Is it Wrong or Even Dangerous to Treat Your Dog Like a Human?

By on June 20, 2016

There's an old saying that goes something like this: 'Beware. If you treat your dog like a human, don't be surprised if they treat you like a dog.'

One of the biggest problems I had as a former professional dog trainer, was trying to effectively communicate the message to dog owners, perhaps understandably confused about what role they should play when confronted with a barrage of conflicting advice about dominance, pack leadership and 'becoming alpha', that dogs do not see us as other dogs. Our dog's ability to distinguish us from their own species is not only obvious, it's also pretty important for the evolution of all animals to recognise their own species from others, says Ryan O'Meara.

I say the confusion is understandable because we now live in the information age and it seems more likely than not that if you took a cross section of one hundred new dog owners, all with regular access to the TV and Internet, each would have heard, watched or read around fifty different 'rules' about how best to teach their dog good manners.

By way of a short example. One (particularly) famous trainer is not alone when issuing guidance such as this:

'Always walk out the door ahead of your dog when leaving the house. This will show your dog who is in the leadership role. On walks, make sure that your dog is not in front of you, pulling you down the street. Instead, keep your dog to your side or behind you. This will also demonstrate to your dog that you are the alpha figure.'

Now I don't know about you, but if I'm a new dog owner and I see something like that I'm probably going to take from it a message that unless I establish a pack leader role my dog might very well attempt to overthrow my authority in my own home. It's actually quite frightening to assume that there are many people, normally intelligent people, who are assuming their dogs view them as just another, slightly larger and weird looking other dog.

Take this to the bank. Dogs do not see humans as dogs. Giraffes don't see monkeys as giraffes. Cats don't see birds as cats. Octopuses don't see sharks as octopuses. And dogs don't see humans as dogs. They just don't. As such, by bestowing our canine house guests with human attributes are we doing both them and us a disservice or, worse, harm?

Are You Guilty of Anthropomorphism?

For years Hollywood has portrayed film-star canines as animals whose motivations are based on human perceptions and values. Lassie saves a rabbit from death, for example, or Benji solves a crime, or Rin Tin Tin, pictured below, protects the fort from outlaws. These animal films are very entertaining, and the canine actors are extremely well trained, but they’ve popularised the notion that our dog's abilities to think, feel and reason mirror our own.

Could this misguided view of canine psychology be a major contributing factor to a large percentage of undesired dog behaviour seen in thousands, if not millions of homes around the world?

Expecting a dog to do things he simply cannot or has no understanding of is not uncommon. Expecting dogs to think as we humans do is also widespread. The reason the dog beats off competition from all other animals to the title of man’s best friend is in no small part to do with his sheer skill at adapting his way of life to fit in with ours. It is this skill that is the likely cause for our frequent misreading of his intentions and motives.

Us modern dog owners are, almost without exception, guilty of inadvertently teaching our dogs bad behaviour by simply not, for want of a better expression, treating a dog like a dog. Ouch! Why did I feet a little pang of guilt when I wrote that? Why do I feel like the bad guy or some kind of archaic, Victorian disciplinarian for saying it’s not only OK to treat a dog like a dog, it’s the BEST way to live in harmony with them?

Many dogs have their personalities labelled fairly early on in their lives. They can be painted as daft, stubborn,, jealous, mischievous and sometimes just plain bad. 'You bad dog!'. We’ve all heard it and many of us have used it.

The problem is, whenever we try to evaluate canine behaviour using human values we are misinterpreting our dogs emotions and behavioural motives.

All but the very worst anthropomorphic dog owners can improve their relationship with their dog and subsequently their behaviour if they make a valid effort to understand their dogs unique emotional make-up.

It’s certainly no heinous crime to be anthropomorphic, even the very best dog trainers are guilty at some point or another. But it can lead to big problems if little or no effort is made to better understand our canine friends.

Giving your dog a special dinner on his birthday or filling a Christmas stocking with dog toys and treats is anthropomorphic in the extreme. Is it a bad thing? Of course not. In fact it's a nice thing to do. It shows how we value our relationship with our pets in the same way as we value our relationships with people. But what about if we've blurred the lines of actually, truly understanding that dogs don't, no matter what we might believe, think like humans do?

Owners should be wary of their anthropomorphism when it is likely to impinge on their dog’s behaviour especially when it comes to good timing and fair corrections. For example, owners often correct their dog based on a 'guilty look' on the dog's face, assuming he 'knows' he was wrong. The dog doesn't know, any more than he knows it is his birthday or Christmas.

Some classic behavioural mistakes are made due to anthropomorphism. Dog runs off. Dog doesn’t return when called. Dog slinks back to annoyed owner looking ‘guilty’. Dog is admonished. Owner is happy. Dog thinks he’s been punished for coming back to his owner. His demonstration of a fearful response, thoroughly justified.

