Treating your dog like a furry human isn’t always bad, but it can cause you to behave unfairly.

By Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, RBT
October 15, 2020
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If you’ve lived with a dog, you understand how similar we are. We both love the best spot on the couch, eating delicious treats, and we adore getting new toys. But dog owners often make the mistake of assuming our dogs think like we do or that our dogs “should just know better.” When we attribute their behavior to something a human may do, we may be engaging in what’s known as anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism is when a person “sees” human-like attributes in a non-human thing or animal—like a pet. We are hardwired to try to understand others from our own point of view, which is understandable. But it can lead us to anthropomorphize our dogs in ways that aren’t good for our pets.

Your Dog Isn’t Looking for Revenge

Is it really so bad to attribute human qualities to our beloved pets? Well, a lot of punishment-based training is rooted in anthropomorphism. This kind of training attempts to justify “correcting” dog behavior by making up a story to explain the “misbehavior” (and what we should do about it). For instance, a dog who pees on your guest’s shoes by the door isn’t trying to elevate himself over your guest in the household pecking order. Because that’s not how dogs think. He’s likely relieving stress caused by unfamiliar objects (and people) in the house. 

“One of the most common forms of anthropomorphizing is not only treating dogs like humans but also adding in ‘explanatory fictions’ for a dog's behavior,” says Randi Rossman, CBCC-KA, ACDBC, behavior and business executive at Canine Behavior Science.

Some people invent a reason for why the dog is reacting, which typically reflects what the person may think in a similar situation, not truly reflecting how a dog would think, she says.

Sometimes that even leads to an owner thinking that their dog’s behavior has a deliberate, human-like motive, like spite or revenge. “Some people have created very complex explanatory fiction storylines for their dog's behavior. Others just can't understand why the dog would do a certain behavior because they don't know enough about dogs. And so [they] run through why a human might do such a thing and can't understand it,” says Rossman. In the worst cases, this leads some people to harm their dogs through punishment and creates trust issues.

Credit: Audrey Saracco / EyeEm / Getty

Common Dog Behaviors Owners Just Don’t Understand

  • Humping/Mounting Dog owners are often embarrassed when their dog humps (or mounts). They often think it’s a sexual behavior or even suggests a dog’s sexual orientation or sexuality. But humping has lots of functions. A dog may hump because it’s excited, wants to play, is stressed, or overstimulated. Like tail-wagging, humping is full of nuance.
  • Growling Snarls, a quick growl, or a low, long growl are all very important, and natural, forms of dog communication. A dog that growls is telling you how it’s feeling, and you should listen. Growls serve as a warning, not as a power move. Many times a dog is growling because it’s extremely fearful and wants a human to listen.
  • Accidents (potty) Rest assured, dogs don’t pee or poop in your house or their kennel because of malicious intent. A dog that has accidents in your house is unlikely to be fully potty trained, and you should never punish them for it. Accidents may stem from a dog that needs to be let outside more, or it could be due to a medical issue like a UTI.
  • Marking in the house Marking (small amounts of urine released) is an important and natural dog behavior. Scent marking is a way for dogs to communicate to one another and gain information about their environment. Dogs will mark in the house to create a familiarity and relieve stress when their environment changes.
  • Avoiding eye contact Yikes! All those “guilty dog” pics on social media might make you chuckle—like the pictures of a dog surrounded by a destroyed toilet paper roll. But if the owner just punished the dog, or screamed some choice words, the dog will avert his eyes to exhibit appeasement and stress behaviors, not guilt.
  • Taking a spot in bed or on the couch Dogs like to have comfortable places to take a snooze. This doesn’t mean they want to take over your home. A dog that jumps onto the couch or tries to sleep in your bed just wants to be comfy, too.

It’s Not All Bad

Researchers feel anthropomorphizing can be unscientific, but within a dog-owner relationship it can be needed. For example, when a dog is feeling fearful or shy, “humanizing” a dog and it’s feelings can be helpful, even sensible.

“It's okay to anthropomorphize when it helps build empathy for the dog, and also where there are similarities between humans and canines,” Rossman says. “For example, dogs have similar emotional systems in the brains as we do, and so emotions like fear, which is a base for so many behavior challenges, isn't so terribly different for us than for dogs.”

With a little help from positive reinforcement training, and understanding canine communication and body language, you can avoid a lot of misunderstandings.