The concept of attributing dogs with human traits is nothing new. In fact, the ancient Greeks came up with a word for it around two thousand years ago: anthropomorphism.
As ever, the truth of the matter is not a case of black and white but subtle shades of grey. No doubt in another two thousand years as science advances and we discover more about DNA and the mysteries of the human and canine brain, the picture will develop into sharper focus. In the meantime, we must satisfy ourselves with some basic observations.
Let's start off on common ground. One thing that we all seem to agree on is that humans are at the top of the pile in terms of evolutionary sophistication. For obvious reasons we view ourselves as being the highest life form (although there is increasing alarm that we have totally lost touch with our basic instincts, if not totally lost the plot by endangering the very planet that sustains life as we know it.)
But I digress - back to common ground. We agree that as children, our mental capacity is not fully developed. We survive by our instincts and the basic needs to be fed, watered, sheltered and bonded in a family group where we defer to a natural hierarchy. When you think about it, this is how precisely how dogs survive.
Like children, dogs display the most basic instincts to rough and tumble, compete for toys and establish a natural pecking order. Inherent in this is the need for a parent or leader to set down boundaries and create order and stability out of chaos. Without this both child and dog feel insecure, and may well grow to display anti-social behaviour. You would responsibly bring a child up with love and discipline. Have consistent boundaries. Teach them what is safe and dangerous and what is sociable and unsociable. Dogs too need, love and discipline, consistent boundaries and to learn what is safe and dangerous, sociable and unsociable
Communicating with a child is not so very different from communicating with a dog. Young children like dogs, do not have the power of speech, so you have to work out alternative strategies to speech in order to get through to them. You will find that if you approach a dog in much the same way as you approach a child, life will be a whole lot easier for you. And the dog. Hopefully you will have worked out that praise is a far stronger motivator than punishment.
A positive approach
Take the example of the puppy that makes a puddle on the floor and the child that wets its bed. Neither have any learnt control of their bladder and are simply responding to the call of nature. Neither are being naughty or are in the wrong. Yelling at the child will only make it more stressed and therefore more likely to continue wetting the bed.
In exactly the same way if a puppy has an accident on the carpet shouting will only make it worse. In both cases the way to teach the right way is by praising the child and dog when they perform in the right place ie: the potty or the garden.
Setting an example
Let's take another example. If your daughter called you into her bedroom one evening, because she had seen a spider on her wall and was terrified, how would you react?
Would you go into her room and scream like a banshee, tell her how big and scary it was and then both run into the safety of your bed?
No, of course you wouldn't. You would go into her room, tell her that it was nothing to worry about . I tell mine that the little eight legged mini-beast has got lost and is scared. Then I (putting on a brave face) take the spider into the garden, release it and then dive for the vodka bottle. No matter how scary you find a situation, you try to not to transfer your fears to your child.
Here is a parallel with a dog. It is bonfire night, and your dog is quaking and panting . If you respond by physically reassuring him and/or try to soothe him with your voice, he will take this as confirmation that there is something wrong as you are also reacting to it.
This then becomes a habit and the dog will react to fireworks and other loud bangs such as thunder, in the same nervous way whether or not a human is present. You need to convey to him that the noise of the fireworks is not the Big Bang, just one of the odd ways human celebrate. How?
In both the child and dog fear situation you will all come out of it better if you behave as normally as possible. In the case of the spider you would calmly remove it. In the case of the fireworks you would try and diffuse the impact of the bangs by turning the television up, for instance, and appearing very relaxed.
So what about the similarities between dogs and adult humans?
It is widely acknowledged that there's nothing more than most dogs enjoy than a game of fetch. Have you ever asked yourself why?
Whilst our dogs may be domesticated they have not lost their natural instincts. As a puppy they have no choice but to react to a moving object. In order to survive, dogs need to hunt. In order to hunt, they must have a strong prey drive.
This prey drive is channelled into games of ‘fetch'. We gain much pleasure from playing ‘fetch' games with our dogs. Sometimes we may even become a little concerned if our dogs do not want to play these games.
How many human sports' involve chasing a moving object? How many of these games also involve people working as a team to ‘catch' these objects? Football, rugby, basketball, tennis, badminton etc. I could go on but you get the idea.
Why do we enjoy these games? Is it not because we too are instinctively striving for pecking order within the pack and following our predatory instincts?
‘No, no, no!' I hear you say. ‘We are a civilised, sophisticated race who have created theses games for our enjoyment. They are so different to the throw and fetch games our canine friends mindlessly enjoy.'
Don't kid yourself. Look also how football supporters revert to uninhibited child- like behaviour. At worst becoming hooligans and behaving quite literally like savage animals when they find themselves challenged or threatened by an opposing pack.
Or on a more positive note, how hundreds of thousand of fans, unrehearsed suddenly find one voice and break into a perfect heart-stopping rendition of “You'll Never Walk Alone”. Now there's a perfect example of a ‘pack call'.
We all enjoy the close relationship we have with our dogs. Maybe sometimes we don't realise quite how close we are.
How close are you to your dog?