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An anthropomorphist crisis: The important differences between dogs and humans


Your heart beats faster and your eyes fill with tears, as the animated animals onscreen are reunited with each other. They’ve found true love, and are destined to live happily ever after. Sigh….

Why is it a trait of humans that we too overhumanise everything around us, including our pets?

We’ve all been entertained by animated canine characters in films and cartoons as they experience and express the full range of human emotion. Some favourites that come to mind as I was growing up are Lady and the Tramp, Pluto, Snoopy, Scooby Doo, Clifford and Balto. And that’s all well and good, but I’m afraid it’s not real.

Dogs aren’t people, just as people aren’t dogs.

Saying it out loud can make it seem a little obvious, but it needs to be said, as the trend to humanise our pets can lead to some pretty serious behavioural issues, not to mention a very confused pet through no fault of their own.

Anthropomorphism is the act of assigning human attributes to other species and objects, and unfortunately it’s something many of us are guilty of when it comes to our companion animals.

Dogs do most definitely experience emotions, but their understanding and motivations are usually very different to that of a human, and as responsible pet guardians we need to be mindful of this.

Dogs don’t want our love, per se. At least maybe not in the way we’re trying to show it. As it all boils down we are an important resource or access point of sorts to them to which they have a great association. We provide them all the necessary things in life like food, clean water, stimulation, interaction and companionship, opportunities to learn and build confidence, exercise, socialisation, structure and a feeling of safety and protection. These are all classified as good things for our dogs on their hierarchy of needs, as it is these very things that also have the ability to elevate their quality of life. Dogs are always on the look out to better their own situation and it is important we accept and understand this.

Dogs are opportunistic by their very nature and are always out to acquire the best consequences they can. This is by no means putting them down, after all it’s how they have skillfully evolved, adapted and survived symbiotically alongside us humans so well, for so long. I think its quite amazing the evolutionary path dogs have gone on. This in mind it still needs to be pointed out they don’t really understand our human rights from wrongs the way we do, and likewise are not guided by moral values, but rather what will equal good or bad outcomes for them being the associative learners they are.

It’s important we are mindful of what a good consequence looks like to our dog – this understanding can help us develop a deeper level of respect and consideration for their species-specific needs and how to better communicate on the whole. Guaranteed this will equal a happier dog and a better relationship in the long run.

A dog that is routinely trained, provided enrichment and biologically fulfilled will usually have an elevated quality of life by default as a result. This is because they’re generally provided a good day-to-day platform of consistency, mental and physical exercise and have developed a good level of clarity between themselves and their Guardians. This makes it so much easier for them to navigate the human world successfully and likewise its easy for them to feel a sense of belonging and value as a result.

But I love my dog!
It’s totally OK to love your dog and feel very close with them, it’s only natural that we love our pets and want them to lead happy and fulfilled lives. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this but we can’t expect them to react as another person would, or understand complex human emotions or certain situations that biologically make no sense to them at all. Relationships between humans and dogs can be hugely rewarding, as long as we remember our beloved is different species, not a person.

The language of (dog) love
Loving your dog in a way they understand, means understanding who they really are and thereby what they truly need. This involves acknowledging their true motivations and desires. Dogs desire some level of structure and are by nature social animals. They look to us for clear instructions, and rely on some level of consistency to achieve desirable consequences, whilst avoiding undesirable consequences, especially when they are young or faced with novel things or circumstances. As we learn to identify behaviours and signals from our animals, we can develop a mutually beneficial relationship devoid of conflict and miscommunication. We owe it to our dogs to support and raise them appropriately. They can then safely go out into the world with confidence. Dog training isn’t about controlling our companion animals, it’s about achieving a good level of communication to allowing them the utmost freedom possible. Well-trained dogs can enjoy the liberties of being out in a multitude of environments, with the knowledge they will be reliable and act both safely and appropriately whatever may arise.

The emotional dog
The human experience of emotions is complex and nuanced. We live in our heads and thoughts, and often over-think things, or attribute the actions of others to our own ideas and beliefs. As humans, we hold grudges. We do things out of spite. We remember mistakes and wrongdoings, and can recall events long past on a timeline-like scale. We love without limits, remember those we’ve lost, and are aware of our own mortality.

It is now well recognised that our dogs do too experience primary emotions like fear, happiness, joy, sadness and anger. A big part of the overall problem is we start consequently attributing our pets with complex emotions or secondary emotions from our own human perspective, which just isn’t fair (or usually correct). There is mounting evidence that suggests dogs may experience certain secondary emotions and possess a level of self awareness also known as ‘Theory of mind’ however this currently remains a controversial topic.

The ‘furchild’ phenomenon

Of course it is perfectly normal to love your dog and treat them like an important member of the family. Problems arise when we start to treat them like humans or lifestyle accessories. Dressing them up, carrying them around continually, feeding them overly processed foods, providing them little to no socialisation outside the home, and allowing them a seat in front of the TV all day long. Dogs don’t really enjoy these things. They enjoy dog things! You’ll have a much more rewarding relationship with your pet if you let them enjoy things the way they have been designed to do so.

Clarity and consistency are key
When we talk about clarity and consistency, it’s important to remember dogs see the world in a very black and white manner. They rely heavily on interpreting human behaviour to give them context to many situations. Our dogs may use the information that is being relayed from us to inform their overall behaviour and choices. If this information is unclear or not consistent enough for them to understand, then who is to blame? They don’t usually understand what you mean if you allow something ‘just this once’. If you give permission one time, they may assume it means they now have permission any time.

