DOG PSYCHOLOGY Part 2: Dogs Are Not Furry Humans

Dogs are a unique and amazing species with their own particular psychology, language and instincts. Because we invite dogs into our families and societies, much of what we want from them runs counter to their instincts and must therefore be taught, trained or conditioned. In order to do that in the best way possible, we need to understand how dogs take in and process information. In other words, dogs can’t learn from us if they can’t understand us. So let’s see if we can clarify the conversation by taking a look at what a dog really is and, perhaps more importantly, what a dog is NOT.

Dogs Are Not Humans

Because we adore them so much, we tend to humanize dogs. They feel so much like family it’s easy to assume that dogs can, or should, understand things the same way humans do. This is so common that psychologists have a fancy word for it, they call it anthropomorphism. Fancy words aside, this inaccurate way of thinking is more than just a cute mistake, it causes a lot of stress, miscommunication and, in some cases, abusive treatment of dogs.

“How are dogs different from humans?”

There are many ways but here are eight important things to realize about dogs that make their psychology different from that of humans.

  1. Their Brains Are Different - Dogs don’t have the rational, intellectual or problem solving capacity of a human. A leash getting wrapped around a tree is as perplexing to a dog as a rubix cube is to the average human. Dog’s also don’t generalize very well. For example: they might not understand a command you taught in the house when you give the same command at the park. This is where people get angry and say the dog is stubborn or stupid when it’s actually the human who is unaware of the psychology of the animal they are attempting to train.
  2. All 5 Senses Are Different - Most notable is dogs’ amazing sense of smell which is a million times stronger than ours...ok, not a million but enough to basically say we are "scent-blind” in comparison. Dogs also hear frequencies we can’t hear, have better night vision, are somewhat color blind, have wider peripheral vision and clearly find things delicious that we find disgusting such as cat poop. Yummy! They also don’t seem to feel temperature or certain types of pain the same as humans. For example: Some dogs run around in the snow without boots or jackets and don’t appear to be cold at all. On the other hand, dogs don’t sweat, so they can overheat more easily than humans in the summertime. Dogs also don’t seem to mind cuts and punctures very much and are often up and running the next day after being castrated. Ouch!!!! Obviously, these things can vary greatly from breed to breed and individual to individual.
  3. Dogs Don’t Have Verbal Language - Dogs bark, whine, yelp, growl, howl, etc. but they don’t use words. Dogs vocalize but don’t verbalize. What would your thoughts be like if you didn’t have verbal language? It’s hard to imagine, right? Keep that in mind as you “talk” to your dog.
  4. Dogs Communicate Primarily Through Body Language, Scent and Energy - You can learn a lot by watching dogs interact. You will see a wide range of postures and movements and a fair amount of sniffing each other and each other’s urine and feces. They may vocalize but, relative to humans, there is very little sound in dog-dog communication. This is why dogs tend to respond better to body language and hand signals than to words. Tone of voice is also generally more important than the words themselves. Dogs also seem to somehow communicate through and pick up on mysterious forces, which Cesar Millan has popularly called "energy." Ethologists and biologists don’t like to speak in vague or mystical terms like energy but they do find themselves baffled at times by the way animals seem to communicate and maintain hierarchies in unobservable ways. I personally have no problem embracing the mystical, I don’t need a scientific label for everything, I just need to communicate well with the dogs I work with. From personal observations, I have no doubt in my mind that dogs can pick up on how people feel inside, so I definitely believe it is important to be aware of the energy we bring to the conversation. If you prefer scientific language —be aware of your emotions, which affect your physiology, which can be detected by dogs on ultra-subtle levels. So, do dogs have a sixth sense or are they simply keen observers with amazing sniffers? I don’t know...does it matter? Try this; speak less, feel more and see what happens.
  5. Dogs Don’t Have Hands - Because they don’t have hands, dogs tend to use their mouths a lot. They may paw or scratch at things but, mostly, they use their mouths for things a human would use their hands for. Even when just being friendly, licking and mouthing can be interpreted by humans as “bad behavior” because it can be painful or annoying.
  6. Dogs Have Fangs - You will be reminded whenever dogs snarl or bite that they are not human and that they come equipped with weapons in their mouths. Sure, humans can bite too but it’s not quite the same. Our jaws are small, less powerful and we don’t have fangs. Our go-to fight instinct is to grab, hit or kick, a dog’s is to bite.
  7. Dogs Are Carnivorous Predators - Because of this they have what’s called “Prey Drive” which is a strong desire to chase and kill things. Sometimes the “kill” is only a squeaky toy but the shaking and disembowelment of the stuffing are predatory instincts. Domestication has reduced some of the killer instincts but the chasing is still very strong in most dogs. This is often a problem when dogs take to chasing cars, bikes, children, etc. Even though they usually don’t go for the kill, they often still bite. Nothing personal, it’s just primal instinct getting the better of them, but it does need to be corrected. Also, dogs can handle much higher doses of bacteria and eat things that would make a human very ill, such as raw meat, bones and feces. Can a dog be a vegetarian? Yes, they can because they are very adaptive. Dogs are also great scavengers but their digestive tract, teeth and behavior are all designed for predation.
  8. Dogs Walk On All Fours - Being lower to the ground gives dogs a much different perspective than that of an upright human. Combined with their prey drive, scavenging instincts, incredible sense of smell, etc. you may find that you and your dog are not always on the same page. For example: You may not notice food crumbs on the ground or a cat hiding under a car but your dog almost certainly will.

