What is anthropomorphism?

Baby and dog with frisbee

Anthropomorphism is "the attribution of uniquely human characteristics to non-human creatures and beings, phenomena, material states and objects or abstract concepts." It's a natural human tendency that is almost unavoidable, and something we need to be conscious of when we are dealing with our dogs. We often put very human ideas and feeling into our dog's heads — and they don't really belong there.

It's easy to come up with unhelpful examples of anthropomorphism:

A case could be made for much of the training based on pack theory being a big exercise in anthropomorphism. Are dogs really keeping a mental tally of who is in charge based on who walks in front of whom or enters a doorway first? Are dogs really in a constant battle with us for supremacy? Or is this just an example of something that an insecure human frets over?

Many house-training issues end up being anthropomorphized. People believe that dogs leave messes because they are angry when people go out for the day. And of course, when they come home they believe the dogs "know they did bad" because of an anthropomorphic misinterpretation of the look on their dog's face.

But is anthropomorphism always bad?

Alexandra Horowitz, who published the research on the "guilty look" and recently published "Inside of A Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know", has an interesting paper she co-authored with Marc Bekoff on her Barnard College web site.

The paper contains a very interesting discussion on anthropomorphism and how it may be useful for analyzing and exploring animal behavior. Many consider it to be dangerous, as Horowitz and Bekoff indicate:

(some believe) using anthropomorphisms in the study of animal behavior is "dangerous," an "incubus" from which the field must "struggle to free itself" (Kennedy 1992); an "incurable disease," having "no place in a scientific study" (Kennedy 1992); uncritical, naive, and sloppy (summarized by, e.g., Burghardt 1985; Fisher 1996; Mitchell, Thompson and Miles 1997; Crist 1999); and the recent resurgence in such attributions "risks bringing back the dirty bathwater as we rescue the baby" (Wynne 2004).

These assertions are not unwarranted - assigning thoughts and/or emotions to a creature when they are not there is unscientific. But is it really possible to completely remove our human perceptions from our analysis of how and why our dogs do what they do? Horowitz and Bekoff make the argument that it is probably inevitable (even citing another recent paper by Bekoff) and I agree. While anthropomorphism can lead to some unfortunate practices in training, to pretend that it is possible to completely stop it is an exercise in futility.

The paper has a fascinating analysis of a study Horowitz did of human-dog play, and relates it to anthropomorphism. When we play with our dogs we are in steady, if not constant, communication. Are we subconsciously "translating" from dog to human while this is going on? Or is this a situation where our desire to assign human thoughts to our dogs is good, maybe even accurate most of the time? I think that both species need to have some sort of a limited ability to "get into each others heads" in order for the play to succeed.

It's important to be mindful when you communicate with your dog. You are talking to a different species after all. But it's OK to be human too. After all, it's not like you can help it.


Lately I've been really trying to observe my dog almost from a scientific standpoint. When my dog barks at things outside the slider, I know he's thinking something, I just don't know what it is. I will probably never know, but unlike anthropomorphic opinions, observations are always true, at least in the moment. 

But even when making observations it's impossible to do it without anthropomorphizing a little, because the only way we have to question our dogs' feelings is with human language.

Is my dog sad? angry? threatened? hungry?

These are all human english words and we've all come to understand what they mean on human terms. Maybe when dogs don't have hunger, maybe when are "hungry" they actually feel "anxious" about "starvation". Maybe what we would call "sad" is more like "lonely" to a dog. 

We'll never know. And that's what's important, at least for me. Knowing that I really don't understand what my dog is feeling and yet still trying to figure it out his behavior on his terms. 

Observations are a little safer. "My dog just walk away from the glass, barked, and walked back." Hmmm... what's going on here?



Sydney Morgenbesser, a philosopher at Columbia, said to Skinner, "Let me see if I understand your thesis. You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?"

Internally we share a lot in common with some other mammals, even sections of our brain, yet until a dog can speak...I don't think it's fair to put words into their mouths and take yourself seriously about it. 

In joking I'll make up something when something they do reminds me of a somewhat human trait... and sometimes I get a feeling in my heart it tells me that we're sharing a moment that is similar, but I can't prove it scientifically.

I found reading up on neuroscience really helpful in balancing out for myself, when being anthropomorphic is healthy and when it's not.

I caught the bug to delve deeper after reading Dr. Patricia McConnell's book "For the love of a dog".  In her reference section there are pages and pages of books!

I started with reading John Ratey's "A user's guide to the brain' and Antonio Damasio's work, it helped me understand where a behaviour could be coming from an internal cognitive perspective.

As long as it doesn't hurt your relationship with your dog, I don't see any harm in it.  If you use it against your dog, to use force or verbal abuse (no one needs to be the recipient of ugly behaviour being thrown at them) ..that's flat out not right.





happy-houndz.blogspot.com cheers, kate

I am in the midst of reading several great books about raising dogs. Most of the books and studies I have read completely adhere to the non-anthropomorphic idea- dogs are dogs, and they are happiest when we treat them like dogs. However, I am reading a book right now (more for entertainment value) called How to be a Good Dog Parent that goes against everything I've heard and read lately, suggesting that people rearrange furniture to give their dog a better view out the window and throw a big birthday bash for their dog, doggy cake and all.

I have to admit, given human nature, it's much easier to read one book like this by an author who has no other training than being a "doggy parent" and completely agree with everything she's saying.

It takes a lot of training on the owner's behalf to treat a dog like a dog. At least we have the information to do with as we please, and we can keep trying despite our genetic predispositions!

Stephanie Mills, Owner A Dog's Dream Doggy Day Spa

@CurlyQ512, your comment really made me think, and I need to clarify my comment. 

When I'm more serious and trying to find facts for use in training, I try not to anthropomorphize my dog. But I'm fairly sure he has emotions or at the very least "moods", I don't know what they are, and because of that I try not to say "I know" what my dog is feeling or thinking.

My dog is a mystery behaviorally so I have to use observation to try to figure him out.

At the same time, anybody who's not throwing their dog doggy birthday parties (for example) is really missing out. It's anthropomorphic to say you're doing it for the dog, of course, but do it for you! When a parent throws a birthday party for a one year old human, you don't say, "That kid doesn't even know what's going on. This party is pointless!" 

When I'm in a bad mood, doggies "kisses" sooth my soul and make me feel happy again. They may be "kisses" to me, and salt (or whatever it is) to him, but it works and that's the best part about dogs. 

We don't "have" dogs "for them" (although hopefully people put the dogs' needs first), we have them for us. For the feelings they help us to generate inside for ourselves that feel so good.

And when my dog is rolling around on the floor playing or throwing his toys in the air, I don't know exactly what he's feeling, but I think it's pretty safe to say he's "feeling good" too.


Interesting blog post Eric. I agree that some people take it too far, but that it goes both ways. I think that us humans tend to also assume that other animals DON'T have a lot in common with us when it comes to emotions and needs and that it's important to find a balance. With education and experience/observation I think a person can realize that we have much more in common (from an emotional/neurological perspective) than we have different. To totally dismiss our tendency to anthropomorphize as a bad thing (though YOU didnt' say that, I'm generalizing here) is akin to delving into the radical behaviourism of days past.

We need to find an acceptance in the general public that emotions cross species and that many of our "thoughts" and feelings and drives are NOT wholly human, but are based in all complex living beings. We do not hold sway over every intellect or emotion simply because we are bipedal and have a larger cerebral cortex. This is where it becomes an either or, when it should be "we all" to a certain extent.

Hope that makes sense, it's been a LOOONG day. LOL


Maggi Burtt Tailspin Petworx