Here at thebark.com, we welcome and celebrate new voices—young writers who are devoted to dogs and their well-being. In this essay, 19-year-old Vedika Shah certainly meets both criteria, and we’re pleased to make her work available to our readers.
Many dog-lovers across the globe think that “loving” a dog means treating the dog like a person—sometimes to the extent that they expect their dogs to think and behave rationally as a human would. Our unconscious desire to project humanlike demands, aspirations, wants and needs onto dogs is not only unfair and disrespectful to the dog, it can also be a threat to the dog’s mental and physical health.
As humans, we tend to anthropomorphize dogs for our own satisfaction. Looking at and understanding them through a human lens is far easier than learning how they communicate. I’ve been guilty of this myself, and often still am. For example, I expect my dogs to look at the camera for photos, and act as though they enjoy having their pictures clicked. Norwegian dog expert Turid Rugass noted that her dog, Saga, exhibited a calming gesture—turning her head to the side—when being photographed, possibly because she found the camera a bit scary. What I see as a good thing may not be so good from my dogs’ point of view.
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Anthropomorphism exists at different levels in different households, but it’s time we take a step back and realize why we’re doing it and what it’s doing to our dogs. Dogs can be our best friends, but they can’t think and behave like humans, and that’s something we have to accept. More often than not, we don’t understand canine behavior and communication; hence, we anthropomorphize.
Do you think your dog enjoys wearing clothes? To him, a jacket or jumper is uncomfortable and stressful because it hinders his ability to communicate with the environment. Since dogs communicate through their bodies, putting an article of clothing on your dog is similar to placing a strip of tape across your mouth.
Dressing up dogs is only one of the many ways we anthropomorphize them. While grooming is good for your dog, extending it to manicures, coat-coloring and accessorizing is not. Similarly, throwing a birthday party for your dog is fine, but expecting him to blow out the candles on his cake and react “happily” is not.
We need to realize where to draw the line when it comes to anthropomorphism. Whether the pet industry is to blame or the cinema, our dogs are unconsciously anthropomorphized in many ways, and it can lead to behavioral problems. Our dogs are not substitutes for babies, and treating them as though they are often aggravates their levels of stress, aggression and anxiety. Because we don’t realize we’re doing it, we keep on doing it over and over again without thinking about the consequences of our behavior.
Another anthropomorphizing incident that I witnessed was with my friend’s dog, Babu. Now, Babu is a happy Indian pariah dog when his owners are around. They love him to bits and never miss an opportunity to shower him with affection. He has no rules or boundaries, eats food off the table, is exercised very little and is constantly overexcited. But this happy-go-lucky dog turns into a nervous and skittish dog when his owners aren’t around. Why? Another indirect result of anthropomorphism.
Showing dogs well-deserved love and affection is one thing; not setting rules and boundaries for them is another. They were, after all, bred to work with humans. Even though a lot of that has changed, dogs still retain their working traits. When Babu’s owners left him alone for two hours one day, he channeled all his fear and anxiety onto himself and the house.
When we attempt to understand dogs through the human emotions of guilt, anger, jealousy, regret and so forth, we risk misunderstanding what our dogs want to tell us, and this can lead to behavioral issues. Understanding and making decisions for our dogs based on a human perception of right and wrong drowns the value of their existence in our lives. To build healthy bonds and strengthen existing relationships, we need to listen to what our dogs are trying to tell us and consider life from their point of view.
For dogs, fun is playing, hiking, running, guarding, swimming, eating, resting and loving you. These are the things that make them want to wake up every day. So, let’s stop the anthropomorphism and start to appreciate the ways our furry, four-legged best friends understand the world.