By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT-FLE
Anthropomorphizing, attributing human emotions to non-human animals or objects, is part of the human experience. We all do it to varying degrees. For example, when someone describes their car as lazy or sick, they are being anthropomorphic. There is humour in saying your car is stupid or crazy; however, when people mention their dog cries or love them, the anthropomorphic nature of the statement can, and often does, create negative consequences for the pet.
It is also important to remember that humanizing dogs is not a bad thing. It can be a positive tool to help form strong bonds between humans and their pets. For example, talking to your dog warm and friendly can help create a strong sense of understanding and companionship between both parties. Similarly, referring to your dog with endearing pet names can be a way of expressing joy and affection. Overall, anthropomorphizing can be a powerful tool when used correctly.
In human development, anthropomorphism leads to empathy, especially during childhood. When toddlers start actively exploring their environment, they often come across dogs and learn, with their parents’ help, how to interact safely and compassionately with them. The anthropomorphic lesson eventually transfers over to the adult phase of development. People with genuine, empathetic beliefs are less likely to harm animals and their fellow humans when compared to apathetic individuals.
Understanding the difference between anthropomorphizing and reality is vital to providing the best care for your beloved pet. In my previous example, when a person says, my dog cried, the statement leads the owner to believe their dog can cry. In reality, dogs are physically incapable of such a feat. When dogs produce watery substances from their eyes, it usually indicates blocked lacrimal ducts to ensure that anthropomorphizing does not lead to healthcare concerns for the pet.
An excellent example of negative anthropomorphism can be seen everywhere on social media. Instead, focusing on the animal’s characteristics and unique personality traits is essential. For example, when we refer to our dog as being clever, we should remember that the dog’s behaviour is based on their instincts, not their ability to reason.
Similarly, when we refer to our dog as having anxiety, we should take into account the fact that animals, unlike humans, do not feel or experience the same emotions that we do. It is also essential to remember that while anthropomorphizing can express love and affection, it can also be a way of projecting our feelings onto our pets.
When Anthropomorphism Turns Into Projection
Anthropomorphism can transform into projecting. Anthropomorphism usually involves people expecting the dog to act and behave like themselves. Wrongfully attributing emotions to a dog can lead to confusion and frustration, resulting in the dog displaying behavioural issues. For example, if we are feeling stressed or anxious, it can be tempting to think that our pet is feeling the same way if we are feeling stressed or worried.
It is important to remember that dogs are not humans in furry suits. They have their own unique needs and language that we must respect and take into account. A person’s experience dictates his or her projection, transforming the dog into a vicious killer when its behaviour displays the opposite. People often claimed that Albear looked dangerous, yet he greeted them with a plush toy in his mouth, wiggling his bum and wagging his tail. Nothing about his behaviour signified aggression or mean behaviour.
Anthropomorphizing can be a powerful tool if used correctly. Not only can it create strong bonds between humans and their pets, but it can also be a way of expressing love and affection. However, it is essential to remember the difference between anthropomorphizing and projecting to ensure that both humans and dogs are comfortable and happy.
How to Spot Anthropomorphic Projections
The best way to avoid anthropomorphic projections onto dogs is to take a class on dog language, a.k .a. behaviour. Once you understand dog behaviour, you can use the dog as your mirror and reflect the perception toward yourself. For example, if you say, my dog likes to share his food, one must know that dogs are social animals; thus, bringing food back to their dens for other members is considered normal behaviour. Sharing and providing are different terms. The former implies empathy, while the latter ensures survival.
My example demonstrates the deceptive trap anthropomorphism lays. Sharing is a projection in which a person might see the action from lacking something during childhood. Conversely, providing is a social concept founded on instinct. While subjectivity nourishes anthropomorphism, objectivity is the key to correcting a projection, anthropomorphic or not.
I am not asking you to stop loving your dog or saying it loves you. My aim is to make you think and ask yourself, what is love? From there, review the situation objectively and create the necessary changes. I know my dog doesn’t love me. Still, she undoubtedly displays Darwin’s eight basic animal emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger, trust, disgust, surprise, and anticipation.
- Mota-Rojas D, Mariti C, Zdeinert A, Riggio G, Mora-Medina P, Del Mar Reyes A, Gazzano A, Domínguez-Oliva A, Lezama-García K, José-Pérez N, Hernández-Ávalos I. Anthropomorphism and Its Adverse Effects on the Distress and Welfare of Companion Animals. Animals (Basel). 2021 Nov 15;11(11):3263. doi: 10.3390/ani11113263. PMID: 34827996; PMCID: PMC8614365.
- Harrison, Marissa A. and Hall, A. E. (2010). Anthropomorphism, empathy, and perceived communicative ability vary with phylogenetic relatedness to humans. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 4(1), p. 34-48. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0099303.
- Ekman P. Darwin's contributions to our understanding of emotional expressions. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 Dec 12;364(1535):3449-51. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0189. PMID: 19884139; PMCID: PMC2781895.
- Lamb, J. (2016). Why Do Animals Share? Natural selection should weed out the do-gooders and leave only egoists, but animals share just the same. Jstor Daily. Retrieved from https://daily.jstor.org/why-do-animals-share/