In The House of Dog – A Fable of Anthropomorphizing, Pt. 2

55 Quotes on Overcoming Fear — Productive and Free

If you haven’t read the blog post proceeding this, then please do so!

So, continuing our discussion about anthropomorphism and it’s role within the world of dog training: I want to tackle the other side of this conversation, what emotions do dogs feel and what can we attribute to them?

I want to start with a story. I was working with a rescue, and they presented a dog that would “act calm” until he got close to someone and lunged. At first glance, it looked like overstimulation, just getting too excited and then displaying an aggressive behavior. This is called redirected aggression and is fairly common. But this case was different. After seeing the dog a few times, I determined that he was reacting fearfully to people, who he often met when he was well over threshold. The rescue told me that this dog was “sneaky” and believed he was trying to be mean and deceptive with his behavior. Going back through the training history with the rescue, I was able to determine that what they had taught the dog was to skip his bite indicators, since the rescue wasn’t acknowledging them. The dog learned that no matter how many warnings he gave, they would be ignored. So he took it to the next logical step and began lunging. When he lunged at someone, the handler would quickly rush the dog away, therefore giving the dog what he wanted. Of course, they didn’t want to believe me, especially when I said we needed to teach him how to use his indicators again. The rescue pushed back, saying that I couldn’t be right, that he was being intentionally deceptive. I tried explaining to them that they were anthropomorphizing the dog, attributing human motivations to the dogs actions, and that they should focus on the behavior instead. Needless to say, I stopped working with them.

What’s the moral of this story? Anthropomorphism, in the wrong context, can lead to disastrous things. While anthropomorphism can help us in dog training, it can hinder us. In this second part of the discussion, I want to discuss what emotions dogs feel, how we can use anthropomorphism to help us understand how dogs feel, and why we should be careful when using it.

Fear is perhaps the one thing that every animal feels. Almost every animal has a predator or a threat and feels fear. Fear is a very useful emotion, from a biological sense, as it leads to self preservation. If the gazelle wasn’t afraid of the lion, there wouldn’t be many gazelles left in the world. Fear is the great unifying emotion. Everyone understands fear. And from a dog training perspective, fear can be a great way to help you find common ground with your dog.

When I consult on a fear case, I will try to help owner find common ground with their dogs fears. Many people have a fear of snake or spiders, or something else that is ultimately misunderstood; and suddenly fear of that big dog walking down the sidewalk, or the strange man jogging down the street becomes something that the owner can relate to. Also, the fear was once a desirable trait in dogs. Thousands of years ago, when we had other predators to fear, we needed an alarm system. Dogs, with their superior hearing and sense of smell, were excellent warning against bears, wolves, tigers, other tribes. That trait remained useful for millenia, and it’s only been within the last few decades that a growling or barking dog became undesirable.

Dogs experience a range of emotions. Fear of the unknown, but also joy or happiness when playing, sadness when they lose a friend or family member, interest or apprehension. Alexandra Horowitz has written volumes on canine emotions, and I highly encourage you read to her work. Dogs definitely have emotions, but they do not have human motivations. What’s the difference?

Let’s talk about being stubborn. I’m sure many of you will be surprised to know that I am, in fact, stubborn. Quit laughing, Jennifer. I can be VERY stubborn. It’s a family trait. And I don’t mean determined or dogged, not knowing when to quit. I can be petty, and will just not do something if I’m in the wrong frame of mind. For example, if I feel like Jennifer asks me to do something with an attitude, I will purposefully ignore. I’ll make snide remarks, sulk, whatever. That is a very human thing. I know what she wants me to do, and I’m choosing not to do that.

I’ve yet to meet a dog that was stubborn, truly stubborn. Dogs don’t possess that kind of cognition or drive to be stubborn. They either understand what you want them to do, or they don’t. Or they feel safe doing what you want them to do, or they don’t. They are incapable of being stubborn.

They are also incapable of true deception. What do I mean by that? For example, when two dogs play, there will be “deception”. A dog will feint a dive, act “surprised”, etc. That’s because play has both a biological and social function. The biological function of play is to mimic fighting or hunting, strength the muscles, develop the reflexes, and so forth. Play serves a social function to build up bonds with other members of the family or pack, etc. During play, as in hunting and fighting, there will be what we would call deception.

Is it the same form of deception as lying to someone? No, it’s not. What’s the difference? Boy, is that a philosophical question. One could argue that a human lying to another human, at least within the context that the person lying is not doing so to save their life or health, is not performing the behavior because it fills a function. A wolf chasing a deer, feigning right to drive the deer to the wolf waiting to the left, fills a function. It deceived the deer in order to eat. Do you understand the difference?

It is helpful to explain to an owner, using things the owner is afraid of or the owner enjoys, to help the owner understand the dogs reactions. But anthropomorphism should stop there. There are arguments that anthropomorphism allows us to feel sympathy for other creatures, but I personally disagree with that idea. I don’t think that I need to relate to an animals pain or fear to understand that it is in pain or afraid.

Remember the dog I was talking about earlier? I want to talk about what I would do if I had a chance to continue working with him, with a rescue that was willing to put the time into him. First of all, we needed to teach him to use his bite indicators again. Since the dog often didn’t vocalize until he was over threshold, we would need to use body language to judge his emotional state. Whenever he was approached, if we saw tense body language, hard eyes, tight lips, I would want to stop and walk away a little. Why do I want to walk away? I want to keep the dog from biting, and body language is a bite indicator, which is what I want. I’m using the functional reinforcer of the behavior (walking away) to reinforce this behavior. Eventually, over time, the dog would learn how to slowly use his bite indicators again. Also, I would need to teach the dog how to investigate something scary in a calm fashion. Most rescues will just beeline a dog straight into a scary situation. But dogs often do not approach in a direct fashion when investigating something. They often take a circular, indirect pattern in their approach, taking the time to sniff and watch whatever it is they are investigating. In other words, I’d have to teach this dog how to be a dog again. That’s a long journey.

Wrapping up, I’m not against anthropomorphism, as long as it’s used in the right context. Finding common ground with your dog by thinking about something that frightens you is useful, helping you understand the amount of fear your dog is experiencing. Believing that your dog is being deceptive, spiteful, or stubborn is incorrect.

I hope you enjoyed these two posts, and feel free to ask any questions!

Happy Tails!

-Ben

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