The Dangers of Anthropomorphising your Dog

We, as humans, develop such close, social bonds with our dogs that it isn’t surprising that we sometimes think of our friends as human themselves (anthropomorphism). However, as I’ve written about previously, dog-human relationships are unique in their own right! So we shouldn’t necessarily lump them in with our other interpersonal relationships.

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But my dog is my fur baby!

There’s nothing inherently wrong with thinking your dog is a child of sorts. After all, dogs need us to provide essentials for them and (these days anyway) can’t really be trusted to safely navigate to modern world on their own. So having a ‘fur baby’ is fine, providing this perspective doesn’t impede your dogmanship. Dog husbandry and caring for a human infant isn’t exactly synonymous and when people treat them as such, problems can arise. For example:

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I can’t leave him/her alone!

This is one viewpoint that I’m saddened to see, especially with puppy owners. While I do strongly believe that we should endeavour to maximise the time we spend interacting with our dogs, some level of separation is normal and healthy. Failure to let your dog develop any autonomy creates dependence and when you eventually do have to leave your dog alone (and you will) it can be an extremely stressful experience for them.

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So what SHOULD we do?

My advice is to always observe your dog’s behaviour objectively, putting aside any thoughts of infancy or peerage. Assess your dog’s emotional state and behave in a way that acts in your dog’s best interests (i.e. promotes a positive emotional state and provides a buffer against future stressors).

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For example, to improve your dog’s confidence when left alone, you might invest in some puzzle toys to help them exercise their minds and engage with something independently. Alternatively, having a few obedience or trick training sessions with your dog can grant them a confidence boost as it gives them a means to communicate with your effectively.

Improving your Dogmanship

Dog-human relationships have always fascinated me, certainly enough to write a whole PhD thesis about them!

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Dogmanship is a term coined by my PhD supervisor that describes an individual’s ability to interact with dogs.

My postgraduate research examined the concept of dogmanship and what a person with good dogmanship might look like. Obviously it behoves us to aspire to be the best dog people we can be, so we can have the best lives possible with our furry best friends.

I’ll summarise a few key aspects of dogmanship to pique the aspiring dog whisperers among you.

Dogmanship involves influencing your dog’s emotional state- for the better!

When a dog is in a positive emotional state, it is more likely to offer the behaviour you want. A positive emotional state for a dog is when it has positive associations with a certain signal, stimulus or event.

omg-leadE.g. “She is holding the lead, whenever she holds the lead we go outside and have adventures- YAY!”.

Providing things your dog values in response to good behaviour (positive reinforcement) and engaging in mutual play sessions are good ways of putting your dog in a positive emotional state. Conversely, limiting the creation of negative associations (such as physical or verbal punishments) avoids a negative emotional state.

Our dogmanship is optimal when we are reflective practioners

Observing and understanding our dogs’ behaviours and emotions helps us to apply dogmanship effectively. This requires us to adjust our approach and behaviour based on the feedback (emotions) we receive from our dogs. This is what is known as being a reflective practitioner.

To be a reflective practitioner of dogmanship involves:

  1. Observing the behaviour and emotional state of our dogs (this requires objective assessment and should avoid any judgement bias)
  2. Responding to our dog’s behaviour in a consistent manner
  3. Considering our dog’s feedback and adjusting our behaviour accordingly

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This approach encourages clear communication between dog and human and encourages best practice in terms of dogmanship.

HIIT for dogs

Fitness buffs around the world have been exalting the benefits of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), a method which, according to several peer-reviewed studies, is extremely good for weight loss and maintaining cardiovascular health. The idea behind it is that rapidly switching your workout from low to high intensity manages to effectively exercise both your anaerobic and aerobic fitness. That’s great, you may say, but with a highly energetic dog that needs a daily walk/jog, how can I have the time to do these HIIT sessions for myself, let alone FeatherBeard the Old English Sheepdog?

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COMBINE THEM!

Add the odd HIIT session into your typical exercise session with your dog. Whether your typical session is a jog or some fetch, there’s a way to integrate some intervals into your routine so both you and FeatherBeard can feel the benefits.

