What is Anthropomorphism?

If you have ever described your dog as ‘guilty or ‘mischievous’, you are anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism is defined as the tendency to attribute human characteristics, emotions, and behaviours to non-human entities, such as animals, plants, and objects. It is a common phenomenon in human culture and is often used in literature, art, and daily life. Using the same example of describing your dog as feeling guilty, we are giving it human-like motivations and characteristics.

While this behaviour may seem innocent or even entertaining by allowing us to empathise with our pets, it is important to recognise that anthropomorphism is solely a human construct and that animals may not experience the world in the same way that we do, and assumptions about their thoughts and feelings are based solely on our human perspective. Anthropomorphism is often not backed by scientific evidence, but rather our intrinsic need to relate with something from the human-centric perspective.

What are the downsides of anthropomorphism?

As anthropomorphism results in an inaccurate or incomplete understanding of animal behaviour and psychology, there are several problems that can arise. Below is a list of disadvantages in anthropomorphising animals, which further explains why we should not attribute human-like qualities to our pets.

Unrealistic Expectations

Anthropomorphism may lead humans to place unrealistic and unfair expectations on their pets, ignoring the fact that these animals have their own ways of perceiving and interacting with the world. For example, if a person anthropomorphises their dog and expects it to behave like a human, they may become frustrated or angry when the dog exhibits behaviours that are natural for a dog such as barking and digging. Expecting your dog to not perform these actions just because they are undesirable to humans is unreasonable and punishing them for it is unjustifiable. Therefore, it is important to recognise that animals are not human, and they should not be expected to behave like us. Instead, we should strive to understand and respect the unique characteristics and needs of different animals and treat them with kindness and compassion. Additionally, if you would like to send your dog for obedience training in Singapore, it is crucial that you look for a dog trainer who rejects anthropomorphism, to avoid unnecessary frustration for both you and your dog.

Dietary Problems

Anthropomorphism can lead to a slew of health problems for pets. In fact, anthropomorphism is one of the major causes of pet obesity. This happens when pet owners treat their pets like humans, projecting onto them their food preferences. If you find yourself overfeeding your pet, feeding them table scraps, or believing that dogs can be vegetarian like humans do, you are anthropomorphic. When you alter the natural diet of an animal, its basic nutritional needs are not met, and this can lead to severe consequences for animal health. There are many issues outside of obesity that can happen due to anthropomorphism, such as diabetes, pancreatitis, malnourishment and liver damage.

Another worrying form of anthropomorphism is when vegan or vegetarian humans project their ideologies onto their pets. Unfortunately, while these diets may have some health benefits for humans, these same benefits do not extend to other animals. In fact, you should never make your pet go on a vegan diet, as vegan pet food derives its protein sources from plants, which a pet’s digestive system is not evolved to handle. Therefore, it is crucial to recognise that pets have a different biological makeup from us and have different nutritional needs, in order to avoid unnecessary and costly visits to the vet. 

Unnecessary Stress

While it may be tempting or ‘natural’ to view our pets as small, furry human children, such behaviour is anthropomorphic and can cause stress. A classic example of this that we see often today is pet owners holding birthday parties or gatherings for their pets that involve several other dogs and humans. However, your dog may not be as sociable as you and it may feel threatened in the presence of unfamiliar faces, causing anxiety. The worst part? The dog does not have the faintest idea that it is their birthday!

When we dress our dogs up and make them attend dog parties, we may be exerting unnecessary stress onto them. While we may find that our dogs look exceptionally cuter in certain outfits, they may not feel the same way as they do not naturally wear clothing. In fact, some clothing may not be suitable for dogs given Singapore’s hot and humid weather and can cause heat strokes in severe cases. If we make our dogs wear shoes as well, we are restricting their natural ability to grip the ground as they do barefoot. Such outfits cause discomfort in dogs, and places unnecessary stress in them. During these parties, dogs are also forced to interact with people and other dogs, who may not necessarily know the best way to approach your dog, and cause stress to them. Young children who are not educated on how to approach dogs may also inadvertently harass dogs with their actions, causing your dog to feel compromised and stressed.

