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Anthromorphism- A mistake in the making


Why its necessary to remember that dogs are dogs and people are people.


I “love” my dogs, the amount of enjoyment and interaction I have with them is a major part of my life. While at Siam Crown we gravitate towards training working dogs, I appreciate the dog as a full time companion both in the house and in the field.

I do however remember that a dog is a dog! The term anthromorphism means  “to assign emotions or thought patterns to animals or objects, which are incapable of achieving such dimensions”. This is in our view a very common mistake made by dog owners, and one of the primary causes of problems in handling dogs both in working environments and often more so at home. Dogs have great potential to be trained to do many things, they also have an uncanny ability to sense gestures and movements and react to them. In a sense some of this becomes behavioral conditioning by repetition and response even when we don’t realize its happening.

Some dog trainers and many dog owners have a mistaken idea of what really drives their dog and how it thinks and reacts to the world around it, they often have expectations far above the animal’s actual ability or they tend to think of the dogs responses in reasoned human terms. This can be the first step to disaster.


Some people think that their dogs are little furry people and that their pets are able to understand complex thought patterns, and comprehend our moral and ethical behaviors. They assume that the dog has a basic understanding of right and wrong, this is in our view WRONG. Often people assume a dog’s level of understanding is almost on a level with our own.  Animals operate based on drives and instincts as well as learned behavior and response. It is vital to keep in mind that they do not have the capacity to comprehend the complex thought processes that allows us to understand human emotions, language, and behavior.

When we anthromorphisize we do a dis-service to our dogs and ourselves, we demonstrate an unwillingness to learn how our dog thinks and work within those parameters.

This doesn’t mean that your dog doesn’t think, this doesn’t mean that your dog doesn’t have a relationship with you. It doesn’t mean that you should not respect or appreciate your dog. It does mean that you need to learn the modus by which dog’s think and relate.


I believe that anthropomorphism is one of the main reasons many people have difficulty communicating with their pets. So why do we do it? Humans always find it easier to relate to something when they feel they can see reflections of their own thoughts, emotions and behavior in their animals.  This is called projection and is a psychological phenomenon in which one projects their feelings upon others, animals, or objects. While it is “usually” helpful for us in dealing with other human beings, it is not the same when dealing with dogs.


Dogs have demonstrated the ability to chain ideas together, but they are not able to connect actions and behaviors that are separated by time. As an example if your dog makes a mess on the floor during your absence, it is virtually useless to scold or punish the dog when you come home. The dog is not able to connect your anger with what you feel the dog has done wrong. While some people will say the dog showed that it felt bad or guilty over what happened, it is in fact a trite reaction to your scolding, but without the connection and desired effect. The dog is in fact baffled as to what your issue is. Behaviorally a dog is not structured to feel guilty the way a human does. Dogs react to structure, pack order and patterned behavior. Dogs are generally self-interested, this is hard wired, in that sense they are selfish. This is why they will work for a reward or for something they enjoy.


A dog’s brain is considerably smaller than that of a human, especially in the upper part of the brain called the cerebrum - the portion of the brain associated with intellectual functions such as speech, memory, consciousness, and logical and emotional thought.


Dogs don’t understand words and language, they do however recognize sound patterns, tonal changes, and various body and facial gestures as a form of communication.  As part of the pack many dogs have what we often refer to as "a will to please", as a result we have found that most effective training with dogs is based on positive reinforcement.  While our brains are active with a variety of thought processes, the dog see’s the world in a very different way. The dog caters to basic needs such as food, safety, and basic environmental comfort. Dogs have a highly developed sense of smell. They perceive the world more through smells than sight. Sight is used to confirm what the dog thinks it already knows from smell. The dogs sense of smell presents it with a lot of information about its environment. This already shows the difference in approach and perception. Few people perceive the world on a primary basis from their sense of smell.


The natural instincts and drives of dogs play a critical role in their behavior. In training working dogs we refer to drives very often. We look for certain drives in dogs, and use these drives to train the dog. A dog without well-developed drives is more difficult to train, or not trainable for certain behaviors. Yet, it appears that many dog owners cannot differentiate between instinct/ drive and intelligence. Instinct and drive is effectively hard wired in a dog. Humans have much less hardwiring than dogs do. We certainly have aptitudes or genetic proclivities towards certain things. With a dog however instinct and drive will make the dog act in a certain way it is not reflective of the intelligence of the dog, or intelligent behavior; it is built in !


