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 humanise 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 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 very different to that of a human, and as responsible dog guardians we need to be mindful of this.

Dogs don’t want our love, per se. At least not in the way we’re trying to show it. As it all boils down we are an important resource to them. We provide them all the good an necessary things in life like food, water, stimulation, interaction, opportunities to learn and feel valued, exercise, socialize, structure and a feeling of safety as well as protection. These are all classified as good things for our dogs, as it is these very things that 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 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. It 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 consequences 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 with them. Guaranteed this will equal happier pets and a better relationship in the long run.

A dog that is routinely trained and biologically fulfilled will usually have an elevated quality of life as a result. This is because they’re generally provided a good day-to-day platform of consistency, 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.

Relationships between humans and dogs can be hugely rewarding, as long as we remember our beloved is an animal, not a person.

The language of (dog) love
Loving your dog in a way they understand, means understanding who they really are. This involves acknowledging their true motivations and desires.

Dogs desire structure and are by nature social animals. They look to us for clear instructions, and rely on consistency to achieve desirable consequences, whilst avoiding undesirable consequences. 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 good communication and allowing 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.

Dog emotions
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 a 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 junk food, 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 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 any situation.

Our dogs 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 treated or spoilt rotten?

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

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 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 just plain confused.

Situations where dogs are living in homes with free reign, lacking in fair rules, 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 and unearned rewards, that we forget the importance of implementing a clear foundation of rules right from the beginning.

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

Dogs need clarity, consistency and structure in their lives and your relationship will be much more rewarding with a good level of all of these through training and conditioning inside and outside of the home. Everyday brings many opportunities to teach your dogs something new, modify behaviours that require attention and motivate ourselves to remain vigilent of providing clarity and consistency throughout our interaction.

Dogs will happily and willingly work to achieve positive consequences (associated with the behaviours we deem to be good), if we show them how to achieve these results.

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. This puts them at risk of increased health problems, and a reduced quality of life.

As dog guardians, it is our responsibility to take responsibility of what’s going in our pet’s bowls, and give them appropriate and regular opportunities to exercise. Taking on a pet is no little commitment, and we need to recognise the physical needs of dogs are quite different to our own (although most humans could also benefit from a better diet and more exercise too!).

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

Dogs need to play and interact, and physical play can be a great stimulation and provide a high level of fulfilment for them. Setting up obstacles, basic agility courses and treasure hunts are great basic ways to give them exercise while also catering to their natural instincts.

Exercising and walking your dog is also a great way to socialise them; giving them an opportunity to positively experience a range of different environments with different sights, noises and smells is very important from puppy-hood onwards.

Dog Nutrition
The nutritional needs of dogs and humans are different. As humans, we tend to eat three times a day, with snacks in between. Most dogs don’t need to eat this frequently, and they definitely don’t require regular snacks.

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 bodily needs.

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

As dog guardians, we can provide our dogs with the following things to support their needs:
● Proper training to guide them towards desirable behaviour and good consequences.
● Clear communication that they can understand your expectations of them.
● Species-appropriate exercise and enrichment activities.
● Consistency in the application of rules and boundaries inside and outside the home.
● A nutrient dense, balanced species-appropriate diet.
● Access to the things and environments that a dog enjoys (rather than what a human enjoys).
● Safe spaces to rest and rejuvenate
● 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 their true motivations, 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? Want help with exercise and nutrition plans for your dog? Get in touch, we’d love to help.

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

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