Anthropomorphism – What is it and How it Causes Problems for Dog Owners

Do you have dogs instead of kids? Do you consider yourself a pet parent? While these terms are cute and really do not do any harm – the mentality behind them may be the reason why you and your dog don’t have the relationship you want.

A growing trend in society is to equate dogs to humans, specifically kids. And this is where anthropomorphism comes in. What is that big word? It simple means to give human traits – including behaviors, motivations, emotions, characteristics – to non-human objects, animals or even natural phenomena (“The sky is angry,” says the little girl as lightening crashes down).

Anthropomorphism is a totally natural thing humans do to help us understand things that are different from us and we use it as a way to describe things. The little girl above is just trying to understand what lightning and thunder is all about. Some of us see a splattered painting and the colors on it may induce comments such as, “It looks sad (blues), or angry/passionate/in love (reds).”

But there is a problem when we do this with other living beings. Those living beings actually do have their own set of characteristics and behaviors and they are not the same as ours. To project upon them our own emotions and motivations can have tragic consequences.

“The dog was smiling, I thought it was happy,” says the woman just before she gets bit. The problem is, dogs don’t smile. They do have a submission grin and an aggressive grin (snarl) that can be hard to distinguish between. Or the dog’s mouth may have been open because it was stress panting or about to stress yawn.

Another disservice we do our canine companions is giving them our emotions. Rampant on social media is the “guilty” dog. “My dog knows what he did – look how guilty is.” However, scientific studies have proven dogs don’t feel guilt.

That look many humans describe as “guilt” is actually your dog being stressed (compare the “guilty dog look” with signs of stress in dogs) or even fearful because track record tells them that when you raise your voice, or come at them hastily, a correction is coming. Your dog can read your mood as soon as you step into the house – too bad we can’t do the same for them.

Another injustice is people teasing or scaring their dogs because we think it’s funny. The problem is, dogs don’t understand humor (they don’t laugh) or that you were “just joking” when you scared her so badly she practically jumped out of her skin.

How does all this affect dogs? Scientists believe anthropomorphism is one of the causes of bad behavior. A study by Topal, Miklosi, and Csanyi showed that owners who anthropomorphize have dogs that are more dependent (including separation anxiety) and have decreased problem solving abilities.

How to Live Better with Your Dog

The best way to live a peaceful existence with your dog, where you are both happy in your relationship, is to treat your dog like a dog. Learn what science has taught us about canine body language and then use this to assess your dog’s actions. And please, if you are using Google, make sure the information you are reading comes from a reliable study or expert in the subject area – not someone who just loves their dog a lot and thinks they know what their dog is thinking.

What Science Has Told Us About Dogs:

They like routine and structure. This means keeping the rules the same (don’t allow them on the couch one week and then scold them the next week when they jump up), stick with a training method and make sure everyone in the house follows the rules.

They do feel pain, love, fear, anger, anxiety and stress. BUT they don’t show it in the same way we do. Learn THEIR signs, don’t assess your dog based on how we humans display these emotions.

Dogs are opportunist. Scientists and behaviorists have learned that dogs are opportunists, meaning they do what works to get them what they want. Dog owners witness this with things like counter surfing. Dog gets on counter once, is rewarded with food, and then does the behavior more and more. This is why positive reinforcement training works. It works with a dog’s natural motivations. Humans work in the same way, technically. But the difference is WHAT we will work for. Your dog doesn’t care in the slightest about sitting and heeling for a blue ribbon or points. And it’s not likely that your dog sits on the couch wondering how he can please you better and comes up with “I know, I’ll sit faster next time!” However, what we have learned is that if the dog is rewarded in a way that has value to that particular dog, he will do the behavior more often. So, if you reward your dog for sitting, he is going to sit more often. So learn what your dog likes and use it as a reward for the behaviors you like!

Just remember to stop and think before you end a sentence such as, “My dog is feeling…,” “my dog thinks…” or “my dog is acting like he’s…” Are you basing the rest of that sentence on scientific fact or are you projecting your human traits on him? You might be surprised at how much you learn about your dog if you start using canine language with him. And you will both be better off.

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  1. Hello.
    Just a problem I am having with my two 11 month old Cavoodle puppies. One is pooping in the house. Never when I am looking of course!
    I took them over separately and told them poop is to be outside and took them outside. I did not let them come inside for about 2 hours which they hated.
    Is this the best way to stop this behaviour. I wd really appreciate your advice.
    Judi Hall

    1. Hi Judi, so i would get them out of the house during the hours they poop and leave them there until they do their business.

      1. I also tell them to do wees or poos when I take them out so they know why they are going out, I also reward them when they do their business. It has been extremely helpful at the vet’s if they require a sample.

  2. I’m convinced dogs know what we’re thinking. I can be sitting at the breakfast table with my iPad, and I’ll think to myself ‘ I’d better get that washing on the line or it will never dry in time.’ My fox-terrier, who will be sleeping in front of the fire, will suddenly jump up and head for the out-doors, before I even move!

    1. Hi Elizabeth, I believe some dogs have a “sixth” sense. There are many stories written on dogs that knew when their owners were coming home. Some amzing ones where the only explanation is they can sense their owners presence from miles away.

  3. “Opportunist”. Love the word. My dog grovelled and licked my hand at the Pound. Hasn’t done it since. Never forget you wouldn’t put up with that in a human. Never forget, it’s a dog. Loved this article.

  4. Interesting article thanks.I guess I’m “guilty” as my dog is the child I never had.I live alone and he is my constant companion bringing joy and purpose to my life.
    We communicate beautifully in this very special relationship.
    He is spoilt rotten and I love him to bits and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

  5. Hi Robert,
    I love reading all the articles that you send they are all so very helpful and make a lot of sense…
    Thank you for caring enough to share all this important information, so that we can all become better dog owners….

  6. Robert
    great item and yes i am guilty of this as is my wife THE FUR KIDS hmmm sit and talk with Fergus as he is attached to my leg most times .
    Explain to them when we are going out,turn on the TV for them as well ,we have the two he and Pearl another American Spaniel another rescue .
    My wife knows when i am near home as he goes flying to the door before i turn into the drive.
    Would i change talking to them NO , do they understand YES i believe so ,just mention the word Prize and away and sits and looks at the jar they are in liver treats ,mention a bath then go looking under a bed, mention getting the mail and he is at the door in a flash ,carries in a letter if any to give my wife OH then gets a prize.
    they have me trained well

  7. May I pose a question
    again this morning Fergus was out like a light { his favourite postition} and legs were twiching as if running, then out came this pitifull howl NOT the first time it has happened over the years

    was he having a bad dream ?? we did have a Sheperd years ago that often did the same thing, some thimes she would wake her self and look about as though something was there other times just go back to sleep as does Fergus
    any ideas

  8. Wonderful article,if only more people could actually follow through with that advice. I listen to owners constantly giving emotions to their dogs, and treating them like humans, It’s either that or the polar opposite of being cruel.
    I love my animals dearly that it breaks my heart to think the day they won’t be around, but I constantly reinforce to myself to treat them like an animal.
    Thank you for the artical Robert

    1. Nice post Nancy, Dogs are different to us in so many ways and i believe they appreciate being treated as dogs and not little humans.

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