A dog is born with the instinct is to survive; when a pup is born he squirms about until he finds his mother and then feeds. This does not require intelligence or a learning process it is purely instinct.  At the birth of a puppy the mothers built in instinct tells her to clean up the fetal membrane, and lick the puppy to stimulate it. The dog did not go to a prenatal class to learn this.  The female also exhibits protective behavior over her new litter; this is to prevent predators from coming in. While we know the litter is safe the mother does not. The satisfaction of instincts is a source of comfort to a dog, and grows stronger with usage. We know this from training where playing to a dogs drives cause certain behaviors to occur. The more frequent this association is built, the more often the behavior occurs. It is in the simplest terms behavior and reward. Instincts can be strengthened, weakened or redirected but they always exist, the behavior manifested from an instinct can with training and redirection be extinguished. However as I mentioned earlier if a drive or an instinct is not present in the first place it cannot be added, and it cannot be taken away. It might lie dormant, but once developed it can never be weakened. It can be extinguished behaviorally through training. The same concept allows us to train certain dogs to do things where they do not have a drive or instinct, but can develop a pattern of conditioned behavior in return for a reward.  When a dog chases a car we can extinguish this unwanted behavior by shaping its behavior. This is the basis of obedience training through redirecting towards other more desirable behavioral outlets for the dog’s energy.  When dealing with a negative behavioral trait it is important to remember that the longer we allow it to occur, the harder it will be to get rid of. When dealing with a dog that is not yet well trained in an obedience scenario, punishment for failure to follow a command can be problematic. The dog may not associate what you want and why it was punished. Punishment is only effective if the dog already clearly knows what you want, or if we are seeking to extinguish a specific behavior. It is always important to make sure the association between the dog’s action and our response is very clear to the DOG. Don’t assume just because you know what you are trying to communicate or do that the dog does.

Lets look at a couple more examples of where anthromorphism can lead to problems.

You have a young dog, it is raining outside and there is thunder and lightening. The dog shows fear. You rush to your dog and hug and comfort it to alleviate its fear. A perfectly human and humane gesture, but its also wrong. What did the dog take away from this? It was rewarded for being afraid. Ignoring the dog would have been the better response. Your dog is overly hyper and barking, you don’t like it. So you go to the dog and gently pet the dog to calm it down and “reason” with it.  I hope you like hyper dogs and barking, because that behavior rewards the dog for doing that, at least it does in the dogs mind and that’s what counts.


How about Emotions ?

The question now arises as to whether dogs have emotions. There are two sides to the sword of anthromorphism, the side we have described, and the opposite extreme. Scientists and behavioral psychologists have in many cases become sufficiently over sensitized to being accused of anthromorphism and have often gone to the other extreme. The consensus amongst most neuroscientists working with both people and animals is that only humans are conscious and therefore non humans cannot experience personal subjective experiences which are effectively emotions. I think this is in a real sense untrue. There is some subjectivity in the term self aware, it is fairly clear from quite a bit of research that dogs know they are “individual entities and alive”, they may not be self aware in the human sense, but that does not matter in terms of emotional responses. If we attempt to characterize the dogs emotional responses in purely human terms, then we will have some difficulties. It is clear however to any dog owner, and in research as well that dogs can exhibit a range of emotional responses including happiness, fear, rage, lust, panic, and care. While the direct manifestations are different than a human counter part,  the emotional responses do exist. We can see it in body positions, movements, and it can in fact be measured in  changes to the neurotransmitter chemical levels in the dogs brain based on situation and response.


How do we train and communicate with our dog ?


We do this by combining our words or gestures with an action that shows the dog what you want, and we provide some form of reinforcement - either positive or negative. If you call your dogs name does it respond to you?  Calling the dog should always be a happy time for the dog. People often get frustrated when the dog doesn’t come and they show anger, this actually teaches the dog that being called by name is not pleasant and should be avoided.  So in this example how would you teach the dog its name and to respond to the name? You would position your dog close enough to touch, and do so with the dog on a lead so it can’t move off on its own. You would repeat the dog’s name, and give him a friendly pat.  When the dog gives the desired response you would pet and praise the dog and give a reward. This exercise needs to be repeated until the dog is consistent. You can then phase out the reward on a regular basis, but it must be continued from time to time. In behaviors with dogs, the behavior must be continued and practiced or over time it will disappear. Psychologists have found several phases in this, which include a period of stepped up repetition of a behavior, which without further response will then disappear.


We are diverting a bit off subject since this article is about the anthromorphism, not how to train your dog. The examples are only intended to illustrate the point.

A human being overtime comes to understand speech, right and wrong, societal behavioral codes and is able to reason and learn based on this impetus. A dog may have hardwired pack behaviors, but these may not fit in with what we consider to be acceptable behavior.  When we humanize our dog we switch to a set of assumptions for learning and understanding that are not within our dog's capabilities. We set the stage for failure. When we attempt to understand the drives and instincts behind our dogs behavior and work with those, we understand we have a DOG, and we have taken the first step on the road to success. We have done right by our dog and ultimately by ourselves.

The Siam Crown Gang