Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Anthropomorphize This!

Those who claim to know things tell us we mustn't anthropomorphize when discussing dogs.  Yeah, well, there's an argument against picking your nose in the car while waiting at a stop light.  Both no-no's have a purpose.

Presumably the good and useful purpose of nose picking need not be explained at length.  Let's proceed to the matter of anthropomorphizing a dog's behavior.  Consider the shy dog.  Like the shy person, the shy dog generally approaches social encounters one of two ways: retreat or attack. 

In retreat mode, the dog and the person avoids the social encounter to spare themselves the ordeal that shyness can be. The dog hides in the basement while his owner entertains in the living room.  The person declines an invitation and stays home.

The alternative reaction is attack mode or just plain being aggressive.  For the dog this may involve growling, showing teeth, or even biting.  For the person it may involve obnoxious jokes and bombastic soliloquies.  Sounds like overkill, no?  That's why anthropomorphizing can be effective to explain dog behavior.  Now we can understand why the dog is bearing his teeth or snapping- he's shy and afraid!  Just like the person who talks too loud at a party.  He's self conscious and is overcompensating by being a loudmouth jerk.

It turns out that anthropomorphizing is a good old common sense way to explain dog behavior.  Understanding makes it easier to help.  Shy dogs, like shy people, can learn to handle their shyness.  That awful feeling probably never fully goes away but it can be controlled.  Who hasn't felt the fear and done it anyway- and lived to tell about it?  We can help our shy brethren to feel the fear and do it anyway too.

The retreating shy dog is best left to his own curiosity or desire for companionship.  Leave the door open.  The dog can come up from the basement and peek into the living room on his own.  Ask your guests not to make a fuss over his presence.  Little by little the dog will join in.  Like the shy person who sits alone on the sofa at a party, he puts himself in the mix.  Eventually somebody will sit down and share in a pleasant conversation.  Slow and steady wins over the shy.

The attack style shy dog can be encouraged to join in the fun in the same way.  One coveat:  be sure the  guests understand the importance of giving the dog some room.  Rushing up to the dog and cooing, "oh aren't you so sweet!  Don't be shy!" and getting in the dog's face is not going to help and may get somebody hurt.  What's needed is the same treatment other party guests give the loudmouth shy guy.  Ignore.  He eventually realizes the pushy strategy doesn't work and tries something else.  Hopefully he goes with the be yourself method, that's a winner.

Shyness is an uncomfortable feeling.  Ask a shy dog.  He'll tell you about it.


  1. I love speaking to dogs every chance I get.

  2. The last couple of paragraphs demonstrate where anthropomorphizing can be dangerous, though. If we liken a shy dog to behaving like a shy human, then we naturally want to react to that shy dog the same we would a shy person — perhaps by reaching out to comfort them in reassuring tones and a gentle, supportive pat on the back. For a dog, though, shyness and fear has to be given the response you detailed — on the dog's terms, not on the human's. A reassuring touch may garner a bite, a reassuring tone directed at the dog may send him into a tizzy.

    People do this all the time with my dog. I tell them he's fearful of new people and can become aggressive as a result, and most people want to respond immediately by kneeling down, reaching out to my dog and baby talking him to try and "make friends" so he can feel "comfortable around them" — doing three things in the process that are acceptable between and amongst humans (think reassuring voice, touch, posturing), but that are guaranteed to unnerve my dog even more and spark threat displays.

    I suppose it depends what the individual's reaction to a shy person would be. If you routinely ignore shy people, you're more than welcome in my home. If you're the type to reach out to them, stay away from my house until you can learn to behave differently around a shy dog than a shy human. But why rely on your human knowledge when there's so much you can learn about how dogs communicate?

    I have no issue with "humanisms" and often make some comparisons myself, but I don't let "my dog acts like a human" translate into "my dog thinks like a human." Dogs just aren't humans, but they're awesome and wonderful in all their own ways.

  3. I know what you mean, Karen. I have a shy dog. After all the books and seminars and observation and discussions with experts, I feel I understand my dogs better.

    Trouble is, I haven't been able to get those well meaning guests to understand without saying it in people terms.

    It helps to be bi-lingual!

  4. I love talking to dogs every chance I get too, Eve!

  5. Lynn, you must be nice about it when your guests come over. I pull out the scare tactics and tell them to do exactly as I say or else the dog will bite them.

    Maybe that's why I have fewer and fewer guests these days ...