Is It Wrong to Treat a Dog Like a Human?
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Treating a dog like a human is a common trait among canine guardians. To some extent, it is a positive sign. It means the level of love and respect they have for their companion animals is high. They want to treat them as if they were part of the family and express just how close a bond they feel when together. Anthropomorphism is when we attribute human traits to an animal, something we do often. It can have some benefits for the dog, especially when it means we are protective of their wellbeing. Unfortunately, it can also mean denying parts of their canine nature which need to be supported. Doing so can can have serious detrimental effects on their health.
At AnimalWised, we ask is it wrong to treat a dog like a human? In answering the question, we can find out what effects dog anthropomorphism has on our canine companion, both positive and negative.
Why do we anthropomorphize dogs?
While there is much we do not know about the domestication of dogs, we do know that it is a process that began millennia ago. Humans found living with dogs to be very useful in terms of survival. They could be used as working animals to help hunt, travel and perform many other important tasks as civilizations progressed. In doing so they started to forge a close bond which opened up unique abilities for interspecies communication.
Our ability to communicate with dogs is still limited, but by studying their reactions and behaviors, we have been able to learn more about their nature. This includes the emotions they feel. Many of these are emotions that we share which can be positive (joy, fun, affection, etc.) or negative (fear, anxiety, jealousy, etc.).
Since we love them, we want to best ensure their emotions are respected. This can often lead us to ascribing more complicated emotions than they actually possess. Dogs will mature from between 1.5-3 years of age, with larger dogs generally maturing at a slower rate. This includes emotional maturity. Generally speaking, a fully mature dog will have the emotional capacity of a 2 year old human child.
While the comparison of human and canine maturity can be helpful, it can also complicate our understanding of a dog's emotions. With dog anthropomorphism, we can treat the animal as having the same needs and nature as we do. This is not the case. They have canine-specific needs which are not met if we treat a dog like a human all the time.
Much of the reason why we anthropomorphize dogs is because we want to understand them better. By giving them human traits, we feel like we can better understand them. However, this is often counterproductive. Rather than understand how a dog feels, we bend them towards how we feel. This can lead to confusion in both parties and often means we never achieve the understanding we are trying to attain.
We can also communicate and socialize with dogs in ways that deny their needs. A basic example is talking to a dog as if they understand the words we are saying. Dogs can associate specific words with actions, but they do not understand their meaning. Talking to dogs and expecting them to understand what we mean is futile. It can even engender frustration on our part when the dog acts conversely to how we feel they should.
How do we treat dogs like humans?
As we have already stated, dog anthropomorphism is when we attribute human traits onto our canine companions. These include characteristics and behaviors. How we make these attributions can vary greatly, but the following are some of the common ways we treat dogs like humans:
- Emotional attribution: humans often project human emotions onto their dogs. For example, they may believe that their dog feels guilt, sadness, or jealousy based on their own interpretation of the dog's behavior. While dogs do experience emotions, they may not necessarily mirror human emotions in the same way.
- Verbal communication: humans sometimes imagine their dogs understand human language to a greater extent than they actually do. They may talk to their dogs as if they comprehend every word, using complex sentences or holding conversations with them. Although dogs can learn to recognize certain words and cues, their understanding is primarily based on tone of voice, body language and consistent training.
- Dressing up: some guardians enjoy dressing their dogs in clothing, costumes or accessories, treating them as if they were dolls or children. This practice is often done for entertainment purposes or to elicit a reaction from others, but it is important to ensure that the dog's comfort and safety are prioritized.
- Assigning human roles: humans may assign human roles to their dogs, such as calling them their ‘dog baby’ or ‘fur baby’. They may also refer to themselves as a ‘dog mom’ or ‘dog dad’. These labels can serve to create a familial or nurturing dynamic between humans and their dogs. They can also create unrealistic expectations and result in babying the dog.
- Sharing human experiences: humans sometimes include their dogs in human activities or events, such as celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or holidays. They may give their dogs special treats, presents, or even organize parties for them. While these gestures can be enjoyable for both humans and dogs, it's essential to consider the dog's specific needs and safety during such celebrations. Also, the dog will appreciate affection and interaction, they do not know or care about the concept of birthdays.
- Interpreting facial expressions: humans often attempt to interpret their dog's facial expressions in the same way they would with other humans. They may believe that a certain expression reflects happiness, sadness or guilt. While dogs do have facial expressions that can indicate their emotional state to some extent, it's important to consider other non-verbal cues and context as well.
It's important to remember that while anthropomorphizing dogs can be a natural tendency, dogs are a different species with their own unique ways of perceiving and interacting with the world. Understanding and respecting their natural behaviors and needs is crucial for their wellbeing.