As established earlier, it is important to recognise that dogs do not express their emotions, such as fear, the same way as humans, so it is wrong to assume that your dog is feeling okay at the party based on their facial expressions, when it is actually stressed on the inside. Therefore, it is important to recognise that while our dogs may be playful and fun small creatures, they are different from human children and do not derive the same happiness from the same things that kids enjoy. In fact, such items or actions may have a reverse effect, and cause stress and anxiety for your dog instead.

How does Anthropomorphism impact the instinctive responses of our dogs?

Misinterpreting Their Feelings

As anthropomorphism involves attributing human emotions to animals, it may cause humans to misinterpret and misconstrue the feeling of our pets. This often happens to dogs, who are often portrayed in popular media to exhibit the same emotional responses as humans.  Dogs are often seen as being loyal, affectionate, and protective, and it is easy to attribute these qualities to them based on our own human emotions and experiences. However, it is important to remember that dogs have their own motivations and behaviours that may not always align with our own. For example, if a dog growls or barks at another dog or person, it may be instinctually motivated by a desire to protect its territory or to defend itself, rather than a desire to be aggressive or dominant.

We also often assume that a dog will feel ‘guilty’ after misbehaving. However, guilt is a complex emotion in relation to time that dogs are not capable of showing. So why the ‘guilty’ look? This is because dogs are highly attuned to the emotions of their owners, and the ‘guilty’ look that they display is actually an expression of their fear and stress in response to our body language and tone.

If we misunderstand or misinterpret our dogs’ behaviours and attribute human qualities or emotions to them, we may respond to them in a way that is inappropriate or even harmful. For example, if we scold our dogs for “being naughty” when they have simply acted on their natural instincts or behaviours, we may be causing them unnecessary stress or confusion. Similarly, if we expect our dogs to understand complex human emotions or to be able to communicate their thoughts and feelings to us in the same way that humans do, we may be causing unnecessary frustration for both ourselves and our dogs. It is especially important to be mindful of this during dog obedience training in Singapore so that we do not frustrate our dogs further by making them conform to our human norms.

Anthropomorphism Leads To Breed Discrimination

People may have pre-conceived notions of certain dog breeds due to the portrayal of their characteristics in the media and popular culture. For example, some of us may believe that German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Dobermans and Belgian Malinois are ferocious breeds that may attack humans on sight. However, this is not true as a dog’s aggression is largely due to situational factors such as a dog owner’s mismanagement and neglect of the dog, as opposed to their breed. These loyal dogs have been bred for centuries to support human livelihood, and while their bites may prove damaging, any veterinarian would tell you that feisty small pooches are more likely to actually bite.

This pre-conceived notion has caused people to overlook the individual characteristics and needs of animals and instead focus their attention on breed or species when choosing a companion. This contributes to breed discrimination, where dogs are judged based on their breed instead of their distinct personality.

Endangering Those Around The Dog From Improper Education

We use positive reinforcement in human education by encouraging our children to do the right actions by rewarding them with wanted consequences. However, do we also not punish our children when they grow older and are capable of logic processing yet perform undesirable deeds?

The same can be said for dogs as well. When pet owners equate dogs to human babies and limit the range of education tools to positive reinforcement methods only, they end up producing dogs that are imbalanced. Being imbalanced means that these dogs know what to do but choose not to do because of their innate drives. This circumstance ends up manifesting itself commonly in our daily life, such as dogs escaping from their owner’s home whenever there is a chance or dogs chasing after other animals and causing serious injuries, akin to hunting. Imbalanced dogs tend to endanger themselves in our urban environment and may endanger other dogs or humans in the process.

Despite the dangers these dogs pose, people have an exceptional tolerance for them. For example, in the USA, most states impose a 3-strike rule for dogs that attack other dogs and humans, and in Singapore, there are dogs that have bitten 14 humans over the years and are still alive, wandering around and still racking up their bite counts.

there is so much tolerance for dogs because the local population equate dogs as innocent young children whose logic faculties are immature. These dogs are allowed to continue endangering those around them, and worse, reproduce.