Well supported or spoilt rotten?

So what’s the difference between a well-treated dog, and a dog which is overly humanised or literally spoilt rotten? 

Some people are fine with dogs living inside the home, sleeping on their bed and snuggling with them on the couch. Others prefer their dogs outside playing around in the yard and going on adventures. Either way, your dog can enjoy feeling it is part of the family, as long as it has a good understanding of the boundaries and expectations of a household.

There’s nothing wrong with treating your dog and giving them a life with particular comforts. It’s not these specific comforts which are the problem, it’s a lack of consistent rules and structure around them which can lead to a dog becoming demanding, possessive or sadly just plain confused. Situations where dogs are living in homes with free reign, lacking in fair rules, healthy boundaries, structure, routine or even any clear expectations of them, sets many dogs up to fail.

Sometimes we’re so busy ‘loving’ our dogs and showering them with affection, freedoms and unearned rewards, that we forget the importance of implementing a clear foundation of expectations right from the beginning.

We worry that the dog won’t ‘love us’ the same way if we tell them ‘no’ or ignore their advances. We may even be afraid on the occasion that their feelings will be hurt. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Dogs actually thrive on structure and clear communication. 

Our pets need clarity and consistency in their lives. Your relationship will be much more rewarding with a good level of both. Everyday brings many opportunities to teach your dog something new, modify behaviours that require attention and motivate ourselves to remain vigilent of supporting clear lines of communication.

Dogs will happily and willingly work to achieve positive consequences (associated with the behaviours we deem to be good), if we show them the path to achieve these results. Let them be proud and happy with their accomplishments!

The obesity epidemic
As with humans, unfortunately there is a growing trend for dogs to live a life which is too sedentary. Too much food and too little exercise, mean dogs can become easily overweight and unhealthy. This puts them at risk of increased health problems, and a reduced quality of life.

It remains our responsibility what’s going into our pet’s bowls, and it also is up to us to provide our dogs the opportunity for regular and appropriate exercise. Taking on a pet is no little commitment, and we need to recognise the physical needs of a dog may be quite different to our own (although most humans could also benefit from a better diet and more exercise too!)

Physical needs
Dogs need regular mental and physical exercise in order to live happy and healthy lives. Although different breeds or individuals may have different energy levels and physical instincts, all dogs need regular outlets, and plenty of opportunities to move, play, roll in the grass, problem solve, interact and smell the world around them.

Dogs love to play and interact, and physical play in particular can be great mental stimulation providing a high level of biological fulfillment for them. Setting up obstacles, basic agility courses, playing fetch or tug and treasure hunts are simple ways to give them exercise while also catering to their natural instincts.

Appropriate exercise and walking your dog is also a great way to socialise and expose them to the world around them; giving them an opportunity to positively experience a range of different environments with different sights, noises and smells is very important from puppyhood onwards.

Dog Nutrition
The nutritional needs of dogs and humans may have certain similarities but on the most part are quite different as we are in fact different species. Just take a look at their jaws and teeth compared to ours if your don’t believe me.

In reality, a dog’s ideal biologically-appropriate meal or snack probably looks quite repulsive to most humans. Raw muscle meat, feathers or fur, offal, bones, par cooked or pulverized vegetables, fruits and nuts or seeds are not really our version of fine-dining, but to a dog, they’re ideal for supporting their biological needs.


We are now seeing a wave of pet guardians look into the best way to feed their pets towards a healthier and happier future. The empowerment that is generated from learning more about dogs as a species in general, assists greatly in the decision making process. Questions arise around what will ultimately fuel a dog in the most sustainable way? Many guardians also have chosen to prioritise working preventitively with their pets diet to offset the effects of aging, illness and disease.

Dogs have dog-needs
Although every dog is individually different, as a species, they have fairly standard fundamental needs in order to live a life which is happy, healthy, fulfilled.

As responsible guardians, we can provide our dogs with the following things to support their needs day to day:
● Training opportunities to support and guide them with their decision making
● Clear communication to better understand your expectations of them
● Appropriate exercise and enrichment outlets
● Consistency in the application of rules and boundaries inside and outside the home
● A balanced, nutrient dense diet
● Access to the things and environments that a dog enjoys (rather than what a human enjoys)
● Safe spaces to live, rest and rejuvenate in
● Healthy boundaries: Time apart is just as important as time together. It’s necessary your dog feels the same way and you don’t inadvertently create a velco-pet.

When it comes to treating our dogs as dogs, rather than as humans, it all boils down to a great quote I once heard from another Trainer:

At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what you think…. all that matters is what the dog thinks.

By all accounts this couldn’t be more true, and it’s something we need to recite it to ourselves daily. We need to turn off our human brains sometimes, and get inside the heads of our dogs. What are they really trying to say to us? By learning a bit more about dogs as a species, focusing on their biological needs, nurturing a healthy relationship and recognising the true motivations behind their actions, we are on the right track to living a more enjoyable and fulfilling life together.

Looking for guidance on how to train your dog in a way which is appropriate and effective? Checkout our training and enrichment courses. Want help with nutrition consultation or help surrounding your dogs body condition? Get in touch, we’d love to help.

Racheal Romeo is the Owner and Head Trainer of Riverina K9 Services

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