Here’s a brief clip of how you might perform this, this can be done on hills, inside, the beach etc.

For owners with high energy dogs, try jogging and sprinting with your dog in a heel. For some dogs, the sight of you running will be enough to motivate them to keep up with you. For others, running with a high value treat or toy might convince them to join you.

Of course not all dogs will be willing (or even capable) of sprinting at full capacity alongside their owners. My own dog Halo was one such pup.

For Halo, no amount of calling would convince her to move at anything above a trot. I was curious to see if I could get her to willingly (and happily) enter a canter. I started practicing rolling treats across the ground at home paired with an exuberant “get it!”. I also began to play recall games where I would suddenly jog away from her and call her to me (with treats at the ready of course). After building up these behaviours inside, we moved our practice outside and after a few months of practice she gallops like a brumby (in her own mind anyway!).

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So please consider how you can incorporate some HIIT into you and your dog’s routine- even if it’s simply rolling some treats around the house.

Couples Therapy

My dog and I aren’t a couple… are we?

Let me set the record straight. The dog-human relationship is just that- A RELATIONSHIP. It also shows remarkable similarity to interpersonal relationships, particularly for those of us with companion dogs. In the scientific community, many researchers agree that the dog-human relationship constitutes what is known as an attachment bond[1][2][3]. Attachment in this context refers to a strong emotional bond between two individuals and typically refers to the infant-caregiver relationship.

So my dog is like my baby?

Yes and no. Yes dogs show a lot of the same behaviours that we see in attached infants (such as seeing the attachment figure as a safe haven when stressors are present) [1]. Our dogs are also dependent on us for food and shelter, so it’s understandable that dogs would perceive humans as caregiver figures. However, dogs aren’t quite as dependent on adult humans as infants are. In this case, the relationship we have with our dogs probably deserves it’s own title as it is not quite parental but we’re not exactly peers either. The dog-human relationship is unique, characterised by a strong mutual emotional bond between a dog and a human, and it deserves just as much attention as our interpersonal relationships.

Does it though?

YES! Positive interactions between dogs and humans have been shown to increase the concentrations of hormones important to happiness and bonding (like serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine) in both parties [4][5]. Interacting with and owning dogs has also been associated with several emotional and psychological health benefits in humans [6][7]. As such, it is in our best interests to cultivate strong, positive relationships with our dogs, so we (and our dogs) can reap the benefits.

With that in mind please follow me to discover the ways in which we can enrich the relationships we have with our dogs and avoid the many pitfalls that can come with dog ownership.

[show_more more=”References” less=”Hide references”]
  1. Payne, E., DeAraugo, J., Bennett, P., McGreevy, P., 2015. Exploring the existence and potential underpinnings of dog-human and horse-human attachment bonds. Behavioural Processes 125, pp114-121. DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2015.10.004
  2. Topal, J., Miklosi, A., Csanyi, V., Doka, A., 1998. Attachment behavior in dogs (Canis familiaris): A new application of Ainsworth’s (1969) Strange Situation Test. Journal of Comparative Psychology 112, 219-229.
  3. Horn, L., Huber, L., Range, F., 2013a. The importance of the secure base effect for domestic dogs – Evidence from a manipulative problem-solving task. PLOS ONE 8. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065296
  4. Odendaal, J.S.J., Meintjes, R.A., 2003. Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs. Veterinary Journal 165, 296-301.
  5. Handlin, L., Hydbring-Sandberg, E., Nilsson, A., Ejdeback, M., Jansson, A., Uvnas-Moberg, K., 2011. Short-term interaction between dogs and their owners: Effects on oxytocin, cortisol, insulin and heart rate-An exploratory study. Anthrozoos 24, 301-315.
  6. Barker, S.B., Wolen, A.R., 2008. The benefits of human-companion animal interaction: a review. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education 35, 487–495.
  7. Schneider, A.A., Rosenberg, J., Baker, M., Melia, N., Granger, B., Biringen, Z., 2014. Becoming relationally effective: high-risk boys in animal-assisted therapy. Human-animal Interaction Bulletin 2, 1–18.
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