A dog and a human are very different species. Our last common ancestor probably lived about 60 million years ago, so while we have a biological connection it is a bit distant. However we do have a lot of shared traits through being warm-blooded mammals — we have hair, four limbs, two eyes, and give birth to live young.
Now, I could say the same thing about gophers, hedgehogs, and a lot of other animals, but I don’t think anyone is going to immediately think that they’re just like us or vice versa. And yet, with dogs, a lot of the time our first instinct is humanization — to treat a dog just like a person — which is how a lot of canine behavior problems begin.
Ever talk to your dog like they’re another person? Of course you have. I do it too from time to time, and that’s okay. Just talking to your dog is a lot different, though, than treating them like human children and dressing them in little evening gowns or in polo shirts and khaki.
When it comes to dogs, we need to be constantly aware of how we are different and how we are exactly the same as them.
Naturally, most of our common traits come down to anatomy. Dogs breathe with lungs and have hearts that circulate blood the same as we do. They have most of the same organs as humans, like a brain, liver, stomach, and intestines. Dogs even have prostates, although they do not have an appendix. They do have blood types like humans, but in a lot more varieties than our A, B, and O.
Along with similar physiology, dogs have similar vulnerabilities to humans, and can also develop diabetes, heart disease, various types of cancer, and arthritis and other joint diseases. Like humans, dogs can become overweight and can become very sick if they eat something toxic.
There are differences in anatomy and diseases, of course. Humans aren’t affected by distemper or parvovirus. On the other hand, we can catch campylobacter from our adult dogs, who aren’t affected by the bacteria that causes it. It can, however, be dangerous to puppies under six months.
In terms of psychology, science has already established that dogs and humans have similar brain structures and biochemistry, and even process information and emotions similarly, particularly in reacting to voices. However, dogs don’t react to things in the same way that we do when it comes to intellect and emotions. To assume that dog psychology is the same as ours is to be as mistaken as B.F. Skinner was when he assumed that humans, like animals, just mindlessly react to all stimuli.
On the one hand, dogs do need quite a lot of the same things we do — exercise, structure, and a sense of purpose. On the other hand, if we try to fulfill those needs in a dog the same way we would for another person, all we’re really going to do for the dog is give it a sense of anxiety and confusion.
Not humanizing your dog’s mind is the best thing that you can do.
It’s okay to realize that your canine friend isn’t like a toddler intellectually and never will be. Dogs can certainly be smart, and as smart as human children in many ways, but in a lot of others a dog will never think like a human — and yet people often expect them to. But that’s about as counter-productive as thinking that a human two-year-old would be capable of doing your taxes — or driving a taxi.
So the real key is to keep in mind in what ways a dog’s needs are similar to ours and in what ways they are very different:
- Certain biological needs, like food, water, and exercise, are identical in dogs and humans, although humans will always be better marathon runners because we have more long-range stamina.
- Our dietary needs can be quite different, though, so some things that humans can eat safely, like grapes and chocolate, can be dog poison.
- Mentally is where dogs and humans differ the most. We tend to live in the past or future, while dogs live in the “now.”
- Instinct is something that dogs rely on, but which many humans have forgotten how to use.
No other animal has formed the kind of bond with us that dogs have, so they will always hold a special place in human culture — and human hearts. They also have a lot of lessons to teach us about ourselves, Nature, and how to balance our own intellect and emotion.
Go ahead and love your dogs or talk to them. Indulge them when they’ve calmly earned it, but always remember that what your dog needs is not always the same as what you do — and vice versa.
Stay calm, and celebrate the differences!