Dogs, Cynology and Anthropomorphism


Cynology is the study of anything related to domestic dogs. It includes such subjects as the evolution of the dog, and its anatomy and physiology. It covers all aspects of general dog care such as feeding, training and breeding.

Anyone who owns a dog studies cynology in some way. Whenever they think about what they are feeding their dog for dinner, or when they take their canine companion to a training class, they are furthering their knowledge of their dog’s health and well being.

It is important that dog owners do learn about how to best care for their pet, but it is even more important for those who want to work with dogs. Why? A solid understanding of the physical and emotional needs of dogs will help you do your job better. Whatever your business, you will be able to quickly recognize when your canine client isn’t well, or isn’t happy. For example, pet sitters often have to deal with separation anxiety in the dogs they care for. If they are aware of the symptoms of this condition and how to manage it, the dogs in their care will be much happier, and this will result in repeat business for them.

The word “anthropomorphism” is quite a mouthful. It means attributing human characteristics to inanimate objects or animals. Anthropomorphism is widespread, with many people now referring to themselves as their dog’s mom or dad. It is responsible for  the proliferation of fashion outfits and accessories for our canine companions.

Dogs aren’t small furry people. They think differently, and are motivated by instinct and drive. They don’t pull the laundry off the washing line because they are angry at you for going out and leaving them alone. They do it because they are bored, and pulling on those colorful flapping clothes is fun.

Another good example of anthropomorphism is when a dog looks guilty when you come home because he has gone to the toilet on the floor. He is not guilty, he is acting submissive because he can interpret your body language – your tension, stomping and loud voice. Frans de Waal is an ethologist (one who studies animal behavior) and in his 1996 book “Good Natured”, he discusses an experiment that was done on a Siberian Husky. This dog shredded newspapers when her owner was out, and showed all the signs of being guilty when she was scolded on their return. Interestingly, when the owner shredded the newspapers themselves, and scolded their dog, her behavior was exactly the same. This suggests that she had made no connection between the shredded newspapers and her owner’s response.

There is another point that needs to be made about an owner getting angry at their dog when they come home to find puddles on the floor, or their new magazine in pieces. Dogs can’t make connections between events that are separated by time. If you come home and get angry at your dog for something he has done while you were out, he has no idea why you are cross, and he will ultimate learn to fear you. This is not good for your relationship with him.

If you do need to correct  your dog for his behavior, then you must do it immediately. Even a few minutes later is too late.

Another circumstance when anthropomorphism causes problems is when a dog is frightened. If a child is frightened, a pat or a hug will soothe and comfort them. If you do the same for your scared pooch, you are actually rewarding him for his behavior ie being frightened. The result is that he is likely to continue being scared. As a veterinarian, I am often faced with owners who pat and soothe their dog for snapping or growling at me. They hope that this will help their dog settle down, but they are actually increasing the likelihood that his behavior will continue.

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