Saturday, March 5, 2016

"Humanization" of dogs: The pros and cons

This is Brain from one of my favorite television shows.
He is a very good example of a humanized dog. He
is actually very over-humanized.


In recent years, dogs have increasingly become part of our families. People love their dogs and tend to treat them as people. I think this is, in large part, due to the way that dogs bond with people. This tendency to bond with people and become faithful companions is why dogs have become known as, "man's best friend".

We share our living space with dogs. Dogs make good companions. 

People dress their dogs in facsimiles of human clothing. Unfortunately, we tend to think of them as little people with four legs and a tail. 

Pros of the humanization movement:

There are some very good things that have come out of this movement to make our dogs part of our families.

This is me and a blue tick hound named
Joe. The picture was taken in 1982
When I was growing up (in the 1970s  in Georgia) most dogs lived outside for their entire lives. We had fenced in backyards or dog runs. Many dogs roamed freely outside in the more rural areas. We loved our dogs back then, but, they were not generally thought of as family members. Many folks used their dogs for hunting or for herding. This is not a bad thing but the dogs were rarely thought of as family members.

Veterinary care was generally just for rabies vaccines and for injuries or severe sickness. Generally flea and tick control was not nearly as good as it is today. 

Dogs were generally not as healthy and in my experience, the lifespans were noticeably shorter. I knew of very few healthy senior dogs.

The way we fed dogs was much different as well. We used some dog food but it was always supplemented by scraps that we had left over from our meals. There was very little real effort to ensure that dogs ate a balanced and healthy diet.

With this humanization of dogs, dogs are generally much better cared for and have a longer life span. That is a really great thing!

Please understand, I don't think that this trend of having our dogs play a larger role in our lives is a bad thing. The Lovely Shane and I have a tenancy to project certain human aspects incorrectly onto our dogs. It is sometimes a bit of a struggle to realize that our dogs are really, in many ways quite different from us as adult human beings.

Some of the "toddlers". Two of these are former fosters
and two are permanent members of our pack.
The Lovely Shane has, quite correctly, pointed out that adult and senior dog behavior is more closely analogous to human toddler behavior. As always, there is much wisdom and validity to her point. However, as with most analogies, this one is not exact. While human toddlers grow up and their behavior changes in many significant ways, the dog's behavior does not change in the same ways. This is an important thing to remember in order to set your dog up for success in training. You must set your expectations correctly and to do this it is important to understand that dogs do not mature in the same ways that we do and they do not think exactly like people think. Dogs can be very intelligent but their minds work differently than do ours. For this reason, I think the over-humanization of dogs can prove to be a great hindrance to your training efforts and ultimately to your relationship to your dog.

Cons of the humanization movement:

While I love my dogs and they are absolutely part of our family, I understand that dogs are very different from people. It is important that you as a dog parent(or owner, or handler) understand this as well.

I am convinced that many, if not most, of the behavioral problems that we have with our dogs is the result of our misunderstanding of the fact that dogs are not people. I know this seems simple. I also know that I see the results of this fundamental misunderstanding quite frequently.

Our dogs, while great and loyal companions, are not our peers. They look to us for leadership.

The results of one of Copper's most notable
trash can incidents.
You have perhaps heard it stated that dog's live in the moment. This is a popular saying of dog trainers with television shows. I think it is over-stated at times but it is, indeed, true. For instance, dogs do not always immediately link cause to effect. Sometimes this link seems to never be complete. For example, my demo dog, Copper loves to sniff through the trash and eat any items that he finds interesting regardless of whether they are dangerous to him. This happens, in large part, due to his instinct as a Beagle. He is lead by his nose. He is a very well behaved dog but, the allure of fresh smelly trash is overwhelming to him at times. For that reason we go to great lengths to keep him, and the rest of our scent hounds, out of trash. We do this mostly by making the trash physically inaccessible.  However, there are times in which our best efforts fail. Copper has, in the past, eaten treasures from the trash that have made him sick. He does not, however, seem to link the eating of the trash to his tummy ache. 

