In the field of animal behavior science, anthropomorphism—assigning human emotions or traits to animals—is mostly discouraged. That’s not to say canine behaviorists believe that dogs don’t have emotions. Of course they do. But it’s less than helpful, for example, for owners to believe that their puppy had a potty accident while left alone because he was angry at being abandoned, when it’s more likely that the pup was simply being opportunistic, having learned that when he had an accident in front of his owners, they’d make the scary, frowny face and yell. (And by the way, why do we still call it “having an accident” when it’s obviously done on purpose?)
I had a potential client call me once about training. As we chatted about her dog’s issues, she began to say things like, “He’s so selfish. All he ever thinks about is himself. It’s really rude.” She went on in this vein until I finally had to interject, “We’re still talking about the dog, right?” Although we both laughed, I still wondered.
As much as anthropomorphism can be a problem, a case could be made that perhaps we need to be more anthropomorphic when it comes to certain things. Most people now accept that dogs feel emotions. That’s one big duh to any dog lover! But what about the sorts of things we don’t normally ascribe to dogs? I’ve long wondered about dogs getting headaches, for example, but have never actually heard it discussed or seen it mentioned in studies or in behavioral literature. Any dog owner can tell you that there are some days that, just like us, their dog seems a bit “off” and they can’t quite put their finger on why. It’s not that anything extreme is happening—the dog’s not suddenly projectile vomiting green stuff along with 360-degree head rotation—but clearly something is not right. Maybe the dog seems a bit more irritable than usual, perhaps less tolerant of being handled or brushed. Maybe he’s just lethargic, not wanting to go for a walk or participate in training. Look, I get it. I suffer from frequent debilitating headaches. They’re exacerbated by stress, and by the heat. Unfortunately, here in southern California there’s plenty of intense heat during the summer months. The biochemistry of dogs and people are similar in many ways. Why wouldn’t dogs be affected by stress and headaches as well?
In a recent article in Psychology Today, Stanley Coren discussed a study done in Beijing, China. A team of investigators studied the frequency of dog bite cases seen at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital. Through statistical analysis involving a sample size of over 42,000, the researchers were able to show a strong relationship between the number of dog bites and hot temperatures. In other words, the dogs were more aggressive in hot weather. The first thing that came to my mind was, well, so am I! Aren’t you? People often become cranky in hot weather—unless you’re my husband, who only begins to get comfortable once temps hit 90 degrees. What can I say, I married a lizard. But back to studies…another one looked at regions in the U.S. and found that crime rates were higher during hotter temperatures. Again, hot equals more irritable, cranky, and violent. Makes perfect sense to me!
Headaches? Being cranky during hot weather? With people, we accept those things as common. Why not entertain the notion that dogs too can be affected? If we took these types of factors into consideration, possibly our ways of interacting with our dogs would change. Maybe during a training session when a dog who is normally very responsive simply shuts down or doesn’t want to work, we’d give him the benefit of the doubt and try another day rather than forcing the issue. Maybe dog trainers would avoid scheduling appointments to see aggressive dogs on very hot days, especially if the dog is expected to participate in activities that put the trigger in any kind of proximity. In short, maybe we ought to start thinking outside the traditional box and allow for some anthropomorphism. It just might do us and the dogs a lot of good.
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more at http://www.nicolewilde.com. And if you’d like to see some of my animal-related artwork, click here.