Anthropomorphism, Double-Edged Sword

I am an animal-OP Ed Siebert NYT 03.09

September 15, 2010

Joyce Kesling, CDBC

Anthropomorphism, Double-Edged Sword

Why understanding this is useful in applications of companion behavior modification and training!

The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.  We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.

Anthropomorphism describes attributions of human qualities including higher order behavior to non-human subjects.  Anthropomorphism has a long history dating back to the Greek philosopher Xenophanes during the 5th century BC.  Its use included mythology and historical religious records questioned its use in describing God in human form, the scientific community continues to question and debate its use when describing non-human animal behavior.

In spite of its questionable use, Kennedy said (1992), “the tendency to be anthropomorphic seems endemic to human beings and can never be eliminated” (Rivas & Burghardt, 2002).  The duality of anthropomorphism occurs when we fail to recognize we are using our personal perceptions and/or conclusions when developing opinion.  The most common area for debate has been within the scientific community.  During the last century, beginning with Darwin much has changed and sciences once divided over the issue have come closer together recognizing other species may be more similar to us than further away as some expressed over the years.

However, the use of anthropomorphism will remain a concern for scientists who need to be objective when studying non-human behavior.  In addition, its use can be problematic when pet owners inadvertently and/or unknowingly apply inappropriate actions and/or labels to companion pets.  Additional concern exists for pet owners and those practicing as animal trainers and behaviorists who may be evaluating behavior problems, unless sufficiently trained and educated with specific species.

Should anthropomorphism be acceptable in the scientific study of animal behavior?  Frans de Waal said, “even though anthropomorphism carries the risk that we overestimate animal mental complexity” would we be “entirely comfortable with the opposite” creating a gap between ourselves and other animals” (de Waal, 2001).

The focus of this essay concerns the advances we are making in understanding companion dogs using an ethologist’s perspective and why this is important for those of us who study, train, and evaluate dog’s behavior in the context of companion dog ownership.

Differences in studying behavior

Based on a growing body of evidence regarding consciousness, awareness and empathy in other species denying anthropomorphism could have negative effects in the overall study of animal behavior.  Its acceptance has changed after decades of strict adherence by comparative psychologists and some ethologists when Donald Griffin’s writings seemed to encourage “unfettered and untestable speculation about consciousness and awareness in non-human animals” (Rivas & Burghardt, 2002).

The rift between early psychologists and ethologists derived from differences in both scientific method and testing.  Early psychologists confined their study of behavior in laboratories using laws based on input and output and controlling for environmental variables.  Contrasted by this were ethologists who insisted on studying their subjects through their “inner workings” including “neural and physiological mechanisms” how they adapted and evolved in their natural environment (Gould, 1982).

Burghardt (2002) suggests anthropomorphism can be a “legitimate” and even “creative” avenue for scientists in developing hypotheses followed by rigorous testing.  Some scientists argue the “burden of proof should be shifted from those who recognize similarity to those who deny it” (deWaal, 2001).


For the ethologist having a detailed knowledge of behavior is important for two reasons.  The first understands how characteristics develop between the subject’s genetics and their environment; this is the subject’s phenotype.  The second is developing ways for measuring the subject’s behavior under these conditions (Miklosi, 2007).

Ethologists developed a nice way of compiling a subject’s behavior called an ethogram.  The ethogram divides behavior into units describing its functional systems and behavior patterns.  Good ethologists then observe their subjects in their natural environment asking questions like “why does this animal behave as it does” (Miklosi, 2007, Lindsay, 2001).

Dog ethograms exist (Lindsay, 2001) and according to Miklosi (2007) are rarely used to describe “spontaneous behavior of dogs in their natural environment.”  However, in this context this concern has more to do with further study on the cognitive abilities of dogs when comparing behavior spontaneity in a laboratory and “wild” environment.  In spite of this difference applied in this context, household dogs do benefit when owners are provided with knowledge concerning their dogs behavior derived from the dog ethogram.

The simplest explanation

Morgan’s Canon, attributed to C. Lloyd Morgan (1894), a British psychologist.  Those studying animal behavior currently use this Canon.  It is probably the most widely quoted statement in psychology according to de Waal (2001).

