The doorbell rings, and the family dog immediately begins to bark and growl. So many dog owners have experienced it, and chalked it up to a pet feeling protective of the home and the people inside. Dog trainer J.R. Johnson has experienced it, too — and has a very different reaction.
“People mistake that for protection, thinking the dog is protecting the house,” said Johnson, trainer at Charleston Dog Wizard. “But in most cases, the dog feels like they own the house. They’re not protecting it — they’re reacting someone else being in their kingdom, because the dog thinks it owns the house.”
It’s one way humans and their pets misunderstand one another, a disconnect that can manifest itself in growling at the front door, a dog licking a baby’s face, or even a cat’s widened pupils. The key to better understanding the behavior of your dog or cat might be to let animal instincts take over, and stop thinking so much like a human — and unknowingly bestowing those same qualities and emotions on the family pet.
It’s called anthropomorphizing, and it means bestowing human traits on non-humans, and it’s one of the biggest issues trainers face when they try to resolve behavioral issues — particularly in dogs. Recent studies have shown that indeed, dogs do feel something approaching love toward their owners. But humans often perceive nuzzling, licking, or even growling at the front door as signs of affection, when in the animal’s more primitive mind they mean something else.
“A lot of times, it’s very self-serving. They’re wanting something out of it,” said Jeff Schettler, CEO and police and military trainer at GA K9 South Carolina in Edisto Island. “Their behavior is to get you to do something. It’s not just because they love you and want to be around you. They also want something from you — a pet, a treat, their ball, something. A lot of times, humans will have a tendency to misinterpret the body language of what they assume is love and affection, but in some cases is manipulation.”
Eyes, ears and tail
Our animals may not be able to speak, but they still talk to us — through their body posture, or the position of features like the head, ears, and tail. A stressed dog is tense, with ears excessively forward or pinned back, pupils dilated, noticeable panting and a tail that doesn’t so much wag as flick back and forth. A dog alerted to a potential threat may hold its head high in the air, with ears perked up and tail up, as if trying to appear intimidating. A fearful dog won’t keep eye contact, will crouch low to the ground, will lick its lips and keep its tail between its legs.
“When you’re trying to address how a dog is feeling, look not just at whether the tail is wagging,” said trainer Susan Marett of Purely Positive Dog Training in Mount Pleasant. “Look at the whole body.”
But those physical clues can mean different things depending on how they’re combined. “You have to look at the picture in totality, and not just in certain elements. When you’re looking at body language, you’re looking at all of it combined. A tail set with one type of ears means one thing, while that same tail set with a completely different type of ears means something else,” Schettler said.
“They have emotions, but they’re not like us. They don’t exhibit things quite as complex as we do. Their emotions are very, very base. They’ll have fear, anger, anxiety, all those things, and the correspondent body language to go with it. But the thing to understand is, every dog is a little bit different, just like humans.”
Even cats give off physical clues — flat ears, dilated pupils and a fluffed-out tail when they’re upset or annoyed, a tail curled over the their backs or (depending on the breed) hooked like a shepherd’s crook if they’re happy, according to Mary Beth Dew, founder of Adopt Charleston Cats, a foster home network for felines from various Lowcountry animal shelters.
“Read their eyes, their ears, and their tails,” Dew said. “I think most people who know cats understand that. They definitely tell us what they’re thinking with one of those three things.”
Alpha in the pack
Schettler’s military and police clients undergo extensive training in dog behavior, because their lives may depend on reading how their canine partner reacts in a crisis situation. The average pet owner, though, figures things out as they go along, with perhaps some help from a program on Animal Planet. It all goes back to thinking too much like a human, and less like a dog.
“Humans have a tendency to put human feelings and human rationalizations into dogs. So as to what they think they’re seeing, I would say the average pet owner is wrong 50 percent of the time,” Schettler said. “This is how a lot of pets actually end up manipulating them into getting food or some type of reward, or sometimes displaying just really bad behavior.”
Cat owners aren’t immune from that attempted humanization, either. “I think it might even be more so with cats with it comes to behavior issues,” Dew said. “That’s where you get into the stereotype of a cat being aloof, or not caring about people or anything else. We can’t think of them that way.”
But it’s a difficult cycle to break, as Johnson knows. The anthropomorphizing can run deep — to the point where owners can have a difficult time with training, because they believe their animals are feeling human-like sadness during the process.
“I wouldn’t be a dog trainer if animals weren’t capable of emoting, of showing emotion,” Johnson said. “But for that reason, people will misread behavior in a way that often gets unhealthy. They will anthropomorphize and say, ‘I’m not going to follow this rule because of the emotional response my dog gives.’ They’re so close to the particular problem, they can’t be objective.”
Back to the scenario at the front door. When a dog barks at an arriving guest, a natural reaction is to herd it into another room and shut the door. “Now you’re suppressing the behavior,” Johnson said. “Teach the dog obedience, and that you’d prefer a different behavior, exactly like the alpha in the pack would, and the dog will adopt that behavior.”
It all goes back to thinking less like a human — and more like a dog.
“The dog wants your guidance and directive. That’s the relationship they’re seeking,” Schettler said. “... They need a leader, someone to tell them what to do. And when you have an owner who’s indecisive and doesn’t understand these things in a dog, then you can have a dog who’s aggressive and has a tendency to have problems.”