Mind Over Miller: A clue to calmness

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Sep 01, 2004

Several years ago at a national veterinary convention, I sat at a banquet table with Dr. Joe Bahe, his wife (who is a sociologist), and their baby. The Bahes are American Indians, born and raised on the Navajo reservation where they practice. Their baby was wrapped in a traditional cradleboard, and, though alert, the baby never fussed or cried.

After dinner but before the program began, the mother took the baby to the restroom for a diaper change. When they returned, the baby was no longer in the cradleboard but was seated in a conventional high chair. The baby cried and fussed and carried on the way babies usually do.

Finally, the mother put the baby back in the cradleboard, securely wrapped up, and tranquility reigned once again. The baby seemed more secure and content in the cradle, and I mentioned this observation to the mother.

"Yes," she smiled. "That's why we use it."

Animal scientist Temple Grandin, PhD, from Colorado State University, says that as an autistic child she experienced comfort and a feeling of security when pressure was applied to her entire body. Dr. Grandin designed a pressure machine to comfort autistic children and has also applied the concept of pressure to her animal subjects. In her book Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports From My Life With Autism (Vintage Books, 1996), she explains that many of her pioneering and important discoveries, which have revolutionized the handling of food animals, were derived from her unique perspective as a person with autism.

In my experience in the field of equine behavior, I've seen difficult horses cast on the ground and immobilized become submissive. Captured wild horses immobilized in a chute by being buried in sand with only their heads protruding also become submissive, though I certainly don't recommend this technique.

The relationship between these techniques is clear: Immobilization profoundly alters behavior in many species. Gentle pressure can comfort, calm, reassure, and increase receptivity, which illustrates how much we do not yet fully appreciate or understand about the behavior of animals, including our own species.

Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his Web site at http://www.robertmmiller.com.