As we live alongside animals in our day-to-day lives there comes with it the unavoidable innate tendency that we are all guilty of – anthropomorphism.
[Anthropomorphism (def): the attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human beings].
In doing so, we erroneously think of animals as possessing human-like qualities and not as non-human animals with their own unique behaviours driven by their own distinct function. We all fall victim to this – myself included.
You arrive home emotionally and physically drained after a long day at work to be greeted with your happy-go-lucky dog trying to do all they can to make you happy. Well of course they know you needed love after your hard day.
Your cat turns her back to you after you try to call her over. She is ignoring you on purpose because she truly is upset with you right now.
You get the car keys in your hand to prepare your journey to bring your dog to the veterinarian. You see your dog curling up in the corner because he knows he has to go get his vaccinations and he rather stay home.
These are all examples of how we anthropomorphize our animals on a daily basis. This ability is considered to be an instinctive tendency of human psychology, however, this tendency over-simplifies animal behaviour. Without proper understanding of your companion animal your ability to maintain and improve it’s welfare and quality of life is limited.
Anthropomorphism can often lead to the development of behaviour problems in your companion animals. For instance, dogs that suffer from separation anxiety typically have this behaviour exacerbated by their owners treating their dog as if they have human-like awareness, e.g. by giving them too much attention at home and giving a big goodbye before leaving the house.
You arrive home emotionally and physically drained after a long day at work to be greeted with your happy-go-lucky dog trying to do all they can to make you happy. Well of course they adore you! The best things always happen whenever their favorite human is around.
Your cat turns her back to you after you try to call her over. She is either being distracted by something else more desirable in the opposite direction or simply does not wish to come over due to the presence of an undesired stimuli near your general area.
You get the car keys in your hand to prepare your journey to bring your dog to the veterinarian. You see your dog curling up in the corner because he wants to rest and that corner provides the most warmth.
As you can see, there always exists alternative explanations for the motivation behind your animal’s behaviours. We tend to label human behaviours discretely based on our own subjective experiences, e.g. sitting down simply because you are tired. However, both yourself and your pet’s behaviour have been formed through years of evolutionary processes. Companion animals perform behaviours developed through the domestication process and also from their evolutionary ancestors.
From a researchers point of view, the idea that we can never truly understand why an animal does or doesn’t do something is fascinating. In fact, the possibility of approaching an answer to the unanswerable question is what drives animal behaviour research – at least I know that’s what drives me.
To conclude, I will leave you with these words of thought to take home:
Be weary of labeling your animal’s current emotional or physical state in relation to how you would feel or act if you were in their situation – respect their species and appreciate that they are driven by different factors.
Try not to over-simplify your animal’s behaviour. The motivations and function behind the behaviours that you see every day are likely not as simple as you think.
When you are sitting with your dog or cat, or whatever companion animal you live with, always have an open mind and never forget to appreciate the mystery that will never truly detach itself from their being.