Am I saying dogs are less than human or that humans are better than dogs? No way! I love my dogs, they are my family and I’m sure that you feel the same about your dogs. I am merely pointing out the fact that it is actually kinder and more respectful to understand that your dog is indeed a dog and communicate accordingly.

Dogs Are Not Babies

We not only humanize dogs, we tend to infantize them as well. We love to call them fur babies. This is a cute thing to say and it's loving in the sense that we think of our dog as a member of the family. I’m not saying I don’t get it, I do, I totally understand why this happens. Dogs can fill any voids we may have in our lives...children that have grown up, loneliness, depression or whatever else might be going on, plus they’re just so stinkin’ cute and cuddly. This is a fantastic gift that dogs bring us but what about the dog? Are we returning the favor or are we lovingly and unintentionally harming the dog?

When people take it too literally, fur baby cuteness becomes fur baby syndrome. This is actually a very serious and common problem. First of all, because it implies human. Secondly, it implies a certain sense of helplessness and innocence that leads to a lack of expectations, accountability or consequences. This leads to a confused, spoiled dog which leads to innumerable behavior problems including fear, anxiety and aggression.

“What about puppies, aren’t they considered babies?”

A very young dog is called a puppy but, unless you are a breeder, you will probably never raise a “baby” dog. Even if you did, the process wouldn’t last long. By the time they are adoptable (7-8 weeks old) they are already quite mobile and able to eat solid food, including raw meat and bones. Puppies are very agile in a matter of months, are sexually mature at 6-9 months old and most breeds are full grown by one year old.

Perhaps I can shed some light on the “fur baby” concept with a little story:

Back in the mid 1980’s I was living in a camper on a friend's property in the hills of Los Gatos Ca. We found a litter of tiny cattle dog mix puppies by the creek and I kept one. He was a savage!!! We put a pie pan of dog food down, he was so small he could fit in the pie pan. He got in the pan, ate all the food and wouldn’t let the other pups near it. Being young and dumb, I thought that was cool and said, “I’m keeping that one!” His name was Buck and he turned out to be an awesome dog. However, as a pup he started killing chickens when he was still smaller than a chicken. He literally had to jump on the chicken’s back, ride it like a horse and then bite its neck. Imagine a full grown dog killing an was kind of like that. Moral of the story; That is not a helpless, innocent baby my friends, that is a predatory animal. If that was your baby you would need an exorcist, not a behaviorist!!!


By all means, please treat your dog as a family member, just don’t lose respect for the fact that you have a multi-species familly and that your dog is an amazing animal with a different psychology.

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2019

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Related Articles:

Dog Psychology part 1: What Is Dog Psychology?

Dog Psychology part 3: Dogs Are Not Dolphins

Dog Psychology part 4: Dogs Are Descendants of Wolves