We all love our dogs. In fact, some of us probably love all dogs. The bond between human and canine can be so close that it might seem we can read each other’s thoughts and feelings. While this is true to some extent, the fact is that dogs are not people; they don’t behave, react, or process information the same way we do. And sometimes the result is like the famous line from “Cool Hand Luke,” “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Here are several ways humans let anthropomorphism get in the way of good communication with our dogs.
1. Your dog probably doesn’t like to be hugged. Sad, but true. While dogs may not say it in so many words, dog professionals will tell you to look at their behavior when they’re being hugged. Most dogs yawn or lick their lips — signs of discomfort or anxiety. Or they may pin their ears back or show the whites of their eyes. You may find it hard to resist hugging, even hug your dog all the time. But chances are he’s tolerating it, not delighting in it.
2. Dogs don’t care for being patted on the head. It’s a natural human move to reach down and pat a dog’s head. But look at the dog’s body language, and you’ll see some signs of avoidance: lowering the head, stepping or ducking away, anxiety-produced yawning or lip-licking, putting his ears back, and what’s called whale eye, which is showing the whites of his eyes. This is especially good to remember when meeting a strange dog.
3. Unlike human friends and loved ones, dogs don’t get angry with us. You come home to chewed up furniture or an accident. Or your dog has started barking at you for what seems like no reason. He’s not mad at you; he lives in the moment and doesn’t plot payback for something you’ve done. Chances are he’s bored or has been alone too long. Dogs need a variety of different types of mental and physical stimulation, and some breeds crave human contact. Left alone too long, ignored, or missing playtime, he may find other, more destructive outlets.
4. Dogs don’t feel guilty. You know the look: you come home to a chewed-up shoe, an upended garbage can, or an accident on the floor. You say the typical things, “Bad dog, shame on you!” And then, you get the look. Because we tend to attribute human emotions to dogs, we think the dog feels guilty. But look closely at his body language: that isn’t guilt, it’s fear. He’s responding to your posture and tone with typical anxiety or fear reactions: whale eyes, cowering, sudden lip-licking or yawning, pinning his ears back.
5. We rationalize a dog’s bad behavior. For example, your dog sits in your lap and growls or snaps at anyone who comes close. You may think it’s cute or that the dog is “just protecting me.” Or, your dog jumps excitedly on anyone entering the house. You think that’s an adorable way to greet someone. Wrong, these are behavior issues and should be addressed.
6. Your dog will probably not “grow out” of bad behavior. Puppies are inherently adorable, and it’s often difficult to see their behavior as anything other than cute puppy antics. If a puppy learns that begging for food gets him a delicious treat or that growling at visitors is treated as if it’s a cute trick, he won’t suddenly unlearn these behaviors as an adult dog. He’ll keep at it, unless you train him not to.
The bond between human and dog is undeniable, and there have actually been scientific studies of canine brain activity that go a long way toward explaining canine behavior, thinking, and the canine bond with humans. Our dogs can love us as much as we love them, can bring us joy, comfort us when we’re sad, join us in favorite activities, and even protect us from danger. But they’re not human. Learning to understand the way they communicate, and to read their body language will make your relationship with your dog easier and even more rewarding.