Morgan’s Canon states that in no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one that stands lower on the psychological scale (de Waal, 2001).

According to de Waal (2001), early psychologists interpreted the canon, as the “safest assumption about animals is that they are blind actors in a play that only we understand.”  However, de Waal says Morgan never meant his canon held so strictly and did not believe animals are simpleminded.  He later wrote a rider suggesting there is nothing wrong with interpreting the behavior of another species if it has provided “independent signs of high intelligence.”

Morgan’s Canon resembles the principle of parsimony called Occam’s razor saying, “a simple explanation should be preferred over a complex explanation of a phenomenon, other things being equal.”  Parsimony is a less is better concept generally used in science as a preference for using the least complex explanation for an observation.  This conclusion not easily derived, requires a rather rigorous study known as the scientific method.  According to the scientific method, it is not a recipe; it requires intelligence, imagination and creativity in an effort to apply observable data to formulate or further define hypotheses (Wikipedia, 2008).

Intelligent, creative, imaginative humans & bambification!

If permitted, can intelligent, creative, and imaginative human individuals using non-anthropocentric points of view, provide beginning points for scientists and researchers to form hypotheses or conclusions regarding behavior in non-human animals.

Frans de Waal (2001) cautions, suggesting the implication from the ‘bambification’ of animals’ has damaged our view of what really occurs in nature.

The continued “bambification” of animals has detrimental effects on domestic dogs.  An erroneous label or projection has serious potential for harming the relationship between human and dog.

According to deWaal, (2001) “bambification” is the entertainment industries business stripping away animal’s bad characteristics while endowing them with “baby appeal” using cartoon characters with “enlarged eyes and rounded infantile features” that provoke human care giving endearment and protectiveness.

What we see is not what naturally occurs in nature nor does it reflect how dogs and other domestic pets really view their worlds.  This is complicated further because human society if far more removed from the natural world.  Frans de Waal (2001) says, companion dogs are “generally nice, but neither to their prey nor to invaders of their territory.”  Considering aggression accounts for the majority of behavior cases seen by both veterinary behaviorists and certified specialists, we can conclude the need to be realistic and careful when it comes to crediting or attributing our dogs with behavior that we know little or nothing about.

Professional behaviorists and community expresses caution

Over the last several years dog training and problem solving has reached an all time high, but with negative consequences attributed to a few pop culture dog trainers dominating our televisions and media.  We are working hard now to turn back to the positive training advancements and reverse this negative influence.

The worst offender, National Geographic’s “Dog Whisperer” aired for two seasons until Nicholas Dodman director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Dr. Andrew Luescher, DVM, Ph. D, DACVB a certified applied animal behaviorist and diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists were recognized and heard.  Dodman said, “we’ve written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years” however, the public had embraced dog training using more dominance, flooding and force based methods. 

In the July/August 2006 issue Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research published an article titled “Good trainers: How to identify one and why this is important to your practice of veterinary medicine” (JVB, 2006).  Dr. Luescher and others further defined the solution with articles titled “The role and responsibilities of behavior technicians in behavioral treatment and therapy” and “The role and limitations of trainers in behavior treatment and therapy” (JVB, 2007).

The study of dogs and their cognitive abilities continue to grow.  This is a good thing since understanding how dogs think and behave scientifically helps us train and understand them better when we encounter problems.  We have permission to speculate about our observations with an understanding we are looking at a completely different animal with their own view of the World and if we are going to live together in harmony, we need to take the time to understand them for whom they are.

To complete my musing on anthropomorphism the following applicable quotes were provided by Dr. Myrna Milani, B.S., and DVM.  This essay was started August 20th 2008!

“Good observers are those who can see what shouldn’t be there when it is and don’t see what isn’t there when it should be.”

“Basic ethological truism states that no animal behavior has any meaning unless we know the context in which it occurs.”

“Because context provides valuable clues to the motivation underlying the display, this avoids the trap of assigning negative emotions to the behavior and, by extension, to the animal.”

Responsible Dog and Cat

Training and Behavior Solutions

Joyce Kesling, CDBC

Professional Dog Trainer APDT

Certified Dog Behavior Consultant IAABC

Sarasota FL 34277

Copyright all rights reserved 2010

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