We humans love to anthropomorphize other species. It’s one of the first ways we try to relate to them, to connect by seeing a glimmer of ourselves in them.
This is particularly true of our dogs, and the connection can run profoundly deep. Dogs are considered “man’s best friend” for good reason. Studies have shown that how we feel toward our dogs can mirror the feelings we have toward our children, as the brain chemistry is extremely similar. So, we have conversations with them, seek them out for comfort, buy them toys and dress them up in clothes. But is viewing dogs as four-legged humans something we should keep in check? Many dog trainers would answer with a resounding, “Yes!”
Anthropomorphizing our dogs is not all bad. To some extent it can make us better companions to our dogs, as it allows us to emotionally connect. However, it’s one thing to lavish treats on your dogs or let them sleep in bed with you. It’s quite another to treat them as if they’re a different species than what they really are, expecting them to think and act the way humans do.
Here are five of the many ways we do our dogs a physical and psychological disservice by treating them like humans:
Creating weight and nutrition problems
It may seem cute to get your dog a treat at the drive-thru or coffee shop, but you might be killing your dog with anthropomorphized kindness. Letting your dog eat scraps from the dinner table, polish off your ice cream cone or join a restaurant outing adds calories, preservatives, fat, starch and other things to the dog’s diet that can lead to obesity (an increasingly common problem among American pets) and nutrition problems. Milk-based products (like Puppuccino cups from Starbucks) can cause upset stomach, diarrhea or food allergies. Fat from meat can cause pancreatitis, and sugar can lead to dental issues and possibly diabetes.
Dogs have different nutrition requirements than humans, and they are sensitive to some foods that we humans enjoy. Instead of treating your dog like a fellow human diner, it’s more responsible and loving to stick to foods designed for dogs — no matter how much they drool at the drive-thru window.
Explaining away bad behavior
It’s easy for dog owners to ignore, or even fail to recognize, problematic behavior from the dog because they’re looking at the behavior as if the dog is a person. A common example is allowing a lap dog to growl at an approaching person. Because the dog is viewed as a one’s little furry baby, it’s laughed off as cute or “just being protective” rather than regarding the behavior as a serious issue. The dog is giving clear signals that it is uncomfortable. Lap dogs treated like babies may bite because few people understand or respect what they’re saying in dog language.
Another common example is a dog that defecates in the house or chews the furniture when left alone. The behavior is often explained as the dog being mad or trying to exact revenge. In reality, the dog could be stressed, have separation anxiety or is not properly house-trained. Attaching a human reason for this dog’s behavior may lead to ineffective training or misplaced punishment, and it means the real problem not only goes unaddressed, but could get worse.
“[A]nthropomorphizing dogs’ behavior is something that can get in the way of dog owners’ effectiveness in training their dogs,” writes trainer Scott Sheaffer. “Seeing our dogs’ behaviors from their point of view, versus ours, can greatly improve our ability to modify the behavior of dogs. If we try to understand the true root cause of behaviors from the dog’s perspective, it can make training our dogs much easier.”
Letting dogs be rude to people and other dogs
Dogs that nudge owners when they want treats, demand play time by shoving toys at their owners, bark unceasingly to go outside or jealously guard food from other dogs or people are examples of bad behavior that’s often waived off as a dog that “just knows his own mind” or “wears the pants in the family” or “thinks he’s one of us.”
Letting pushy behavior slide is basically the same as rewarding your dog for it: The dog get what he want if he’s pushy enough. Unfortunately, that can cause problems when a dog exhibits those behaviors outside of the house.
Dogs that charge up to other dogs at the park, shove other dogs around or ignore social signals may end up getting into a fight with a dog that refuses to accept such rudeness. A dog that is used to getting his own way may bite someone who doesn’t follow the dog’s demands. And while you may think it’s adorable that your dog won’t stop nudging your hand at the table, guests may not be so appreciative of such attention.
Once a pushy dog’s behavior goes too far, it can be a long and arduous journey to retrain the dog to have limits and manners in social situations. As Pat Miller writes in The Whole Dog Journal, “Whenever you are with your dog, one of you is training the other. The healthiest dog/human relationships generally occur when the human is the trainer and the dog the trainee the vast majority of the time.”
Making your dog reactive toward other dogs or people
Humans have a habit of pushing their dogs beyond their comfort limits for the sake of human social norms, ignoring how the dog interprets or is responding to what’s happening.
- Letting strangers pet your dog when your dog is uncomfortable with it because you don’t want to be rude to someone
- Pushing a dog to interact with others at the dog park because you think the dog needs to socialize
- Forcing your dog to stay in a situation that makes him scared, such as a busy public place or a room with playful children
Forcing social situations on a dog can cause the animal to become reactive. When forced into an uncomfortable situation, the dog may stand up for himself. If the strategies of walking away, avoiding eye contact, licking his lips, ducking his head or even growling don’t work, then biting is the next step.
It’s important to be an advocate for your dog, even if that means breaching human social protocol by blocking greetings, not letting people pet your dog, not letting children play with your dog and so on. Humans have control over these situations, so we need to look at what’s happening from the dog’s understanding of socialization, not our human social expectations.
“Being your dog’s advocate implies that you are committed to involving your dog’s point-of-view in every aspect of their training,” writes San Francisco-based dog trainer Susan Raymond. “Acting as your dog’s advocate and becoming truly trustworthy in their eyes requires a variety of skills.”
Yes, some people may say you’re rude for not letting them pet your dog or not letting their dog say hello to yours. But is your dog calm, comfortable and trusting of you? Then you’re doing things right.
Escalating excitement to the point of stress
We typically think of dogs as being happy-go-lucky animals, so we encourage a dog to act happy and excited about life all the time. But here is where our human insistence on who dogs are, or how they should be, can become a problem for the dog’s well-being.
Let’s go ahead and look at this topic from a human perspective for a moment: would you like being expected to be happy, excited and playful all the time? Sometimes you just want to relax. Sometimes you need to be calm. In fact, practicing finding calmness in the middle of a stressful situation is recommended by doctors and psychiatrists alike. It can help you cope, keep your adrenaline and cortisol levels reasonable and allow you to make smarter decisions about how to react. The same is true for dogs.
When a dog is running around, tail wagging, barking, exuberant — we think that equates to being happy. But all that excitement can add to stress levels. Overly excited dogs have trouble staying focused and controlling impulses.
Here’s a common example: You get your dog all excited for a walk because it’s really cute when he does the little jumping in place and twirling thing. He just seems so thrilled and that makes you happy, too. But when you step out the door, he barks like crazy at another dog. Or maybe he yanks at the leash to chase every bird and squirrel, no matter how often you pull back on the leash or say, “No!” While the exuberance was cute inside while getting ready, your dog’s excitement reached levels that made it harder for both of you to enjoy the walk.
We must remember that there’s more to a dog’s happiness than constant and energetic tail-wagging. Encouraging calm behavior over exuberance can actually make them happier companions.
Karen Pryor Clicker Training, a highly respected training site, has a Calm-O-Meter training method which helps address overly excited dogs, teaching them to calm down to prevent escalation into annoying or even dangerous behavior. Dogs do best when they learn how to switch from excited to calm, and how to stay calm in a stressful situation.
As Colin Dayan writes, “Giving animals what we think they need or deserve in terms of human conceptions of right and wrong, or capacity or incapacity, is part of the top-down judgment that always fails those we speak for.”
Instead of treating dogs like furry children, we can show our dogs how much we love, appreciate and respect them by remembering they’re dogs — and providing a life for them that puts their dog-ness at center stage.