One of the first lessons you learn when you get a dog is not to anthropomorphise your dog. That is, to credit her with human qualities.
And with good reason, dogs simply cannot rationalise like we can – their behaviour is impulsive, uncalculated for the most part, and without plan for the distant future. They do not have aspirations and are not ambitious like us.
They simply are not like us in that respect – they cannot understand things the way we do, or be expected to.
Yet, I regularly see situations in which the attempts not to anthropomorphise result in stripping the dog of their own wonderful canine qualities. Dogs are sentient, they are loving and they bond strongly, they experience much of the same emotions that we do, and experience fear in much the same way.
They repeat behaviours that have rewarded them in the past and behaviours that are repeatedly found to deliver no reward are not worth repeating (unless of course they’ve been rewarded in the past and then it takes some time for them to come to this conclusion). We always seem to think this is different to us, but in reality, we do exactly the same.
So why do we place ourselves, as humans, so far from the rest of the animal kingdom of which we are a part?
We too are mammals, our brains form and work in much the same way as other mammalian brains, and we have the same basic structure of bones, blood vessels, nerves, organs, etc. as most other mammals.
We have the same physiological response to arousal as our dogs, with blood being diverted to the muscles to prepare us for flight when frightened, and the same ability to feel pain, though we are far inferior in our attempts to hide it than our dogs are!
So when we say anthropomorphism, what do we actually mean? A lot of what we experience, we assume that dogs don’t, and therefore, attributing those qualities to our canine friends would be classed as anthropomorphism – but are we going too far?
I agree that anthropomorphism can be bad for dogs in that, if we expect them to understand things as we do, they are at a huge disadvantage – they don’t learn right from wrong like we do, and this is one of the most common anthropomorphic misrepresentations that I hear; ‘he knew he’d done wrong’.
However, just for a moment let’s consider another member of the human race that we seem to have forgotten when comparing how different we are to dogs; The Toddler.
When you compare a dog’s behaviour and ability to understand with that of an 18 month old child, they aren’t quite so different.
Impulsive – check
Lack of ability to reason – check
Somewhat selfish – check
Loving – check
Seek comfort and attention from the grown humans around them – check
React ‘inappropriately’ (as far as human society is concerned) to certain stimuli – check!
They even bite!
Dogs really aren’t that much different to a toddler, and what’s more, modern research has ascertained that cognitively, dogs are on a level with the cognitive abilities of babies/toddlers.
This isn’t anthropomorphism, this is accepting dogs for their canine qualities. These qualities and abilities are very similar to that of a young infant.
The difference is, we know that our infants will grow up to understand, so we start to teach them right from wrong, and we know that eventually, they will learn enough to be independent of us and able to navigate our human society without our help. Dogs are unable to do this, they will never get past the infantile stage, so the issue anthropomorphism poses is when attempting to teach them the same lessons surrounding the adult human qualities that they won’t gain, rather than when we treat them like children because actually, they are like children.
How mistaking canine traits/abilities for anthropomorphism can be damaging:
Being frightened when left alone
It is still commonly advised that puppies are left alone from the day you bring them home – they are baby dogs who have just been removed from everything they know. They are frightened.
Crying for someone to come and comfort them
Again, common advice remains to ignore a puppy/dog when it cries or it will learn that it ‘works’ – they require comfort at this point, to help them grow into steady, stable dogs and if they do learn that it ‘works’ then they can look to you for guidance in the future but won’t feel the need to continue calling you all the time as they will have grown up to be more secure.
How real anthropomorphism can be damaging:
Believing that the dog ‘should know better’
You put too much expectation on the dog, they will never meet those expectations, you will be frustrated or even angry with your dog for not learning and your dog’s safety is at risk because they are placed in situations they are expected to understand.
Believing that the dog is doing something to spite you
I mean, really? Dogs don’t behave in ways to ‘spite’ us – they just don’t. They live in the moment. They may sulk, but they do not seek revenge.
Believing that dogs aspire to climb the ranks
It could be argued that this isn’t really anthropomorphism because it’s based on a flawed theory about canine behaviour and we don’t connect it with people, particularly. But actually it’s far more like human behaviour than we think. The best part is, it is a myth usually spread by the very people who are entirely intolerant to anthropomorphism. Dogs don’t aspire to climb ranks. They don’t have a 5-year plan of where they’re going to be by then, nor do they actually have much desire to be the ‘top dog’. This is a long debunked theory that is still doing the rounds.
So, we really need to think carefully about what anthropomorphism really is, and whether we are not crediting dogs with all that they are.
People regularly say to me ‘I wouldn’t do that to a child’ and then follow up with an apology for anthropomorphising but in reality much of it is very appropriate. If it feels wrong, you will probably find that it usually is.
Of course there are a few exceptions to this rule, but on the whole, if we treated our dogs more like we treat our young children – ie. With firm boundaries but not firm punishment, kindness and empathy, putting management in place rather than expecting them to know better, but with the difference being that we know they won’t develop past that infant stage, dogs would be much better off.