Anthropomorphism always makes me think of Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, or The thirty-three thieves thought that they thrilled the throne throughout Thursday: Those sequences of words that twist your tongue. A scientific term that people in the world of dog sports translate as it pleases them. In this case, a dog wearing a fashionable coat, a rhinestone collar and or harness, which is kept in someone’s arms and kissed like a baby the day of baptism, photographed on a pillow of Brocade, with a dress on. A dog turned into a doll, which is even worse than if it had been turned into a human being.
Moreover, there is almost not a day in which someone preaches from the pulpit against the person who “anthropomorphizes” the dog, treating it like a baby, and preventing the poor dog from behaving like a dog. Trouble! Letting the dog jump on the bed. Trouble! Showing affection to the dog! Trouble! Talking to the dog! Trouble! Teaching your dog to do a slalom or to touch a mat with the front feet. Etcetera.
ANTHROPOMORPHISM IS NOT TO DRESS DOGS UP LIKE DOLLS AND TREAT THEM LIKE DOLLS.
ANTHROPOMORPHISM IS TO ATTRIBUTE MOTIVATION AND HUMAN EMOTIONS TO DOGS.
Anthropomorphic means that it has a human aspect, and in case it is not the outward human resemblance, we look at some interior resemblance.
I anthropomorphize my dogs, in both ways. I treat them as components of my family, I talk to them, and I share my house, including my sofa and sometimes my bed. I don’t celebrate birthdays, but I rarely do it even with humans. I don’t buy doll clothes, because anthropomorphizing is not transforming dogs in something to admire and show off, but it is treating them as humans or giving them human characteristics. I also anthropomorphize them by giving them human feelings and motivations. Or rather, the opposite is true; I tend to “caninemorphize” humans, to make people find human motivations and emotions that are similar to those of dogs.
I treat my dogs as family members and I talk to them, because this is our natural way of demonstrating a bond, to build relationships, to express ourselves, to communicate, to feel empathy. In a relationship with a dog, if I love him (or even if I relate with that dog), I am myself. I have learned how to encode clear signals, and decode dogs’ signals, but I am and remain myself. I don’t pretend to be a dog, I don’t growl, to say.
I use my sight, voice, body postures, and I remain a person. I caninemorphize people, because for me there is a common basis, a deep root that binds us together in order to form social bonds, to feel emotions. We become more like dogs when we stop applying stupid rules learned from books and dog trainers, and we learn to go uncovered. When we develop self-awareness and self-tuning, and we know who we are in this relationship and really see the other. Dogs go uncovered, and for them there is no other way of being and relating.
BUT THERE IS ANOTHER WAY TO ANTHROPOMORPHIZE DOGS, EVEN MORE SNEAKY AND HIDDEN.
What happens is that we impose our mindsets to our dogs, even if in a quite unconscious way.
Our vision of the world originates from a specific historical and cultural environment: We are what we have been taught, what we have learned to be.
We learn to repress physical expressions of certain emotional states. We learn not to show emotions, we learn to control ourselves, to lie. All of us have responded, “I’m fine” when we were asked, “how are you?” even though we felt like shit. We are so convinced that there is a “right” way to behave in public, that we apply the same rule to others. Even when others are dogs.
The hidden anthropomorphist is the person who wants to teach a dog to behave as a human, not in the sense of walking with an erect posture, or play a piano, but teach the dog to follow the rules that govern our human society, our culture. The dog must be “calm”, because our society disapproves agitation, loss of physical control in response to an emotional state. Dogs don’t care about the inconvenience caused in humans by their bark, their intensely react to a stimulus. But for the dog owner, or even for the dog trainer, that reaction is “wrong”. The dog must learn to behave “well”.
IF A DOG BEHAVES “BADLY” WHAT IS WRONG IS NOT THE DOG’S BEHAVIOR (OR THE DOG), BUT THE CONTEXT IN WHICH THE DOG IS EXPOSED
Those who want to teach the dog to behave “well”, they are doing nothing more than replicate human cultural patterns, effectively turning the dog into a “small human” which is subject to the same human rules.
We do it all the time. The dog does not have to rummage through the garbage, doesn’t have to jump on us (for a dog, moving its muzzle close to our face is a natural and social way to greet us), it’s not allowed to pull on the leash, it must come back when called upon, it has to pee and poo outside the home (we do it inside our home, that’s not a good example of consistency for our dog…), it must meet any other dog and never react, it must be calm and not bother anyone…
The most incredible thing is that dogs are able to adapt to many of these absurd rules. You should try to keep at home a Peruvian guinea pig. Free. You should try to teach the guinea pig not gnaw on furniture, to pee and poo only where you like it to, to come back on recall every time you want it to come back. Or even try these things with your cat. It didn’t work? So why are you demanding this from the dog? Why do you assume that the dog should do it? Dogs are incredibly adaptable creatures, they have been able to survive in the more complex environment in the world: life with humans. But they’re not human. They are and remain animals distinct from us.
If we really don’t want to anthropomorphize them, in the negative meaning of this word, we should stop expecting them to behave like us, as if they have some moral obligation in behaving the way we like and according to our social and cultural infrastructure.
For a dog, it is quite natural taking food that nobody has claimed, for example, some food that was left on the kitchen table, unattended. It is not a betrayal, not a rude behavior, wrong, to condemn and correct. It’s bloody natural that a dog eats unattended food. The dog can still learn not to take food from the kitchen table. We must work hard to make the dog to learn to inhibit this natural impulse, but if we are consistent, we communicate effectively, and if the dog collaborates, we can succeed it. However, we should be thankful to the dog that doesn’t steal the food from the kitchen. Grateful for what the dog does to please us, even when it makes no biological sense for his species.
Be grateful to the dog, if he comes back on recall.
Be grateful to the dog, if he follows us on a leash.
Be grateful to the dog, if he can stay left alone for hours.
Be grateful to the dog, if he can meet unknown dogs and be tolerant.
Be grateful to the dog, if he can meet unknown people and stand them.
Be grateful to the dog, if we ask him to learn useless behaviors and he executes them when we ask him to.
Be grateful to the dog for his ability to suffer abuses and continue to want to live together with humans.
And if you don’t believe it, try to demand half of what you ask of your dog to any other animal species (humans included).
Text Alexa Capra
Photos Daniele Robotti
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