Tuesday, March 3, 2009

It's In The Eyes

I was chatting with a non-animal person the other day. Somehow the topic of whether animals have true personalities came up for discussion. This person then went off on a rant about parakeets. Something along the lines of the old lady who thinks her parakeet is different from all the other parakeets in the world - my parakeet hates Oprah, but loves the weather channel, hates that brand of bird seed, loves this one, doesn't want to go to bed before watching the 10:00 news, loves cartoons, etc. His point, I believe, was that perhaps parakeets are really all the same, but old ladies project their own preferences and personalities onto their "special/different/unique" bird. Of course what he was talking about is Anthropomorphism, the attribution of uniquely human characteristics to non-human creatures and beings (Wikipedia).  I would add that we also often ascribe motives to animals, in addition to emotions.

We are probably all guilty of anthropomorphism. After all animals can't actually speak to us and tell us what they are feeling. I have been in a situation where someone tells me "my cat is sad," when clearly it is the person speaking who is sad. Or someone else says "that dog is strutting around - it thinks it is hot stuff". Or my dog pees in the house when it is "angry" with me. Or my dog is "sorry" when he does the "wrong" thing, such as getting in the trash or counter surfing. And of course there are the people who dress their small dogs up, carry them around everywhere they go (as if the dog is incapable of walking on the ground), and talk to them like they are human children (which they are NOT!).

If animal emotions and motives are elusive and hard to pin down exactly, what do we have left? We have behavior of course. The behavior in the "sad" cat is that it sleeps more than usual (as if that is even possible for a cat!), the "hot stuff" dog is exibiting behaviors such as standing tall on its toes, tail up above its back, while the "angry" dog's behavior is occasionally peeing in the house, the "sorry" dog averts his gaze, walks slowly, and hangs his head, when you yell at him for doing the "wrong" thing - and I can't even address the issue of the dog-child.

Does that mean animals don't have emotions or motives for doing things. Of couse not! It's just that we humans should take care in ascribing our own emotions or motives to animals. Maybe the "sad" cat is getting older so it sleeps more, the "hot stuff" dog is highly aroused and unsure of it's environment, the "angry" dog just couldn't hold it until you let it out, and the "sorry" dog is making appeasment gestures so you will stop yelling and actually has no idea of right and wrong, it only knows what works and what doesn't work - getting in the trash produces good stuff to eat as does counter surfing (it works).

If behaviors are king, and emotions/motives shaky is that all there is? I don't think so. I believe in dogs there is an incredible capacity for relationship, for friendship, for forming bonds. Dogs have a spark, a spirit, a potential, a soul if you will. It's in the eyes.  

dachshund rescued by Dachshund Rescue of Houston - waiting for a foster home

American Pit Bull Terrier at Justin Animal Shelter - waiting

Friends, Ted and Joey

Jack, Labrador Retriever - fostered by Metroport Humane Society

Eli, a Dorkie (dachshund/yorkie mix) fostered by Metroport Humane Society

Friends, Gus and Gracie


  1. Maybe some particularly sensitive and perceptive owners, through a long-term relationship, really can tune-in to an animal's emotions. Verbal communication is not the only way people convey their emotions to others. I submit that this is also true of animals.

    That said, as with any communication, verbal or otherwise, sometimes the signals are not received or are mis-interpreted.

  2. I totally agree with you. I did not intend to suggest that animal emotions can never be understood, just that people may tend to project their own emotions/motives onto their animal. I believe dogs are capable of forming incredible bonds and relationships with humans. It's in the eyes.

  3. Have I imagined that a dog can show compassion to a human that has had a rough day? I don't think so. You are right...it is in her eyes.

  4. Ah, and now the debate begins. Great photos!

  5. Not to minimize the 'dog' focus here, but I think it is also important to reserve our judgment on the motives and emotions of people. I have had motives attributed to me that I really didn't have [good and bad], likewise I have at times thought (or said) "I know why she did that!" when in reality I don't.