It’s hard when we use our human emotions to reason but in this circumstance, the dog should have been well praised. It’s hard because anthropomorphism is in full swing. Our emotions are mixed up with our dogs.

Another example. Many dog owners - especially owners of younger dogs - experience a chewing problem at some point. Many owners are left frustrated when their dogs chew furniture, rugs, shoes, and the like when left alone in the house. They say that they have tried everything. 'He knows he has done wrong,' they say. When asked what they have done to correct the dog, they say, 'I shout at him and show him what he chewed. I tell him he is bad. Sometimes I smack him with the newspaper.'

This procedure is usually repeated many times while the dog continues to destroy the house. Eventually the time arrives when the owner comes home and the dog runs and hides. Some dogs may even stand and shiver with a terribly 'guilty look' on their face. Then, periodically, the owner will come home and not find a mess. The owner will be happy and will praise and pet the dog. The dog will respond to the happy sound and good-feeling rubs with a wagging tail and a happy appearance.

This cheerful behaviour reinforces in the owner's mind that the dog knows that avoiding chewing is 'right' and that chewing up the house is 'wrong.' 'He just wants to get even with me for leaving him at home.' Nothing could be further from the truth.

Anthropomorphism is widespread among dog owners. But it’s certainly not all bad.

University of Portsmouth psychologist Dr Paul Morris and colleague Christine Doe recently conducted a study of 1000 domestic animal owners which revealed overwhelming evidence that owners believe their pets share similar emotions to people. Are they right?

Dr Morris explains:

'It (the study) challenges the long-held scientific belief that only humans and chimpanzees are able to experience secondary emotions such as jealousy, guilt, shame and pride.'

Dr Morris, who is an animal behaviour expert, said dog owners showed 'remarkable consistency' in reporting jealous behaviour.

He said dogs could feel intense pangs of jealousy and animosity when in a 'love triangle' involving the carer and another person or animal.

'The study set the typical behavioural index of jealousy as pushing between the carer and the third party, and this is what happened more than 80 per cent of the time,'

'It is not necessarily anthropomorphic to describe animals in terms that we also use for humans. Just because humans have legs and dogs have legs it is not anthropomorphic to say that dogs have legs. Legs are a shared attribute. If a loud unexpected noise occurs both humans and dogs are surprised and display alerting behaviour.

No scientist would argue with the fact that dogs get angry and also have fear. So it is important to realise that there is a huge degree of overlap between humans and other animals.

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Have you heard about...?

We share a common evolutionary history, our brains are remarkably similar, the areas of the brain controlling basic emotions such as anger, fear, joy, surprise, depression are exactly the same as are the neurotransmitters.

A lot of what we know about brain behaviour relationships in humans is based on animal research. The limbic system which controls primary emotional drives is exactly the same in all mammals.

When we see a dog scratching at a door and trying to push it open it would be really crazy not to realise that the dog is trying to get through the door. The important point is that describing animals in psychological terms that are also attributable to humans is not necessarily wrong.

The difficult part is to sort out which are correct attributions and which are false attributions.

Emotions are the way that evolution makes sure that behaviour is appropriate, you run away from things that could harm you, you fight for things you need, you are jealous of your mate etc. I don't think that dogs reason or think in anyway like humans, however, I do think that their emotions are in some way like humans.

I suspect the emotion of jealousy was around long before humans were around! I do not make the case that a dog’s jealousy is exactly like human jealousy. For example in human emotions we often relive them constantly in our private mental lives, dogs jealousy I suspect is confined to the situation that caused it. The function of the more complex social emotions is to regulate social interaction. I find it highly unlikely that dogs as a highly social species would not have sophisticated social emotions.

I do not think they have precisely the same set as humans (for example I doubt that dogs experience shame or embarrassment) or they experience in precisely the same way, but the idea that they don't have any of them at all I find really unlikely.

The purpose of our study was to investigate on what grounds people were making the claims for their dogs displaying certain emotional traits usually associated with humans, and the contexts described were appropriate.

As a scientist all you can ever know is the context and the behaviour. We can never know what is going on inside another organisms head. Humans included!'

Dogs and humans have got a good thing going. They're good for us, we're good for them. They, above any other animal (with only the cat offering a remotely decent challenge) have established themselves as the animal humans are most likely to invite in to their homes to share daily life with. Dogs have a decent understanding of us. That's part of their appeal to us. They are amazing at reading queues. Perhaps, even better than us. As a result we sometimes misinterpret this as dogs having a human-like thought process.

Man has shared this land with millions of animal species since the dawn of time but only one has earned itself the title of his best friend, our faithful ally the dog.

Domesticated from wolves, the dog sits proudly as the world’s most recognised companion animal. A truly noble, loyal, exciting and fun pet, the dog’s legendary relationship with people is a match made in heaven.

