"How Dogs Think: The Debate Between Emotion and Logic."

When Science Anthropomorphizes Animals, Dogs Suffer.

Originally published on June 30, 2009 at PsychologyToday.com.

I Don’t Own an Alarm Clock

I can’t remember the last time I had one let alone used it. Years ago I developed an ability to “program” my subconscious mind to wake me up at any time I want, within a range of about 5 - 10 minutes. Of course there are certain times when the system fails due to a disagreement between my mind and body:

Lee’s Body: “He’s tired [or sick, or was up very late], let him sleep!”

Lee’s Mind: “Well, he did say that he wished he didn’t have to get up this early...”

However, back when my Dalmatian Freddie was alive, he would always wake me up on time. Always. And I never got a grace period. Even though dogs have no sense of time, Freddie always woke me up at the exact moment I was supposed to get out of bed. He didn’t do it by barking, or whining; he would just let out a heavier-than-usual sigh, or lift up his head and shake it a few times, making his ears flap loudly, or get up, circle around, maybe scratch at his bed a few times, then lie down with a heavy thump and sigh. He seemed oblivious to what effects this had on my sleep or wakefulness. In other words there didn’t seem to be any intent on his part to wake me; yet he did it faithfully, every single time I failed to wake up on my own.

Now how strange and amazing is that?

Dogs Know When It's Okay to Disobey?

Dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan1has written about a similar situation with his dog Lillo, a superbly-trained German shepherd. Kevin had to be at an important meeting, forgot to set his alarm clock, and Lillo, who had been trained to never come into the bedroom (I think it was an issue with fleas and shag carpeting) did so anyway and woke Kevin exactly when the alarm was supposed to have gone off.

One might suppose from this that Lillo did a have conscious intent to wake Kevin. But why didn’t Freddie?

Kevin, who’s developed an energy theory of animal behavior, would say that neither dog did. Instead they were each influenced by changes in their own emotional state in relation to an unresolved desire they felt in their owner. That created a need in the dog to move energy out of his own system to reduce that feeling of pressure.

In Freddie’s case it manifested in the atypically restless movements he made in and around his bed. In Lillo’s case it was a much stronger feeling of magnetic attraction to the one person in the world he’d been taught to always rely on to resolve such feelings. (Also: Kevin’s desire was probably stronger, and therefore created more displacement in Lillo’s emotional/energy field.)

To my way of thinking neither dog had a “reason” for its behavior. They each felt an increase in emotional pressure and simply tried to reduce it. Using Kevin’s theory I think it’s possible to describe all canine behavior (perhaps all animal behavior) in terms of how emotional energy flows or gets blocked. [2]

So when people tell me dogs have the ability to reason, I say, “Hold on, let’s try to understand their emotions first before we start giving them intellectual faculties.”

Singing the Praises of Anthropomorphism?

This brings me to the topic at hand. For those who aren’t aware of it, I’m happy to report that Marc Bekoff recently joined Psychology Today. If you don’t know the name, he’s a world-renowned expert on animal cognition, someone who has keen, perhaps unparalleled insights into animal behavior, and displays an almost astonishing affinity for animals of all kinds. Bekoff has also expressed his desire to improve the lives of every animal on earth. I hope I’m doing that myself, in my small role as a dog trainer. However, I have to take exception to some of the things Bekoff has written in a recent article here in which he sings the praises of anthropomorphism, and suggests that by doing more of it we would also be showing more compassion to and respect for animals.

First of all, I don’t think we need to anthropomorphize dogs in order to show them respect. In some ways they’re more social and civilized than we are. [1]

True, they have no knack for literature, architecture, science, technology, or mass transportation, but they’re more openly social and cooperative than the human race could ever hope to be. So let’s not start dragging them “up to our level.”

However, I do agree 100% with some of the points Bekoff makes. For one he says that the “privacy of mind” concept has become outdated, and that with recent advances in various scientific disciplines we can more readily and more easily understand animal cognition. All true, but I would argue that this means we should no longer have any need to anthropomorphize. Careful, objective analysis, using strong theoretical frameworks, should tell us nearly everything we need to know.

Beckoff also posits that the tendency to anthropomorphize is hardwired into our brains. Again, I agree, and have found it’s more true of dogs than of any other species. (I wrote a three-part article here on this very subject: Bekoff then tells us that we should only do it the “right” way, which he calls “bio-centric anthropomorophism.”

Letting the Genie Out of the Bottle

However, with all due respect, can we really have it both ways? If it’s hardwired then how much control can we have over it? Once you let the genie out of the bottle a lot of people are bound to come up with their own, very nasty ways of doing it.

