labels Panksepp has used are terms already in common use. So Panksepp’s PLAY SYSTEM has a precise anatomical location in the brain and plays (see what I did there?) a distinct functional role in an organism’s emotional life. Likewise, FEAR, CARE etc are dissociable from the colloquial use of the same terms.
Since its introduction into the mainstream companion animal behaviour community in 2005 (see Forward and Chapter 1 of the book), Panksepp’s SYSTEMS have subsequently been interpreted, misinterpreted, used, and abused far and wide throughout the animal community. However, Pienaar’s summary of ‘The Panksepp 7’ is one of the best I’ve seen. Full of nuance and with a distinctive bias toward its practical hands-on application which is the style played out through the rest of the book. For example, in her description of the SEEKING SYSTEM, Pienaar tackles some of the outdated misconceptions concerning rewards, motivation and reinforcement that are still in common use within the animal training and behaviour community. This is a motif re-visited in Chapter 4, which I applaud because the dogma that pervades learning theory has needed knocking down a peg or two for decades. More in Chapter 4 later.
Chapter 3, an Introduction to MHERA, is a roll-up-your-sleeves tour-de-force supported by 20 illustrative figures and 3 tables. That’s a lot of bang for your buck, and it’s also where the second emotion theory of MHERA comes in (Panksepp’s is the first, discussed above). While Panksepp 7 discrete emotion SYSTEMS are crucially important, they are not enough on their own to describe the full phenomenological lived experiences of a thinking organism. What’s missing are the gaps in between that describe MOOD STATE.
I think of it this way. If emotion states are represented by distinct colours of paint, the accompanying mood state (note, there’s just one of them) is what you get when you mix the paints together. Furthermore, once mixed you can’t unmix them again. This analogy works well because, unlike emotion states, mood states are persistent and resistant to change. This is a popular concept in human psychology because it links neatly into personality types (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). There’s a lot of empirical evidence that personality type influences welfare in (other) animals too, rendering them more or less vulnerable to stressors.
This is where the holistic approach adopted by MHERA really comes into its own as a fabulous tool that anyone can use to assess welfare. MHERA also facilitates coming up with solutions to help support an animal that is not coping well with life. So, it’s both a diagnostic tool and a tool that helps forge a remedial solution.
The responsibility learning theory in Chapter 4 has been handed over to a second author, Nancy Payne. A shrewd move on Pienaar’s part because Payne offers us a no-nonsense, refreshing perspective by someone from a very different field – quantum physics. The title of the Chapter (Reinforcement – what is it really) gives us a clue where she’s headed with this. For example, she dismantles the widespread idea that dopamine is the ‘happy hormone’ that’s somehow the key to the feeling of ‘reward’. This (wrong) belief recently went viral in the fashion industry and ended up in the movies as Emma Stone’s Yellow Dress in “La La Land”!
Thank goodness, characters from the old world of behaviourism like Pavlov and Skinner don’t get a mention. Instead, Payne taps into more recent and relevant research from the world of neuroscience. Why is this important? Because behaviourism relegates the role of the brain/mind into a black box and then pretends it’s not there. Accordingly, the behaviour you see in a dog is the totality of what there is.
Neuroscience instead takes us behind the scenes and endeavours to work out the neural substrates of that behaviour. Yet, even after 50 years of hard-graft research, this is still a work-in-progress, and we still have much to learn about what actually motivates a particular animal to do that particular thing in that particular context. And for anyone working with animals, this is a good thing. It reminds us to challenge anyone who claims to have the answer to every animal’s behaviour problem.
CHAPTERS 5 – 9
The remaining 5 chapters of the book are its jackpot prize for me, real-world case histories. Each chapter features a different species – dog, cat, cow, horse and finally a gorilla – where Pienaar walks us through how MHERA was used to solve their behaviour problems. Now, I know some dog folks reading this are going to be disappointed that all the cases are not dogs. I can reassure you from decades of experience that you’ll take away far more from this cross-spectrum of species than you would had they all been canines. First, you’ll see just how much can be achieved in situations where your options and the resources available to you are so limited. Second, you’ll get a different perspective on aspects of our relationship with dogs we take for granted, such as consent. The final chapter discusses this very problem with a rather grumpy gorilla!
Finally, the book is a decent, large-format size allowing for space to really showcase the 49 figures and numerous tables. I’m fed up with paying good money for books only to find a I need a magnifying glass to read the illustrations, so well done to Dogwise the publishers for this.