The darker side of Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism - “Attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behaviour to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena”

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I call Dita my wee fur baby, button, petal, monkey, waggy bum, fluffy butt.. the list goes on! I talk to her in baby talk, I even have a voice that I pretend she uses. My Walk n’ Roll Facebook page will caption pictures with silly phrases, so what really is the problem with Anthropomorphism?

The problem arises when we aren’t aware that we are doing it, when it isn't tongue in cheek and when our actions based on this are to the detriment of our dogs’ well-being. When we attribute ‘human’ reasons for a ‘dog’ behaviour and we hold fast to that despite a wealth of research showing us otherwise.

·  He raided the bin because he’s naughty – nope, just a dog who’s ancestry is rooted in scavenging and you shouldn’t have left the bin out!

·  She pulls me out the front door because she thinks she’s the boss – nope, just a dog who walks faster. Teach her how to wait at the door.

·  He won’t recall because he is too stubborn – nope, he just hasn’t been taught a good recall and has possibly been told off when he does eventually return!

 

Jean Donaldson in her book ‘The Culture Clash’ wrote that dogs are ‘innocently selfish’. The phrase has stuck with me. The innocence is born of the fact that their behaviours are not rooted in a moral choice. They are driven to perform behaviour that results in some form of gain to them. They’ll avoid behaviours that cause them fear, pain, or that they are simply not motivated to carry out.

They are selfish - that’s not a negative as it is perceived between humans, instead it is simply a fact. We as the more intelligent ones need to adapt to this and train them in a way that motivates them. Dogs shouldn’t perform a behaviour simply because they respect you. If you keep wishing for that then you’ll grow old waiting. Dogs perform a behaviour because they are motivated to, tapping into that motivation is the basis of good training.  

Yes they do feel emotion, yes they bond with us and we can share mutual affection. But a good understanding of dog body language will help you know if your touch, affection, kisses etc are ok with your dog or whether it’s a bit too much sometimes.

The stubborn dog is more likely to be unsure of what to do or unmotivated to do it. Or possibly even scared and our forcing them makes things worse. This is why force based, aversive training is cruel. It’s using a sticking plaster approach – dog is scared of other dogs and barks, then you must show it who’s boss? Really?! How about taking time to help the dog get over its fear?

The dog who habitually destroys the house when you leave for work has not done this to annoy you, or to be naughty. They are at best bored, at worst suffering severe anxiety. Come home and shout at them and you can imagine what that does to their anxiety!

When we layer too much emotion on them and become disappointed by them, let down etc then that’s our problem. The more I understand how dogs learn, the more I see it in a clearer almost clinical way.

Rescue dogs do not wish to thank you for their lovely sofa - harsh but true. Your dog is not grateful you work hard to buy them good food. That beautiful fluffy new rug you bought for them - they won’t thank you for it but they’ll definitely enjoy lying on it.

We are monkeys, we like to grab things with our hands and we like to nurture things – children and dogs tend to tick the box for both of these impulses. We like to say hello by sticking our hands in dogs’ faces and cuddling them. Some dogs like it, some tolerate it and others hate it but we can’t seem to differentiate very well.

When you see a dog on walk and are overcome with a desire to touch, stop first and ask the owner. They are not Disney characters, teddy bears or there for our entertainment. They are sentient beings and many of them would appreciate just being ignored when out for their walks.

Let’s get back to basics, allowing dogs to be dogs, not expecting the world of them. Be kind and consistent in our training so they know what’s expected and don’t get confused and frustrated. Allowing them space when they eat, peace when they sleep and helping them out with any worries they have.