The bestselling dog training manual in the past 30 years is How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend by the Monks of New Skete. And their training philosophy is based on two of the most harmful anthropomorphisms there are as far as cruelty to dogs is concerned: the concepts of the pack leader, and of dominance and submission. On page 34 of the original edition of their book, the monks write, “How hard should you hit your dog?” Their answer to this terrible question is even worse: “If she doesn’t yelp in pain, you haven’t hit her hard enough.”


And the reason the monks think (or once thought) this is okay is that they believe that if dogs perceive us as higher up in the pack hierarchy, they’ll obey us. And when they don’t obey, it’s because they “think” they’re alpha and need to be “taught a lesson.”

Dogs Feel What We Feel

That’s one example of the wrong kind of anthropomorphism. Another is that far too many people abandon their dogs because they’re perceived as “stubborn,” “willful,” or “disobedient,” all anthropomorphisms. The truth is, dogs can’t be obedient or disobedient because even though it’s something they’re exceptionally good at, dogs themselves don’t know what the concept of obedience means. They only know that when their emotions are aligned with their owners’ desires they “feel” like doing what their owners want them to. That’s all.

This brings up another point: the primary reason people are unable to control their dogs to begin with is that the literature on canine behavior is itself anthropomorphic to the extreme. If people had a better sense of how and why dogs really behaved—that they don’t do it to show respect to their “pack leader,” or because they’re capable of propositional, if/then thinking (if I sit then I get a reward)—fewer dogs would end up living in shelters and eventually being put to death. This is another negative impact that anthropomorphism has on dogs.

There's No Proper Way to Anthropomorphize Animals

Of course in his article Bekoff is concerned with all animals, not just dogs, so here’s a final example, unrelated to canines:

A woman in Connecticut decides to keep a chimpanzee as a pet. And in the process of living with this wonderful, loving, and intelligent animal she treats him as if he were her own child. But he’s not a child, he’s a chimp. So a few years later, a terrible tragedy takes place, leaving a neighbor woman blind and terribly disfigured, and the poor young chimp dead. And that tragedy was the direct result of anthropomorphism.

So I would argue that there is no proper way to anthropomorphize animals just as there’s no proper way to hit your dog.

I will agree that there are discrete levels of consciousness which dogs and humans share. We’re both influenced by certain instincts and drives, and we’re both strongly influenced by emotion. Where I disagree is in the need to impute higher levels of intellect onto animals. Don’t get me wrong. Marc Bekoff is more knowledgeable and experienced than I am, so I could very well be missing something he’s seeing that I’m not able to. But it seems to me that instead of artificially (in my view) expanding animal consciousness vertically up the cognitive ladder toward intellect, we should spend more time exploring how dogs themselves have expanded their own social and emotional consciousness.

I’ve found that the more we understand the real virtues of dogs, and extol and celebrate their true dogginess, the safer and happier they’ll be. That should be everyone’s goal. It’s clearly Bekoff’s; nothing could be clearer than that. And while it’s my goal too, I think the best way to achieve it is to get down on the dog’s level. I do it on a regular basis, and I can tell you firsthand it’s a pretty cool place to be. Especially when you have to get up early and your alarm clock won’t go off...

LCK “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Join Me on Facebook! Follow Me on Twitter! Link Up With Me on Linkedin!


1. I’ve called Kevin Behan a “natural philosopher” because he strikes me as a dog-world combination of Newton, Darwin, and Freud.

2. Valerie Hunt, an Emeritus Professor of Psychological Sciences at UCLA, has written that “Emotion is aroused energy that takes a direction. Emotional energy is released whenever there is action. It motivates us. When the emotion is strong and flowing there is great physical energy. And when [it] is blocked weakness results.” She also talks about the emotional field as follows:”Emotions can be viewed as a computer program ... that directs information to all aspects of the mind and body.”

3. Alexandra Semyonova did a 15-year study on the social behaviors of domesticated dogs (“The Social Organization of the Domestic Dog; A Longitudinal Study of Domestic Canine Behavior and the Ontogeny of Canine Social Systems,” Carriage House, The Hague.) In it she uses the principles of autopoiesis (a form of emergence theory) to put forth the idea that dogs are essentially a global-wide self-organizing system, interested in not just maintaining their own “fitness hills” but in seeing that their behaviors don’t have a negative impact on the fitness hills of other dogs. Her view is that dogs who’ve gone through puppyhood free from undue emotional or physical trauma are capable of countless harmonic social interactions with all other dogs in all other situations. She also shows that aggression is considered an abnormal behavior in dog society, whereas in terms of human history just the opposite is true.

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