Dogs are very much dependent upon us humans. This seems to be an emotional as well as physical dependence. We must remember that dogs communicate differently than we humans communicate. Dogs do not use much verbal communication. So called "body language" is very much a part of their communications. It plays a much bigger role than verbal communication. The dog consistently looks to your body language for his cues. The dog notice subtle differences. I believe this is how my dogs often realize that I am not feeling well and try to comfort me. They notice subtle differences in the way that I interact with them and others. 

This aspect of their communication is important to remember when dealing with anxiety in dogs. For instance, if a dog is afraid of thunder, you should not be overly affectionate with him when he is scared. In other words, do not act like you are reacting to the thunder as well. If you react, it tends to reinforce his anxiety. To us, this may seem counter-intuitive, but it is true. It serves as an illustration of one of the many ways that dogs are different from humans. Over-humanization may lead us to react to the dog in a way that actually does not help him.

Eating is another of the many areas in which your dog is quite different from you. We love the
These are peanut butter and jelly
duplex dog cookies. We used to sell
these on the treat bar at Petco. Dogs love the
peanut butter and I like the taste as well.
taste of food. Our taste buds are very refined and sensitive in comparison to our dog. The dog does not get all that much enjoyment from the taste of the food. It is actually the odor that the dog enjoys. Dogs do not have a need to chew their food nearly as much as we do. Their saliva actually works quite differently from ours. The main purpose of a dog's saliva, in regard to eating, is to lubricate the food. In people, the saliva begins the digestive process (at least that is my understanding). So, we have much more time to taste the food and we have better taste buds to taste. Therefore, much of the marketing of dog food for taste is really directed at the human consumer rather than the dog. This is also the reason that high value foods for a dog are generally very smelly and not really appealing to the human sense of smell or taste for that matter. Although, some of the high end dog biscuits are quite tasty! When I worked at Petco, we had a treat bar with bulk dog cookies. These were human grade food. Some of them tasted pretty good. It was also fun to see the look on customer's faces when I would eat them. However, the dogs like them more for the smell than the taste. My experience has been that the heavier the odor, the more the dog likes the treat. Also, the smellier ones that the dogs really enjoy are not all that tasty to my pallet.

I have not done exhaustive research on this particular subject. I am sure there are many other areas that I have neglected to cover here on both the pro and con sides. However, my point is that it behooves us as adopted dog parents to understand that while we share a significant bond with our dogs, they are, indeed very different from us.

This is a grain free food that Petco actually sells for
$80.99 in a 25.3 pound bag. When I worked there we
carried a similar food and actually sold about 3 bags a week.
In my humble and perhaps biased opinion, I think that this over-humanization of dogs is exacerbated by those who market their products to us. This is a fact of which we need to be aware in all of our purchasing decisions. A dog's dietary needs are quite different than our own. Please keep this in mind when choosing dog food. Dog food manufacturers many times attempt to capatilze on our tendencies to humanize our dogs. This is evident in the prevalence of  dog food alternatives that mirror closely the current dietary trends in humans. For instance there are vegetarian , grain free, and gluten free foods that are pricey and very heavily marketed. While I am certain there are some dogs that benefit from this type of diet due to relatively rare health issues, it is not necessarily good for the dog just because it is beneficial in people. For that reason, before you switch foods to address some perceived problem with your dog's health, it is my strong recommendation that you seek veterinary advice. Please avoid the temptation to seek this advice from those who have a vested interest in selling you the food. When I worked at Petco, we were trained in dog nutrition. However, that training was very heavily geared toward selling food and not so highly motivated by the true needs of the dog. Sales people are simply not experts in dog health. Neither are dog trainers in general. The true experts are those who went to medical school and have examined your dog. I am referring, of course, to your veterinarian.

I hope that this post has been helpful to you in your endeavor to better understand your dog.

If you have any training needs or questions please contact me.

Till next time 



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