I’ve been reading a lot about anthropomorphism lately so I thought I’d share with you some of the things I’ve learned. Any time you can throw around a word with six syllables you’re bound to impress everyone within earshot. Talking about anthropomorphism is sure to make you a hit at all the backyard barbecues this spring! You’ll want to practice saying it a few times first. It’s actually pretty easy to pronounce if you just remember to put the stress or emphasis in “anth” and “morph”.

So what the heck does this tongue twister of a word actually mean? Anthropomorphism is the act of projecting human characteristics on a non-human entity. This non-human entity can be either an animal or an inanimate object. 

An example of anthropomorphizing an inanimate object is the person who says, “I can’t get my email because my computer hates me”. This person has projected the human quality of having emotions onto their computer. The person probably doesn’t really believe that her computer “hates” her, but often we anthropomorphize things that we don’t understand in order to express our frustration in term s we do understand. This seems especially common when we are frustrated with computers or other technology that we don’t fully grasp.

Another example of anthropomorphism is the person who says, “My dog was mad at me for two days after I brought him home from the groomer.” It might seem like the dog was mad, but behaviorists tell us dogs don’t get angry in this way. The closest thing to anger we would see in a dog is the rage that a dog can show in conjunction with defensive or aggressive behavior. We can safely say that Fido isn’t actually holding a grudge against his owner because she had him groomed. What is more likely is that Fido is adjusting to his new smell, shorter hair and maybe the stress he experienced from being groomed. It will be easier for Fido to adjust to his new haircut if his owner ignores the “grumpiness” and just continues with normal routine. Reacting to Fido’s “anger” will only make his adjustment more difficult.

Another customer told me that their dog always runs outside after a groom and rolls in the first stinky cow-pie she can find. The owner of this dog told me that the dog does this to “get even with him for making the dog take a bath”. Most of you have already guessed what is really going on here. This dog lives on a ranch. After a bath she probably feels a little weird because of the new smell she has. It’s perfectly natural for her to reacquire her accustomed scent by having a nice roll in some fragrant cow-poo. We could say that she is just putting on her special cologne, but that would be another anthropomorphism, wouldn’t it? A better approach might be to avoid scented soaps and colognes, possibly making the dog’s adjustment to the bath a bit less dramatic.

A classic example that is not quite so obvious is the guy who had a German Shepherd that had a reputation for getting in the garbage. This guy (we’ll call him Joe) thought his dog knew when he was being bad because as soon as he saw Joe, he would run out of the room with his tail between his legs. Joe thought the dog was feeling guilty because he knew better than to get in the trash while Joe was gone. 

An experienced trainer told Joe to try an experiment. He told Joe to spread garbage on the kitchen floor while the dog was outside so the dog wouldn’t see what Joe was doing. When Joe brought the dog back inside, the dog had the same reaction, he ran from the room with his tail between his legs. 

This shows that the dog wasn’t actually feeling guilty. He just reacted by running away because he knew that garbage on the floor was BAD NEWS!

The sad part of this story is that Joe had been yelling at this dog for two years about getting in the garbage. He had assumed the dog knew why he was yelling. His assumption was based on anthropomorphism. He believed that the dog’s response was all about feeling guilty. The experiment shows that the dog just knew that garbage on the floor made Joe really angry.

The dog didn’t think about this while he was frolicking in the trash looking for tasty morsels. Joe’s anthopomorphization of the dog prevented him from seeing what was actually going on. The dog really didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to get in the trash. He just knew that Joe got really mad when there was trash on the floor. Joe could have solved this by being proactive and teaching the dog to stay out of the trash rather than yelling at the dog after the fact.

Anthropomorphism isn’t always a bad thing. By projecting human emotions and other characteristics on our pets, we remind ourselves how important they are to us. On the other hand anthropomorphism can limit our view of animals. By anthropomorphizing a dog we may fail to see his animal characteristics, needs and responses.

Ethologists and others who study animal behavior used to think anthropomorphism was all bad. That stance seems to have shifted a little bit in recent years. While it’s still important for science to view animals without projecting too many human characteristics, those who study animal behavior have actually discovered that animals have many qualities that were once reserved for humans alone.

We’ve come a long way since the 17th century French philosopher, Rene’Descartes, told us that animals were basically machines with no thoughts or emotions. I have to assume that Descartes never owned a dog, otherwise I think his dog would have been really angry with him for that theory. Then again, perhaps I’m just anthropomorphizing?