Anthropomorphism is a word that is not only difficult to spell, but for the average dog lover, difficult to come to terms with.

The dictionary definition available to me at present is: ascription of human characteristics to what is not human.  A dog as we know, is not human, yet most of us bestow on our best friend, a degree of intelligence and moral code of ethics normally associated only with homo sapiens, and certainly not canis familiaris.

Why do we persist in doing this and in the process, make our own lives so much more difficult during training? Perhaps it could be as a result of being sub consciously brainwashed since early childhood through the mediums of comic strips, fairy tales and cartoons.

It is vital, if we wish to train a dog, that we put all our childhood stories and old wives tales behind us. There is little doubt that it is because of these images at the back of our minds, that most handlers find training their dogs difficult and progress so slow.  Thus, it becomes important in our approach to training our dog, that we have at least a fundamental grasp of its intellect.

Remember that an animal, even one as domesticated as a dog, can never be equated intellectually as the most moronic human being. To fall into the trap of regarding the dog as a human being in different form, is the biggest drawback to training and understanding. It does not follow that a dog, because you are kind to it and give it affection, that it will show you love and undying devotion or instant obedience.  As is known, some people spoil their dogs terribly and usually end up with a “pest” or worse, a “boss” who will if the circumstances are right, bite the hand that feeds him.

For example, it is very possible that a dog that is, by civilised standards, cruelly treated, to remain completely faithful and obedient to its owner. This can be seen by the bond formed by dog to man, irrespective of whether the man is primitive or not. Many a dog in a rural native village, anywhere in the world, can be just as happy with its lot in life as a pampered pooch kept by the wealthiest man in the world, maybe even more so?
Intelligence is a word normally associated with man, and one would hope that it is one of the main aspects that differentiate us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  What we have done with this gift of intelligence is of course debatable, but be that as it may, we have it, and other animals don’t.  This “power of reasoning” and “power of logical thought” has brought us a long way in a fairly short time and our intellectual capacity continues to govern our progress….so what of the dog?

Instincts. A dog is governed by its instincts. To understand this, we must first consider a dog’s basic instincts. These are of course to survive and in order to do this the dog, like most other animals, needs food, shelter and sex.  Unlike man who with his superior intellect, has woven a complex social web in order to fulfil these functions, the dog has not. Also whilst man is capable via his process of reasoning, to overcome his brute instincts, the dog cannot.

For a dog in its natural state, there is one instinct that weaves a consistent thread through its behavioural footprint and this is the “Pack Instinct”. Unlike some carnivorous species, the dog is gregarious and likes company, albeit within a well- structured unit where everyone knows his/her place. Therefor a dog is driven to live and hunt in a pack. The bitch has her pups and brings them up in a lair, originally in a hole in the ground or a cave. The mother teaches her offspring basic life skills and discipline until they are old and capable enough to join the pack.  It is here, with the pack that they learn how to track, hunt and kill. The instincts are innate but sharpened by the activities of the pack.

By virtue of this, the dog is braver (and more dangerous) in numbers and does not much like doing things on its own. In the case of a domestic dog, we, the family are, in the eyes of our pet, the rest of the pack.
Upon reaching maturity, the dog has the instinct to exert himself and vie for position within the pack. Some become submissive and fall into place within a given hierarchy, whilst others strive to lead and these are amongst the more aggressive members of the pack. The pack is led by one dog, who is stronger and whose instincts are better developed (ie more cunning) than the rest.  Note that “intelligence” does not come into it!  Many dog owners claim that “my dog is very intelligent and quick to learn” when in fact, the truth is, that the animal’s instincts are probably sharper and the dog/pack leader (owner) bond is working well. So it is critical that as a hander, we ensure the dog understands that you are the boss (pack leader) and in fact, the rest of the family should also be accepted by the dog as at least equal, if not senior in the pack structure.

Man has, through the ages, by selection and breeding, together with practical training, developed certain breeds where specific instincts have been most desirable.  The instinct to run and chase is much stronger in the Greyhound for example than in the St Bernard. The desire to retrieve is stronger in the Labrador than in the Boxer. The desire to “herd” is strong in Collies but non- existent in the Pitbull, whose prime motivator (or driver as one calls it these days) is to fight.  Just because that “Collie” can gather and pen a dozen sheep in under two minutes and the Great Dane can’t do it in a lifetime, does not mean that the “Collie” is the more intelligent of the two.  It merely means that its instincts and herding drive is far superior.

So, it is important to know as much as possible about the history and development of the breed that you are training or intend to acquire.  This will go a long way to ensuring a good fit between the dogs likely characteristics and your training ambitions or requirements at home. Don’t buy a 4×4 if all you really need is a small sedan.

In summary: During training, we must constantly be aware of the difference between instinct and intelligence. Throughout the conditioning process we must also be on our guard against being anthropomorphic. Of course we will love our dogs and together we will have many happy moments, often engaging in play and long one side conversations with our best friend accompanied by loving strokes, pats and embraces using, at the same time “nice sounds” such as the “dog’s name” and our chosen “good sound.”  There is no harm in this, as it is good for the soul.  However, such interactions should be restricted to moments of reward after significant training successes and during periods of relaxation and play.  There’s a gooooood girl!!”said with genuine feeling, will work wonders every single time. However, never forget, as the “pack leader” you will need just as an effective “bad Sound”

Never try to attribute to a dog, intelligence or the power of reasoning. For every example of supposed intelligence in an animal put forward by a person, a hundred can be shown that this does not exist.

John Robert Cox.  Revised March 2016:

Other viewpoints and alternative worthwhile reads for handlers:-
The Dogs Mind: By Bruce Fogle;  Caesars Way: By Caesar Milan; Dog Language by Roger Abrantes; Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor
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