Is anthropomorphising so bad?
Years ago in the dog training world, we focused on not anthropomorphising our dogs. At the time this made sense to me, they couldn’t feel guilt so why were we putting that emotion on them and punishing the fear response we saw when we came home to see a chewed up package.
It’s what we taught our clients because sometimes humanising behaviour meant our dogs knew they had done wrong and therefore needed to be punished.
But my views have changed on this somewhat lately. I think the heavy focus on us moving our dogs away from being anything like humans or sharing our emotions has made us become too separated. When it comes to understanding their needs and emotional responses I think they couldn’t be more like us. And the truth is, we don’t know that they don’t feel these emotions.
There have been studies done on dogs to look at guilt but these haven’t been done in the best way. As you can imagine, dogs were showing what humans often perceive more as ‘guilty looking behaviour’ when scolded. Not actually as a response to doing something wrong. We already know, those guilty looks are actually fear and appeasement responses to being told off.
And dogs learn fast by association, if they associate a scolding to a torn up letter on the floor. They are going to react in this way as as response to the torn up letter. Regardless of whether they did it or not.
But this doesn’t disapprove that they feel guilt. We don’t know the answer to that for sure yet and may never know. Regardless of what they feel, I don’t believe that should be the decider of whether we use punishment or not.
Like the marshmallow test they do with children, if we leave young children with something sweet in front of them and expect them to leave it alone, aren’t we asking for too much? Should we even be applauding them for seeing an opportunity and taking it? Because realistically that’s what’s happening with our dogs. Food is always an opportunity in front of their noses with a sense of smell that good. And with every instinct in their body telling them to seize those opportunities as a survival and scavenging instinct. Who can blame them?
What else are they going to do when they are home alone, with nothing to do but the smell of something delicious and in reach wafting under their nose? I know I’ve eaten a bar of chocolate I had actually meant for someone else. I felt guilty, but I still did it.
As we slowly move away from punishment in both our dogs and children, then it shouldn’t be that we need to stop humanising our dogs to protect them. Because people can empathise better with something they can attach emotions to. As long as we can do this as well as remembering they are a different species, adjusting to an alien societal norm.
We can simply guide and adjust, allowing more access to things when our students learn to follow along with what’s expected of them both in the world and the individual household.
‘You can have your crayons when you keep to the paper and not the walls. Unless heavily supervised.’
‘You can come out of the playpen when you only chew appropriate items or are heavily supervised.’
These aren’t bad behaviours, they are learning behaviours, what’s acceptable and what’s not. Because we don’t naturally know where to draw and puppies don’t naturally know what they can and can’t chew. And the learning process involves a lot of repetition.
Because when we decide a dog can’t possibly have an emotion. We are taking ourselves further away from empathising with them, when I believe it’s actually more beneficial to get closer and remain curious.
And anthropomorphising should no longer be an excuse to punish, but the very reason we don’t.