By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter
Dog behaviorists caution us not to assign human thoughts and feelings to our canines. It’s dangerous, they say in books on the subject, to treat dogs as if they have human reasons for doing things.
As I read the examples recently, I realized that a dog behaviorist could get a lot of material at my house. Not only did I practice all of the examples, I had a few more that were even more ridiculous. My anthropomorphism (the projecting of human characteristics on nonhuman entities) was difficult for me to realize at first. Ironically, I had to think like a dog in order to not think my dog was thinking like a human.
My favorite motive to falsely assign to my unsuspecting dogs is revenge. If they do something bad, such as poo in the house while I’ve been gone too long, it is because they want revenge. Upon further investigation, it turns out that dogs do not think of poo as a disgusting tool of revenge. They think of it as a wonder of nature, a secondary food source in survival situations, and an object of fascination for dogs and humans alike. The fact that I go into their yard and collect poo tells them that it is highly valuable. What I think of as a disastrous mess, they think of as presents. I do not know what to do about this revelation.
I also tend to think my dogs feel guilt when they do something wrong. Why else would the guilty party make the classic guilt face when I ask, “Who ate the entire ham?”
Some scientists say dogs only act guilty when scolded so aren’t really feeling guilt. I don’t know how they can prove an absence of a feeling or why they get so worked up about it. When two of my dogs are approached with a crime exhibit and one of them has bulging eyes, hunches up its shoulders and flashes a pained smile unbecoming of a canine while backing into the corner of the room, I’m going to think that’s the dog that did it. Law enforcement officers wish solving crime was so easy. Scientists, on the other hand, might spend eternity analyzing the data and never be sure if dogs feel guilt. I just have to be sure who did it.
One of my worst offenses is that I believe my dogs comprehend my entire vocabulary. Some sources say dogs only understand about 500 words. So, when I say something like, “Red, would you stop panting incessantly so that I can finish a thought in my head,” he hears, “Red,” and possibly wonders if I am offering food. Just like with people, it’s possible dogs only hear what they want to hear. People who have highly developed vocabularies still fail to understand that when someone says he or she is “fine,” he or she is really not “fine.” At least a dog knows when you aren’t fine and has the good sense to fake a feeling of guilt. Except for Red, who doesn’t care how you feel and just wants a treat.
Although there are dangers to anthropomorphism, there is also a harmless form of empathy. This happens when a dog does something that evokes a universal understanding of life.
On opening day this year, Winchester ran the equivalent of a marathon in search of game birds. We were in the Kenai Mountains and had to pass up two coveys that held birds too young to hunt, and ended up working our way to a mountain summit. The view was sensational with jeweled mountain lakes gleaming below us, and all the usual splendor of wild, silent places. He sat down at the edge of a rock slope and looked out at the country below. Maybe he was just taking a break. Maybe it’s ridiculous to say he enjoyed the view. But I’ve hunted with this dog for five years and there’s no harm in believing he saw what I did in his own way. So we just sat there and enjoyed it together.
Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For up-to-date information on the “Women Hunting Alaska” book, visit Northern Publishing online or Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.