She Listens to the Animals

By Marcia Faye
She Listens to the Animals
Melissa Shyan-Norwalt (M.S. PSYC ‘81)
Photo: Bonnie Robinson

“A hug delights and warms and charms; that must be why God gave us arms,” goes a clever anonymous quotation.

What about fins?

As a child, Melissa Shyan-Norwalt (M.S. PSYC ’81) was approached by stray dogs and scared horses, and believed even then that members of the kingdom Animalia may be more than just creatures of instinct. Now an animal behaviorist, Shyan-Norwalt had a special experience with a bottlenose dolphin later in her life that only strengthened these feelings.

While enjoying her morning coffee at the University of Hawaii at Mãnoa, Shyan-Norwalt, then a doctoral student in experimental psychology, heard a high-pitched whistle, much like a teakettle spouting off. She realized it was coming from the dolphin pool and recognized it as a distress call: one of the mammals had somehow toppled out of the water and was lying on the concrete perimeter. Except for a few scratches on its back, the female dolphin appeared to be fine and was hoisted back into its water world. Shyan-Norwalt decided to get into the pool to observe the animal more closely, and got a big surprise.

“She swam up me so that her head was leaning on my left shoulder and her body was pressed against mine,” recalls Shyan-Norwalt. “I held her and petted her, and she held me with her pectoral fins. I could feel her heart rate start to slow down; she wanted to be comforted. In comparative cognitive psychology, we train animals and ask them to do things so that we can learn how they think and what they can do. But I don’t always expect them to have a bond. As people, we develop bonds because we’re sentimental. But animals sometimes show you that they have really developed a bond with you.”

Shyan-Norwalt says that while it has been shown scientifically that animals do have “feelings”—if defined behaviorally or as physiological responses—misconceptions do occur. It is the job of some applied animal behaviorists to ensure that the social signals between animals and humans are correctly interpreted. (After Shyan-Norwalt’s tender moment with the bottlenose, the dolphin reverted back to its species-typical ways by trying to bite her as soon as its confidence returned.)

An Animal Behavior Society-certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB), Shyan-Norwalt is one of only 55 individuals worldwide who hold such a credential. To qualify for certification, CAABs must have advanced degrees in a behavioral science or veterinary medicine, provide case studies for review, publish articles in scientific journals, and have years of hands-on supervisory experience with animals.

Now a psychology professor at Martin University and founder of Companion Animal Problem Solvers, Inc., a private animal-behavior practice operating in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Dayton, Ohio, Shyan-Norwalt has vivid memories of pets from an early age. Her parents made sure there was always enough room in her baby carriage to share with “Junior,” the family’s mixed-breed dog.

“At one point, we had four horses, three dogs, two cats, a parrot, a canary, and a Siamese fighting fish,” says Shyan-Norwalt, thinking back to her childhood in semi-rural Lloyd Harbor, a suburb of New York. “By the time I was 12, I knew that I wanted to become a veterinarian.” She instead combined her interests in human cognition with comparative cognitive work and became what some have endearingly described as a “pet shrink.”

While most of her current pet clients come from across Ohio and Indiana, Shyan-Norwalt has traveled to zoos and research facilities as a consultant and helped to design a zoo planned for Korea. Invited to speak at veterinary colleges and national animal welfare and shelter conferences, she has been interviewed for local and national TV shows, magazines, and newspapers.

Tim Staggs, Shyan-Norwalt’s former student at Butler University, assisted her in research on the visual acuity of African elephants, and recalls her as a strong mentor and a visionary.

“She taught me how to learn, plain and simple. Before I began working with her, I was a first-generation college student struggling in school and on academic probation,” explains Staggs, now a private-practice attorney. “After meeting her, I graduated magna cum laude from both undergraduate and law schools. She was the first teacher who taught me to work with all that ‘potential’ others had been talking about my whole life.”

Shyan-Norwalt describes herself as a “debunker” who likes to test commonly held assumptions about animals. She is compiling data based on her own observations; for example, do dolphins prefer very large pools? (For at least one zoo group, no.) Are African elephants poor visual users? (Actually, they’re pretty good.) Her current research focuses on animal welfare and psychological enrichment for domestic, exotic, and companion animals in zoos and research facilities, trying to determine whether untested assumptions about what is considered enriching for a given species is truly so. She also continues to explore and study new problem-solving strategies for pet behavior issues.

“I’m always looking for ways that animals can ‘tell us,’ behaviorally, what they can perceive, conceive, comprehend, and problem-solve,” says Shyan-Norwalt.

She offers a number of educational presentations, including one for pet owners and caregivers interested in how to interpret dog and cat facial expressions, body language, and other communication signals. Based on scientific research, the talk exposes the myths and discusses the realities of dominance in the dog, cat, and human species. Shyan-Norwalt says, for example, with almost every mammal a stare is considered a form of challenge, but one with a fairly big twist.

“If it’s done within species, it could mean, ‘I want to dominate you,’ she says. “If it’s across species, it could mean, ‘I want to eat you.’”

Teaching Pets

She Listens to the Animals

For several years, Melissa Shyan-Norwalt was a scientist with Iams Company, a manufacturer of premium dog and cat foods, and worked on behavior-modification programs for dogs and cats with adjustment problems. Though she has seen exceptions to the rule, Shyan-Norwalt says that behaviorists use three key principles to positively alter almost any animal’s unattractive habits.

“We find a good reinforcer, like food or petting,” she says, “then maximize how the animal understands what is being asked of it—what stimuli it is able to recognize and what mediating cues are needed to teach it the task. Finally, we take baby steps. They are needed to break down the desired behaviors into manageable units that can bring the animal to do what we want, whether that is pressing a lever or not attacking another dog on a walk.”

More Online

Animal Behavior Society:
Companion Animal Problem Solvers, Inc.: