In The House of Dog – A Fable About Anthropomorphizing

Anthropomorphism –

an·thro·po·mor·phism/ˌanTHrəpəˈmôrfizəm/Learn to pronouncenounnoun: anthropomorphism

  1. the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.

One of my favorite books as a child was The Outcast of Redwall by Brian Jacques. One of a dozen or so books in a fantasy series that featured anthropomorphic animals and their struggles. There were badger lords, mouse knights, rat bandits, and weasel cutthroats. For kids, one of the appeals of the books is how clearly it defines some of the characters. You could always trust a mouse to be honest, if cowardly. A badger was always brave, an otter playful, and a fox to be dishonest. Rarely did the author ever challenge those roles, because that wasn’t the point of the books. The point of the books was to tell a story, usually with a moral. Given the target audience, the characters needed to be a little two dimensional.

Why am I talking about anthropomorphism? I guess I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately. It’s human nature to anthropomorphize. A car that won’t start right away is being temperamental. Your hair is “acting up” when you can’t style it the way you want. We are assigning human motivations to inanimate objects.

We also do that to animals. We tell ourselves that a mule is stubborn, a cat is mean, a chicken is dumb, and my personal favorite: my dog knows he/she shouldn’t do that. I love that phrase (not really…)

Why do we anthropomorphize? Because it helps us, as humans, understand or reason with something that we don’t inherently understand. It is similar to how ancient humans would attribute natural phenomena that they didn’t understand to the workings of the gods. Anthropomorphizing is natural to humans. By putting the subject on a human level, or attributing human motivations and goals to it, we feel like we understand it better.

But that’s where the problem comes in: it doesn’t work. But WHY doesn’t it work? I’m going to keep my explanation within the scope of dog training and animal behavior, in hopes to keep as simple and on point as I can.

The first problem with anthropomorphism is that it makes an assumption about why a behavior is occurring. When a dog pees on it’s owners bed, the owner usually assumes that it was done out of spite. “Oh, the dog was mad because…” and fills in the rest. Some trainers will tell you the same thing, which we’ll address in a minute. The owner has made an assumption about WHY the dog did what it did.

The Hierarchy of Needs by Linda Michaels can help guide trainers and owners when dealing with behavior problems.

In the case of inappropriate elimination, the first question we have to ask is if the dog is healthy. Is there a medical problem or condition that is causing the incontinence? Diabetes, UTIs, bladder infections, kidney failure, all of these can cause incontinence. These need to be ruled out first. Once they are ruled out, we move on and ask the next question: Are the dog’s needs being met?

Now, this is where most owners have a problem. They see a full food bowl, clean water, and a comfy bed by the couch as meeting the needs of the dog. While all of these things are great, dogs often need more than a roof over their head and food in their belly. High energy, working breeds require a lot of physical and mental stimulation. A half hour walk around the block while you scroll through Facebook isn’t going to cut it. So the next question we ask is what kind of enrichment is provided for the dog? What is their exercise routine like? What is the amount of owner involvement with the dog on a daily basis?

Once we’ve answered those questions, we usually have the information we need to move forward with behavior modification. But let’s say that we are on top of providing our dog the proper enrichment and exercise, we finally look at the behavior as a behavior problem. Then we consider the dog’s previous training, is the dog truly potty trained?

Feeling overwhelmed? Imagine what your dog is going through. There is no evidence that shows that dogs have a concept of “being stubborn”. Stubbornness implies that the dog fully understands your intentions and is choosing to do the opposite instead. Your spouse, your kids, your in-laws, yeah they might be stubborn. But your dog? The science doesn’t support it.

So, what do we do? Just what I said, we focus on what the behavior is and systematically eliminate the causes of the behavior. Every behavior, from peeing on the rug to lunging at people when on walks, can be understood and modified if we follow this process. As an owner, I understand that it is easier to simply say “That dog is mean” or “this dog is stubborn”, and my favorite “but he knows he shouldn’t do that!” Does he? Does he really? Or is he doing what he has been conditioned to do, even if that wasn’t what you intended? I understand that owners want results, but this is a process and it takes time.

Some “trainers” (and I’m using this word lightly here) will tell you just that: your dog is being stubborn. They’ll say lots of things about establishing dominance, and being an alpha, and other things that will either get your testosterone pumping or living in fear that Fido is going to murder you in your sleep. Then, they’ll bring in a pinch collar, or shock collar, or sometimes a good old leather strap. And they will choke, zap, or whip the dog into submission. Sometimes the problem goes away. Want to know why? Because the dog has developed learned helplessness (look it up) and is in a worst state than before. Again, the science doesn’t back up these “training” methods.

So, before you start projecting things onto your dog; before you starting saying they are stubborn, or sneaky, or whatever, keep in mind that you are most likely anthropomorphizing your dog and their behavior. You’re making an assumption, and remember what they say about when you assume? You incorrectly identify what is driving the undesirable behavior and will not be able to effectively modify it. What did you think I was going to say?

Happy Tails everyone!

-Ben

2 Replies to “In The House of Dog – A Fable About Anthropomorphizing”

  1. It is interesting to observe the different personalities in dogs. Maybe if more people could recognize that dogs do have different personalities (not just traits that are attributed to breed) they would find it easier to “train” a dog. I put train in quotes because I firmly believe they train us – not the other way around. We are fortunate that our dog tells us when he needs to go out – even at 5am, which is kind of a ride awakening!

    1. It is! Dogs have as many varied personalities as people do. But it is incorrect to attribute human motivations to dogs, so many people do this. In the next blog, which will be a second part to this one, I’ll discuss what kinds of emotions dogs do experience.

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