Your Dog’s Basic Needs Are Not Met

Anthropomorphism can impact the instinctive responses of our dogs by causing us to neglect their basic needs or to prioritise our own desires over their well-being. If we see our dogs as being like children or family members, we may be more likely to indulge their every whim or to allow them to engage in behaviours that are harmful or destructive, the same way as ‘spoiling a child’. On the other hand, if we understand that our dogs have their own needs and instincts that may differ from our own, we can be more mindful of meeting those needs and respecting their boundaries. For example, some of us believe that socialising our dogs means bringing them to dog meetups and dog parks, however there is so much more to socialising and meeting dogs only constitutes to a marginal amount of a dog’s socialisation need. Dogs need to be exposed to the environment at large, which consists of all things inanimate and animate. Dogs should also be the ones to take the lead when it comes to their walks, and leashes should be used only as a tool to keep them safe, or rather, a seatbelt instead of a steering wheel.

This allows them to interact with their environment on their own terms and allows them to learn for themselves the right way to react. Therefore, anthropomorphism results in the basic needs of your dog not met, as the way we perceive the environment is different from our dogs, hence when we try to control the way they interact with the environment, they end up not being able to interact with the world around them and make decisions for themselves.

How Can Pet Owners Avoid Anthropomorphism?

While anthropomorphism is a natural human tendency, the good news is that anthropomorphism can be reduced to a minimum. Below are several steps you can take to minimise the tendency to humanise our dogs.

Learn About Dog Behaviour And Psychology

Learning about the behaviours, instincts, and needs of dogs can help owners to better understand their pets and to avoid attributing human qualities or emotions to them. This can include reading books, and articles, or watching educational videos about dog behaviour and psychology from experts. A professional dog trainer in Singapore should have a good understanding of anthropomorphism and will be able to advise you on how to handle your dog’s behaviours appropriately.

Respect Your Dog’s Boundaries

When interacting with your dog, it is important to view things from its perspective, instead of attributing human emotions to it. For example, instead of picking up your dog to give it a hug, wait for it to approach you first. Dogs prefer to approach humans when they want attention, so instead of forcefully hugging or petting them, wait for them to walk up to you and lean against you before showing them affection. Pause in between pets to give your dog some space, and let it walk away if it wishes to. Never approach your dog from behind, as the movement could startle them and make them feel threatened. When it comes to affection, the key thing is to seek out your dog’s consent and respect its boundaries rather than simply satisfying our need for physical affection, so that you can have a more wholesome relationship with your pet.

Be Mindful Of Your Dog’s Needs

While dogs and humans have basic needs that are similar, such as the need for food, water, shelter and companionship, there are many significant differences in the way both species experience and fulfil these needs. Dogs have much stronger instincts and drives than humans, and their needs are often shaped by these instincts. For example, dogs have a pack instinct, which is absent in humans, which can manifest itself in various ways, such as the way they communicate with their species and the way they establish a social hierarchy within the group. Your dog views your family as its “pack”, and its primary caregiver is often seen as the leader. In order to meet their pack instinct, dogs need social interaction and structure within their environment. This can be provided through activities such as walking, running, playing, and training with their human family and other dogs, as well as through regular opportunities to interact with their pack and establish their place within it.

Dogs also have a strong need for exercise and mental stimulation, which you can fulfil through activities such as enrichment games that mimic their natural behaviours in hunting, scavenging and pack socialisation. That means that while you may enjoy being a couch potato, and your dog may seem to enjoy watching the television and snoozing with you, you are ignoring its innate needs if you do not engage in activities that stimulate them. With that being said, each individual dog is unique and may have specific needs based on its breed, size, age, and temperament, and it is up to the owner to understand and meet their dog’s needs in order to keep them happy and healthy.

Happy Paw Ark, Experienced Dog Trainers In Singapore Who Avoid Anthropomorphism

As certified dog trainers with years of experience raising dogs, Paw Ark understands the dangers that come from anthropomorphism and provides a bespoke experience for dog owners who wish to raise their pets as nature intended. We strive to understand the unique personalities of our client’s pets when conducting our dog obedience or agility training in Singapore and tailor our approach to manage errant behaviours the right way.

We understand that anthropomorphism is a natural human tendency which may be hard, or even impossible to stop completely, however, there are many things that we can do to mitigate its effects and raise our dog the right way. All in all, we encourage dog owners to be open to the possibility that they have needs, emotions, behaviours, and cognitive abilities that are different from our own, and try to appreciate and respect these differences because that is how we can have a more fulfilling relationship with your dog, and what makes man’s best friend special.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *