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Anthropomorphism and Your Dog: Understanding Its Effect on Your Relationship | Pupford

February 14th, 2024

Filed under Pet Parenting

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As pup parents, we have all felt frustrated with our dogs and sought out an explanation for their behavior. We all have said things like, “They know better, see how guilty they look?” or “My dog is just so stubborn, they won’t listen to me.”

This is called anthropomorphism, which is the human tendency to attribute human characteristics to non-human entities and is a common phenomenon in our interactions with dogs. By looking at a dog’s behaviors through a human lens, we can negatively impact the relationship we have with our pups.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll delve into the effects of anthropomorphism on the pup & parent relationship, exploring common misconceptions and providing insights into understanding canine behavior without projecting human emotions onto our four-legged companions.

Table of Contents:

  1. Defining Anthropomorphism
  2. The Impact on Communication
  3. Understanding Canine Behavior

Defining Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to animals, is prevalent in our interactions with dogs. This tendency can be seen in how we interpret their behaviors and motivations through a human lens.

For instance, when a dog repeatedly refuses to respond to cues, we might label them as "stubborn," implying a deliberate defiance similar to human stubbornness. However, dogs lack the same cognitive processes and motivations as humans, and their behavior is often influenced by factors such as confusion or fear rather than intentional defiance.

Learn more about the potential adverse effects on companion animals physiologically and behaviorally due to anthropomorphism.

a photo of a terrier mix with a woman outside

The Impact on Communication

It is natural to want to understand our dogs better, and placing human emotions on them is the simplest way to do that. However, this can significantly impact communication between pups and their parents.

It’s important to remember that dogs have their own unique ways of communicating and expressing themselves. Some common human emotions that are often misattributed to dogs include stubbornness, guilt, and spite.

When we attribute human emotions and motivations to our dogs, we may misinterpret their behaviors and fail to address their actual needs effectively.

For example, the notion of "guilt" is often attributed to dogs when they exhibit behaviors perceived as disobedient or destructive. However, a dog's apparent guilt is often a response to their owner's tone of voice and body language rather than an understanding of their misdeed, leading to misunderstandings and hindering effective communication.

Researchers have discovered that dogs can recognize different positive and negative facial expressions due to their memories of human faces and learned behavior patterns. Read the full study here! 

Feeling true guilt also requires knowing right from wrong or having some sort of moral compass. Dogs do not view behaviors as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, behaviors are just behaviors.

Dogs are motivated by biological needs, environmental factors, learning history, and genetics.

While dogs can experience a wide range of emotions, they are not capable of experiencing emotions in the same way that humans do. They may exhibit behaviors that we interpret as emotions, such as wagging their tails when they’re happy or cowering when they’re scared, these behaviors are not necessarily indicative of a specific emotion.

Instead of trying to interpret your dog’s behavior through a human lens, it’s best to focus on learning how to read their body language and vocalizations. This can help you better understand what your dog is trying to communicate and strengthen your bond with them.

a photo of a heeler mix dog in a field with a woman

Understanding Canine Behavior

To improve the relationship between pups and their parents, it's crucial to understand canine behavior without anthropomorphic bias.

Dogs communicate primarily through body language, vocalizations, and subtle cues that may not align with human emotions and motivations.

For instance, a dog may appear to be sulking or acting out of spite when they refuse to respond to a cue, but this behavior is more likely a result of confusion, lack of clarity in the training process, or a distraction in the environment rather than intentional defiance. By learning to read and interpret canine behavior, pup parents can better understand their dogs' needs and motivations.

Let’s go over some examples:

Example #1:

If you are with your dog on an off-leash hiking trail and you call them to come back to you and they do not respond, they are not being stubborn.

It likely means 3 things:

  1. They do not have a learning history strong enough to perform the desired cue in that environment.
  2. They are not being rewarded highly enough.
  3. They are too distracted in the environment and need better management while they learn.

Think all about all the incredible smells and sounds your dog can sense on a hiking trail: other dogs, wildlife, scat, birds chirping, etc. They are absorbing so much information that it can be hard to also pay attention to you, especially if you haven’t built up a strong enough reinforcement history.

Also, what are you rewarding with? If you are using regular kibble or the same old training treats they are likely to choose that deer carcass or the bunny that just ran by over you. Make sure you are paying them based on the difficulty of the task - and in this case, you should be using a high-value treat.

So next time you are in a new environment, set them up for success and instead of letting them off leash - and probably leading to you both becoming frustrated - put them on a long lead! They can still sniff and explore, but you don’t have to worry about jeopardizing their training and instead can work on improving their skills.

Example #2:

If you come home from work and your puppy has had an accident on the carpet they did not do so out of spite, and they definitely don’t “know better” (even though it feels like it 😉)

Rather, a puppy who is struggling with potty training likely has too much freedom and is not being taken out as frequently as they should. If given the opportunity to go in the house, especially if they are playing or doing something more fun, they will.

Scolding them will only hinder your relationship and make them fearful to eliminate in front of you. Instead, work on improving management and implementing a more strict potty schedule.

For everything you need to know about potty training, check out our Potty Training Course!

a photo of a beagle sitting on a woman's lap on a blue couch

Understanding Anthromorphism Recap:

Anthropomorphism can significantly impact the relationship between dogs and their guardians, leading to misunderstandings, ineffective communication, and frustration.

By recognizing and understanding the effects of anthropomorphism, we can build a stronger bond with our canine companions based on trust, clear communication, and mutual understanding.

We hope that the next time you are frustrated with or confused by your dog’s behavior you will look at it through a dog lens, not a human one. 😉

Training is a great way to improve your relationship with your pup, sign up for our free 30-Day Perfect Pup program today! 


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