Friday, February 10, 2012


"The attribution of a human form or behavior to an animal."

Generally animal professionals will discourage people from being anthropomorphic about their pets since it doesn't allow humans to recognize that animals have very different needs, behaviors and responses to situations than humans. Anthropomorphism can cause people to call a cat lazy because he sleeps up to 18 hours a day. While 18 hours of sleeping each day is excessive for a human, it's quite normal for a cat.

Anthropomorphism can even be dangerous -- we humans show affection and love through wrapping our arms around the backs or neck of another and holding them close. This is what we call a hug. However dogs don't interpret this action the same way we do. A dog who puts his chin or paw over the shoulder or back of another dog is displaying status seeking behavior. When we hug dogs they don't interpret it as affection -- but either as our attempt to show our status, or as a way for us to restrain them.

Most dogs do not like to be hugged, but will tolerate it from the people they live with. Many will even tolerate it from those they've just met. Regardless, it's not a good idea to hug a dog that doesn't belong to you. Not only is it a good way to get bit in the face from a dog who doesn't want to tolerate hugging from someone they don't know well, but it's disrespectful to the dog as well. After all -- you wouldn't think it was polite if a stranger came running up to you in the street and threw their arms around your neck, would you?

In some cases anthropomorphism can be a good thing, however. The last sentence of my last paragraph is a good example of this -- comparing your own discomfort, fear or anger at having a stranger approach and hug you to what a dog may be feeling in the same circumstance can be useful in helping people relate to and feel empathy for their animals.

Recently a morning news anchor in KUSA-TV in Denver was interviewing the owner of a dog who had been rescued from an icy river the day before. The dog was also present in the studio. I've embedded video of that encounter below -- but full disclosure before you watch it -- the news anchor does get bit by the dog at the end and it may be disturbing.

The day before the interview the dog experienced a traumatic event. The next morning he was taken to a television studio and waited for 45 minutes to an hour -- during which time he was in an unfamiliar environment filled with equipment he'd most likely never seen before, and approached by strangers.

Then he was taken onto a news set with harsh lighting and cameras pointed at him. A woman he didn't know got in his space and rapidly ran her hands back and forth repeatedly, while his owner held on to his collar so he couldn't get away from her had he wanted to. At the end, this complete stranger moved towards his face with her mouth (trying to kiss him). This is the point where she was bit.

Anthropomorphism is useful in this situation. How many of us are at our best and are at our most tolerant during times of stress? The opposite is more likely -- when stressed we need extra space and the last thing we need is for additional stressful situations. This dog, had he been asked and been able to answer, most likely would have preferred to stay at home that morning, rather than go on a news show.

Removing the anthropomorphism again, I'd like you to take note of a few things that went on during the video footage -- should you choose to watch it, as I think it's helpful for non-dog professionals to be able to be able to see some of the non-verbal communication signals that dogs use to communicate stress. The dog was frequently flicking his tongue, was panting heavily, at one point (at about 11 seconds) his mouth closes and he freezes for a split second, and he turns his head away from her (about 18 seconds). These are all warning signs that the dog is uncomfortable and stressed. Right before the bite -- as she moves her face into his he freezes again for a split second before he bites her.

While this is a horrible situation and the news woman was badly injured by it (she required plastic surgery to repair her torn lip), I think it helps to remind us that dogs are animals and we need to not make assumptions about how we interact with them.

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