In the past, I’ve been an In-home Basic Obedience Instructor. I taught people to train their dogs. In the past year, I’ve been working towards getting my Certified Pet Dog Trainer certificate through the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. This has involved a reading list that seems to grow and change every year. The focus of the APDT is on positive training methods, which I agree with for the most part.
However, there is one subject that seems taboo amongst all the animal training and animal science community. Anthropomorphism.
American Heritage Dictionary defines this as:
n. Attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena.
Do animals experience emotions like we humans do? Are animals capable of feeling love, loss, happiness and a myriad of other emotions? Or are we humans just trying to delegate our own emotions to other creatures? And if so, why?
It’s not unusual for a trainer to hear that an owner can’t get Little Fluffykins to do such-and-such because it hurts Little Fluffykin’s feelings or Mr. Twinkles peed on it’s owner’s brand new comforter out of anger at being left home alone all day. Or that Lightening the horse didn’t perform well at a show today because he was unhappy that his owner forgot his favorite treats or didn’t scratch him in the right spots, or whatever the magic button might have been.
It’s also not unusual for a pet owner to say that their pet loves them. Haven’t we all heard that Brutus loves his person? Is this really prescribing human emotions to our pets? Or are they capable of displaying emotions of love on their own?
So far, scientists from the animal community say that these things are simply not true. Animals don’t display emotions like people do. That Mr. Twinkles isn’t capable of enough higher thought to say “I’m going to pee on your comforter because you did ‘x’ and I’m mad at you”. Science explains the behavior as a dominance issue and that Mr. Twinkles is trying to say he’s top dog (or cat). And that Brutus isn’t really showing love to his owner, just that he is attempting to seek attention.
And then you have your extremes. The owner who swears that Mr. Twinkles was mad at her and that’s why it happened. And the trainers and behaviorists who say that animals don’t feel emotions, that people are the ones putting whatever emotion they are feeling off onto their animal.
How many of you have gone to the zoo and witness what appeared to be sad animals? The big cats that pace and pace? The orangutans that seem to be withdrawn and dejected? The ravens that are constantly searching for a way out? Are they or are they not experiencing real emotions?
In his book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin speculated that dogs in their old age might remember a particularly pleasurable chase and reflect on it. Or that a group of cows might just feel the loss of a herd member.
Jane Goodall was criticized for using human-like terms to describe chimps. She used the words “childhood”, “excitement”, “motivation” and “mood”. And as she says, “Even worse was my crime of suggesting that chimpanzees had ‘personalities’. I was ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman animals and was thus guilty of the worst of ethological sins-anthropomorphism.” None of these thoughts were popular. They still aren’t popular with the scientific community today.
To some extent, humanizing an animal is still considered a great insult to mankind. Humans are at the top of the food chain. Religion and science say that humans are the only species capable of higher thought. But is that really true? How much do we really know about all the forms of animal communication and how the animal brain(s) work?
Do animals really feel such emotions as love? Why or why not?
What do you think?