No other animal has adapted to play such a varied role in human society as well as the dog has.

Dogs not only offer us their unconditional friendship, they protect us, hunt for us, herd for us, see for us, uncover hidden dangers on our behalf and now they’re even using their amazing talents to help us detect cancer.

'Disneyfication' of Dogs & Why It's Dangerous

Turn on the TV and we're confronted with talking dogs, heroic canines who save little children who've fallen down wells. We've got dogs who solve mystery's, we've got mice who outwit cats using cunning and intelligence. We live in a world where a talking sponge who dresses himself in square pants is one of the most popular characters in all of television.

We can't get away from it. Our kids can't get away from it and, if your parents are under 90 years old they can't get away from it either. Animals on our TV, books and cinema screens have been given human attributes throughout our lives.

That has to have an effect on how we view them if we were to compare our view of them in comparison to, for example, Bedouin tribes who also shared their lives and worked with dogs more than 2,000 years ago. Think about that for a second. The animal we see on TV riding skateboards or solving crimes is, give or take a few lines of selective breeding, the same animal being used by our ancient ancestors to hunt game and contribute to their daily lives. Our ancestors would view dogs in a different light to us. They would train them, they would sleep close to them, they would embrace them but they would not view their canine companions as if they were human.

Let's take a look at a famous dog. Lassie is by far, one of the most famous dogs of all time. Created by British-American writer, Eric Knight, Lassie is a fictional character who became much-loved by all. Lassie’s first appearance was in 1938 in an issue of The Saturday Evening Post, in a short story called 'Lassie Come Home'. The short story was later adapted by Eric Knight into a full-length novel in 1940. It tells the tale of a Collie and her journey to reunite with her family.

The setting is in Depression-era England, and the dog had to journey because the family was forced to sell her for money. This was only Lassie’s 2nd reincarnation though. Over time, Lassie would be adapted by many authors and by many countries. Knight could not have known the spot that Lassie would find in people’s hearts.

In 1943, Lassie Come Home was adapted for the screen and starred Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowell.

The movie was so successful that it was later followed by several different films, including 'Son of Lassie', 'Courage of Lassie', 'Hills of Home', 'The Sun Comes Up' and 'Challenge to Lassie' to name just a few.

Interestingly enough, for the first seven movies, Lassie was played by the same dog, Pal, a male Collie. Lassie has always been portrayed by a male Collie, as they are larger dogs and allow the child actors more years before they outgrow the dog. Additionally, male dogs have thicker coats, which is more aesthetically pleasing for films.

Prior to television, there was a Lassie radio show that was regularly broadcast, and from 1954-1973, there was a television series, Lassie, which notably won two Emmy's, began with Lassie living on a farm and ended with her living at a ranch.

A sequel series followed in the 80s called 'The New Lassie', pictured below, and in the 90s a remake of the original 'Lassie' series was produced and broadcast in Canada.

Lassie is one of three animals to have their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, along with Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart. In people’s memories, Lassie most likely appears in several variations due to the longevity of her presence in pop culture in so many varied ways. Today, Lassie still makes appearances and is associated with several pet care products and a pet food line.

We all know Lassie. I, for one, have sometimes looked at one of my dogs who has obviously been trying to communicate something to me and I've run through a little Lassie dialogue with them. 'What's that? Little Timmy is stuck down a mineshaft? Show me.'

Dogs have the skills to 'talk' to us without ever uttering a word. It's little wonder the entertainment industry has no problem convincing us that dogs are part human.

Here's where it gets dangerous.

If we truly start to believe dogs think like humans, take action based on some human devised moral compass, we have a problem. To put it simply; to believe a dog thinks like a human is to misunderstand them. To misunderstand a dog can be a very problematic thing to do.
Would a dog not bite a child, if left unaccompanied with one, because it understands that child means a lot to us? Or because that child is a family member? A friend of the family?

Would a dog share its toys/resources with a neighbour because it knows that the neighbour is a friend? Would a dog understand it can't jump up on a toddler because the dog happens to be very large and heavy and the toddler very small and weak? Would a dog feel guilty for doing something that went against normal, human-defined acceptable behaviour?

You see where the problem lies, yes?

The dog and us have a great relationship. It is essential that we never lose sight of the fact that what makes them so perfect as a companion is NOT because they think and act like we do but because they're clever enough and willing enough to want to fit in to our societal structure. We must always remember that dogs are great because they're dogs, not furry little people.

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About Ryan O'Meara

Ryan O'Meara is the editor-in-chief and publisher of K9 Magazine. Ryan is a former professional dog trainer and lives in the East Midlands with his two dogs, Mia & Chloe. He has authored several books on dogs and is a regular media contributor on a variety of canine topics.

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