Pets, Emotions, & Anthropomorphism

Pets, Emotions, & Anthropomorphism

By Don Hanson, PCBC-A, BFRAP

I recommend a book that will improve your relationship with your dog in December or January every year. This year I will suggest three while also addressing a misunderstanding about dogs.

Emotions are complicated and messy, so much so that as a youngster watching Star Trek in the 60s, I was attracted to the Vulcan ethos of suppressing all emotion and replacing it with logic. However, I eventually learned that without emotion, we are devoid of Joy, Gratitude, Serenity, Interest, Hope, Pride, Amusement, Inspiration, Awe, and Love. But unfortunately, the price for those positive feelings is negative emotions such as Anger, Emptiness, Frustration, Inadequacy, Helplessness, Fear, Guilt, Loneliness, Depression, Overwhelmed, Resentment, Failure, Sadness, and Jealousy. The fact is emotions are part of our life as sentient beings. Notice I did not say emotions make us human because to do so would be incorrect.

For centuries, science and religion conspired to teach us that animals do not experience emotions. I will never forget the day a veterinarian told me, "Don, you can't anthropomorphize; animals do not experience emotions." I walked away seriously questioning his abilities, thinking, has he never seen a dog wag its tail in joy, bark in frustration, cower in fear, or growl in anger?

Anthropomorphism is attributing "human" characteristics to other animals. Many believe it is a severely flawed concept that should be tossed on the scrap heap of history with other nonsense like dominance. I agree.

René Descartes (1596-1650) is considered the founder of modern western philosophy and was the mathematician who developed the Cartesian coordinate system used in analytic geometry. He was also a devout Christian. The first principle of his philosophy was cogito, ergo sum, or "I think, therefore I am." He believed that non-human animals were nothing more than biological machines. They were incapable of thinking or having emotions and could not feel pain. He also thought that animals had no soul. These beliefs were how he justified dissecting live animals in his experiments. Some biographies of Descartes claim his first experiment with a live dog involved nailing a live dog to a board and cutting it open.

Sadly, Descartes's philosophy toward animals was the standard in science for centuries. It has been the justification for animal testing and more. If you have lived long enough, you realize that pets have only recently been sent home with medication for post-operative pain. It is also why many still erroneously believe it is ok to train a dog with pain using tools like shock, prong, and choke collars. Trainers using these tools often tell people it doesn't hurt your dog; it's just a tickle. Today's science tells us the pain of the shock is what changes the dog's behavior and emotions.

One of my favorite books on emotions and dogs is For the Love of A Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend by Dr. Patricia B. McConnell. It is the book I recommend as mandatory reading for anyone with a dog or anyone who works with dogs.

Dr. McConnell was one of the first scientists to write about emotions in dogs. In her book, she discusses the history of human thought on the topic of emotions in animals and brings us up to date with what we know now. She also talks about the remarkable similarities in how dogs and people express feelings: "It's no coincidence that highly social animals like people and dogs have exceptionally expressive faces." It is interesting to note that not all old scientists got it wrong. For example, Charles Darwin made similar observations in 1872 in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

In my 27 years as a pet professional, I have encountered countless people who profess to be "dog lovers" and have the best intentions but do not understand how to read their dog's body language and emotions. Whether we live with a dog or work with dogs professionally, we have an ethical obligation to meet our dogs' emotional and physical needs. Fortunately, there is no longer an excuse to be ignorant of these topics thanks to these three books; For the Love of A Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend by Dr. Patricia B. McConnell, A Kids' Comprehensive Guide to Speaking Dog! by Niki Tudge and Doggie Language: A Dog Lover's Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend by Lili Chin. Please, make sure they are in your library.

By saying animals do not have emotions, we deny them sentience and absolve ourselves of guilt for not meeting their emotional needs. However, the scientific evidence is clear; our dogs' brains contain the same structures related to emotions as our brains. Therefore, while we are still learning about canine emotions, we cannot deny they experience fear, anger, joy, grief, and undoubtedly more. So please join me in celebrating the amazing emotional life of our dogs.

Don Hanson lives in Bangor, Maine, where he is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( ) and the founder of, an online educational resource for people with dogs and cats. He is a Professional Canine Behavior Consultant (PCBC-A) accredited by the Pet Professional Accreditation Board (PPAB) and a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP). Don is a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG), serving on the Board of Directors and Steering Committee and chairing the Advocacy Committee. He is also a founding director of Pet Advocacy International (PIAI). In addition, Don produces and co-hosts The Woof Meow Show podcast, available at, the Apple Podcast app, and Don's blog: The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.

©10-Nov-22, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved
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