How can treating a dog like a human can benefit them
When we treat a dog like a baby, it means we will be protective of them. Babies are vulnerable and our dog will have certain vulnerabilities also. When we treat them like a human, we can ensure they are free from physical dangers and protect them from harm.
Treating a dog like a human is often very fun. Even though the dog might not understand what we are saying, it is possible dog and guardian will enjoy having a conversation. Especially if we use an affectionate tone, the interaction and the dog dog's responses can be very amusing. We only need to look at the myriad YouTube videos where this is happening to see the funny side.
The reason for dog anthropomorphism is not usually based on scientific knowledge, but a desire to relate. This is not an inappropriate desire. It is the first step in humans better understanding a dog's needs and being more considerate of how we impact the wellbeing of animals. As we will see in the next section, unfortunately this type of relation can be counterproductive.
Why is it a mistake to treat a dog like a human?
While treating dogs like humans is understandable, doing so means we deny their canine nature. As guardians, we need to respect a dog's canine sensibilities and specific personality. Not doing so can result in the following problems:
- Misalignment with their natural needs: dogs have distinct species-specific needs and behaviors. Treating them as humans can lead to a misunderstanding of their requirements for exercise, socialization, mental stimulation and appropriate behavior. Dogs have different communication styles and instincts compared to humans, and failing to address their specific needs can lead to behavioral issues or compromised well-being.
- Lack of clarity and consistency: dogs thrive on clear rules, boundaries and consistent training. Treating a dog like a human can create confusion for them, as they may struggle to understand their role in the household or how to behave appropriately. Dogs require consistent training methods based on their own species-specific behaviors, which may differ from human expectations.
- Unrealistic expectations: humans have expectations and standards based on human experiences and cultural norms. When these expectations are applied to dogs, it can result in disappointment or frustration. Dogs have their own limitations, instincts and ways of perceiving the world. Expecting them to conform to human standards or behaviors can be unfair and unrealistic.
- Potential negative impact on behavior: treating a dog like a human can inadvertently reinforce undesirable behaviors. For example, allowing a dog to sit at the dining table and eat from human plates may encourage begging or food aggression. Dogs need consistent training and reinforcement of appropriate behaviors to thrive and coexist harmoniously with humans.
- Neglecting their natural instincts: dogs have instincts rooted in their evolutionary history as pack animals. Treating them like humans may neglect their need for social interaction with other dogs or fulfill their natural behaviors, such as exploring, sniffing, and playing. Depriving dogs of these opportunities can lead to frustration, boredom, and potentially behavioral issues.
- Health and safety risks: dogs have specific dietary and physical needs that differ from humans. Treating them like humans by sharing human food, exposing them to potentially harmful substances, or disregarding their exercise requirements can pose health and safety risks to dogs. It's important to provide dogs with a diet, exercise routine and environment that cater to their specific needs.
It's crucial to strike a balance between providing appropriate care, affection and understanding for dogs while recognizing and respecting their unique nature as a different species. Dogs benefit from a combination of love, clear communication, consistent training, and an environment that supports their physical and mental well-being.
Tips for a good relationship with your dog
If we use dog anthropomorphism with our canine, it should only be in ways that respect their canine behavior. The following can help us do so:
- Respect their emotions: we should not expect them to have the same complexity of emotions as humans, but we need to recognize how they are feeling and respond appropriately in our care. For example, if the dog is feeling scared, we can provide affection and reassurance.
- Don't pick them up: with the exception of young puppies, dogs generally do not like to be picked up and cradled like a baby. They can feel insecure and unstable, so it is best avoided.
- Education and training: dogs not only respect boundaries, they need them if they are to have a happy coexistence with others in the home. Providing training adapted to their canine needs will ensure they know how to behave in various situations and will feel secure.
- Socialization: another important way to help a dog feel secure is to provide suitable socialization for puppies and adult dogs. This requires introducing them to other animals, environments and even sounds which means they can be confident when they are in similar situations in the future.
- Respect their needs: we need to meet the needs of a dog in terms of physical exercise, diet and general care. This means both letting them exercise aspects common to their canine nature, as well as learning their individual needs.
With these aspects in mind, we can help a dog to be the best dog they can be. Another important factor is avoiding the behaviors that dogs hate. You can learn about these in the video below:
If you want to read similar articles to Is It Wrong to Treat a Dog Like a Human?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.
1. Mota-Rojas, D., Mariti, C., Zdeinert, A., Riggio, G., Mora-Medina, P., Del Mar Reyes, A., Gazzano, A., Domínguez-Oliva, A., Lezama-García, K., José-Pérez, N., & Hernández-Ávalos, I. (2021). Anthropomorphism and Its Adverse Effects on the Distress and Welfare of Companion Animals. Animals: an open access journal from MDPI, 11(11), 3263.