Anthropomorphizing Our Dogs

By Nicole Wright, Unleashed Joy Dog Trainer

It’s human nature to look at our dogs through a human-centric lens. We owe it to ourselves and our dogs, though, to recognize our differences, to educate ourselves in dog behavior and body language, and to try to look at situations from their perspective. I think it’s pretty special that we don’t speak the same language but we still find ways to understand and form incredible bonds with each other.

When Beth first asked me to write a blog post about anthropomorphism, the act of ascribing human qualities to nonhuman animals or objects (we’re interested in how people anthropomorphize dogs), I thought this would be a pretty easy topic. Should be straightforward, I figured; I’ll talk about how we have a human tendency to explain our dogs’ emotions and behaviors in a very human-oriented way, and how doing so can really do a disservice to them and to us.

Then again I don’t think seeing our dogs in a human light is always all that bad. It can help us feel closer or more connected to them. Who of us hasn’t thought, “She’s so happy to see me!” or “He missed me!” When we anthropomorphize our dogs, it’s probably because we are trying to understand or make sense of their actions. It’s important to try to understand and form relationships with our dogs, and taking note of their behaviors and thinking about what they might mean can help. I’ll admit that I often anthropomorphize with my own dog, Luna. I just try to be sure to take it a step further and realize when I’m doing it and what other possible explanations might exist for her behavior.

Anthropomorphizing can get us (and unfortunately our dogs) into trouble when we don’t realize that we’re doing it, when we don’t keep in mind the basics of dog behavior and body language, and when we don’t think about other possible explanations for their behavior. For example, think of the videos you see online featuring dogs and babies. “Awww, look at that dog, holding still to get a hug from the child! What a happy picture!” Eeek. Do dogs like being hugged? Hugging is a pretty human thing (and not even all humans enjoy it! I’m thinking of my friends who proclaim “I’m a hugger!” before coming in for one because they know I’m not huge on hugs but I’ll tolerate one from them). To a dog, a hug can be uncomfortable or downright scary. “Awww, look! The dog is “tickling” the baby!” I think I saw on another video. Tickling? A human might playfully tickle a baby but is tickling really a behavior in your dog’s repertoire? Instead, what was that dog actually doing? Maybe trying to create distance between himself and the baby? Maybe a little too interested in the baby? I don’t know, but writing it off as a cute, playful, pretty benign human-type of behavior like tickling can be risky for all parties. We’d be better off trying to put ourselves in the dog’s shoes, rather than trying to imagine them in ours.

Another, classic example of how anthropomorphizing can be troubling is that of the owner who claims his dog appears “guilty” because he “spitefully” peed on the carpet while the owner was out. First of all, is that really a guilty face or is the dog just reacting to your angry display with appeasement behaviors? Big eyes looking up at you, furrowed brow, maybe cowering a bit…it’s all too easy for us to jump to the (likely incorrect) conclusion that he remembers he peed on the carpet earlier today and that he “knows” this was wrong. Instead, let’s remind ourselves of a few basics about dog behavior and how they learn. They’re great at distinguishing differences in context, and they learn in the moment, associating a consequence with the behavior that immediately preceded it (unless you use an event marker like a clicker, and even then the reinforcement needs to follow within a few seconds).

Let’s say they pee on the carpet in front of you and you yell at them. They may have just learned, “Okay, I get yelled at when I pee on the carpet in front of them. Next time I’ll do it when they’re not watching or somewhere else where they can’t see.” You’re angry, they’re probably confused, but they appear “guilty” because they’re likely trying to appease your anger, and you’re even more mad because you think they “knew” it was wrong. You yell at them, and now they’ve just learned that you’re sometimes a little unpredictable and scary! Not only can this type of miscommunication negatively affect our relationship with our dogs, but it can delay housetraining.

It’s human nature to look at our dogs through a human-centric lens. We owe it to ourselves and our dogs, though, to recognize our differences, to educate ourselves in dog behavior and body language, and to try to look at situations from their perspective. I think it’s pretty special that we don’t speak the same language but we still find ways to understand and form incredible bonds with each other.

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