Dog Owners Frequently Get This Training Concept Wrong

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

We all consciously and unconsciously let long-held beliefs get in the way of learning new things. The following is an example of this that I often see in the world of dog training.

Anthropomorphism (noun)
Anthropomorphic or anthropomorphous (adjective)
Anthropomorphize (verb)

These terms refer to when we give human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object. In this article we are focusing on ascribing human characteristics to animals, or more specifically, dogs.

As you might imagine, anthropomorphizing dogs’ behavior is something that can get in the way of dog owners’ effectiveness in training their dogs.

Anthropomorphism can take many forms; here are a few, of many, examples:

  • “My dog destroyed my couch while I was gone because she was “mad” at me for leaving.”
  • “My dog is growling at you because he is protecting me.”
  • “My dog urinates on my bed because he is sending me a signal that he is trying to “dominate” me.”
  • “When my dog runs out of the house before me she is saying, ‘I am more important and powerful than you.’”
  • “My dog is a racist because he barks at ethnicities that are different from me.”

While the above examples of anthropomorphisms might make sense from a human perspective, the behaviors are actually motivated by completely different reasons from the dog’s point of view.

“My dog destroyed my couch while I was gone because she was “mad” at me for leaving.” There are many motivations for this behavior, but the two most common are separation anxiety (anxiety over being separated from the owner) and boredom – not spite.

“My dog is growling at you because he is protecting me.” Dogs don’t instinctively protect their owners. They resource guard them which is a polite way of saying they don’t want to share their owners with anyone else (think food aggression but with the owner in place of the food). Another reason for aggressing at people is simply fear; the dog wants the scary person to go away. The dog really isn’t worried about the owner’s safety in either case.

“My dog urinates on my bed because she is sending me a signal that she is trying to “dominate” me.” It could be that she actually: finds the bed a nice place to urinate on; the owner forgets to take her out in time; she’s been urinating there for a long time and thinks it’s okay; other dogs in the house scare her and this seems like a safe place to urinate; etc.

“When my dog runs out of the house before me, she is saying, ‘I am more important and powerful than you.’” This anthropomorphic idea gets a lot of coverage on made-for-TV dog training, but it’s just silly and not true. Do we really think that dogs have any understanding whatsoever of how humans view the order that humans go through doorways? I don’t either. They are just excited and want to get going.

“My dog is a racist because he barks at ethnicities that are different from me.” I hear this one a lot. No, your dog is not a racist. Some dogs see people of different skin colors, body sizes, hair colors, etc. as a different species from the humans they live with. The difference scares them and they want this different looking species (from their owner) to stay away. Dogs can be poor at what is called “generalizing” – the ability to take common attributes and apply them across multiple contexts (e.g., people with different skin colors are all the same species).

Seeing our dogs’ behaviors from their point of view, versus ours, can greatly improve our ability to modify the behavior of dogs. If we try to understand the true root cause of behaviors from the dog’s perspective, it can make training our dogs much easier.