Animal Psychology Module 1


Your opening module looks into how and why we began to welcome animals into our homes, and why they agreed! We explain how we have shaped dogs’ evolution, how they give value to our lives, and why it is important to remember the animal characteristics that are always there. By gaining an understanding and respect for where they are coming from; we will help you choose a pet that is right for you.

What you will learn in this module:

1.1 Dog ancestry

1.2 When dogs came in from the cold

1.3 Dogs in agriculture

1.4 Into our homes; into our hearts

1.5 Breeding

1.6 Pet therapy

1.7 Anthropomorphism (transferring human emotions & motivations to pets)

1.8 Choosing your pet

1.8.1 Checklist for choosing your pet

1.8.2 Avoid cruel and unethical dog breeders!

1.1 Dog Ancestry

DNA evidence proves that domestic dogs descend from wolves – they share 99.96 % of their genetics. Scientists have traced present day dogs’ ancestors with certainty back to well over 10,000 years ago. It is believed they could actually trace back millions of years.

The dog is descended almost entirely from the grey wolf, Canis Lupus. The North American Timber Wolf and the European Grey Wolf are examples of wolves that were introduced to Europe, and North America by settlers. They are thought to have evolved from packs that roamed from East Asia to as far west as the Arabian Peninsula many thousands of years before.

Many types of wolves still exist throughout Asia that resemble and differ from European and North American types. Those that exist in Asia are smaller and quite sociable. They survive by scavenging and capturing small prey. It seems their European and American relatives became more efficient and successful at survival. They evolved into larger varieties that hunted fearlessly, and captured large prey. However, during the last century wolves have largely been wiped out. 100 years ago there were over 2 million in North America alone; today only one percent survive.

Many people wonder if dogs are related to foxes, jackals, and African wild dogs as they bear such a resemblance. The answer is yes. Wolves, foxes, jackals, and African Wild dogs all descend from a family called the Canidae.

1.2 When Dogs Came In From The Cold

We can find evidence for the inclusion of dogs in human society dating back to prehistoric cave paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphics. What was it about wolves, above other animals, that formed this close relationship with humans? Was it all about human control and domination or did wolves willingly collaborate in this endearing partnership?

It was when humans began to evolve from a nomadic lifestyle to create permanent settlements that the domestication of dogs began. It is believed this originated about 12,000 years ago.

As nomads and hunters themselves, wolves began to realize that staying close to human campsites proved a promising habitat for them – a safe bet when scavenging for food. They chose to follow humans as they moved settlements. As well as scavenging on food waste, they hunted small prey that also followed humans for their food. Their close proximity to us protected them from larger predators that we kept away. They were beginning to like us.

Naturally, humans realized the benefit of wolves as they cleared their environment of annoying pests. Therefore, they tolerated their presence. Their keen sense of smell and hearing was very useful to humans by alerting them to danger from larger predators.

Humans were charmed by the young and more sociable members of wolf packs. They slowly invited them to come closer until they became tame enough to join them as friends. The usual characteristics that we find appealing today like soft fur, engaging eyes, playfulness and friendliness have ensured the survival of those portraying these aspects. The more we chose the ones with the features and personalities we found appealing, the more they evolved into what we related to personally.

1.3 Dogs In Agriculture

About 9,000 years ago, having established this mutually beneficial relationship, humans began to trust dogs to help with agricultural work. Adapting to a more settled existence, instead of moving to follow herds of animals for hunting, they started to domesticate and breed sheep, goats, pigs (boars), and cattle (wild oxen). They later included horses that gave the added advantage of providing transport. Just as dogs were capable of protecting humans they also helped protect herds of domesticated animals from predators.

For many centuries dogs have been used by farmers to help in agriculture. During the last few centuries, this was the main driving force behind the relationship between dogs and humans.

1.4 Into Our Homes – Into Our Hearts

In many upper class paintings, over the last few hundred years, we can see the dog moving from an outdoor, functional addition to a household member. They began to have a more personal involvement in human society.

Over the last 100 years, dogs have crept further into human homes lovingly invited. Dogs have always shown the genetic potential to adapt easily to a range of new environments. Their remarkable adaptation to living within a human family, and society is still a source of wonder and endearment to dog lovers everywhere! Dog owners know there is something unexplained about the connection between us. Their willingness to please us, love us, and share fun with us is one of life’s greatest joys.

The domestication of cats is a similar story to that of dogs. Every cat owner knows they are an entirely different kettle of fish than dogs! They similarly evolved by keeping close to humans. They hunted the small vermin that were attracted to the storage of grains, and vegetables which formed a symbiotic relationship with us. However, they kept more of a distance and retained more of their wild instincts. While dogs have quite willingly given up their hunting instincts to a large degree, cats still retain the minds of wild hunters. Millions of cats worldwide are not pets but feral scavengers and hunters – wild.

Cats are the most popular species of pet. They outnumber pet dogs by about three to one. About one-third of US households, and one-quarter of UK homes have one or more cats.

Their relationship with humans is different than that of dogs by showing their differing nature. They show plenty of affection but retain a self reliance that is unique. Studies of generations of cats show they very quickly return from domestication to wild once out of direct human contact.

There is also evidence of cats being kept as pets in the distant past, such as in ancient Egypt, but not as much as of dogs. They have not been subjected to the same level of breeding as dogs. Hence, the smaller number of varieties that exist and their closer resemblance to their wild ancestors.

1.5 Breeding

The process of selective breeding or artificial breeding refers to the human decision to control the propagation of a species by selecting those with particular traits or characteristics for reproduction.

In the wild, dogs would choose mates according to their natural instincts, not because of a docile nature, particular shade of fur, and cute eyes. They have widely spread the gene pool, retained independence, and succumbed to the survival of the fittest rule in nature. This ensured their health and the ability to evolve and adapt successfully to their environment.

Human intervention has changed all of that. For practical and emotional reasons, over the centuries, we have carefully chosen the kind of dogs with the type of characteristics that we want more of – sizes, natures, shapes, attractive looks, colors – and manipulated their breeding among these pools. As it became apparent that continual interbreeding of a particular type of dog weakened the gene pool, and created inherent lines of disease; cross breeding became popular.

When breeding was started by kennel clubs around 150 years ago, the classifications reflected how dogs were integrated into human society:

  • Hounds – bred to hunt using scent or sight.
  • Dogs used for herding.
  • Gun-dogs – trained to find or retrieve wounded game.
  • Working dogs – bred to guard and protect.
  • Terriers – bred to hunt for vermin.
  • Toy dogs – bred for a convenient size without a particular function.
  • Utilitarian dogs – a mix of many non-sporting breeds.

Though controversial, certain types of dogs are still bred for fighting.

1.6 Pet Therapy

What we mean by pet therapy is not taking our pet to see someone to help with their emotional problems. It is the therapeutic value we humans get from our pets. Every dog, cat, and rabbit owner will tell you how much love and joy they feel from the relationship with their pet. The sense of companionship, loyalty, friendship, and fun pets give us is undeniable. Our pets do more than this for us:

  • Studies have shown that a relationship with an animal is therapeutic just like yoga, meditation, and journaling. Playing with or stroking an animal has been scientifically proven to increase levels of the stress reducing hormone oxytocin, and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol; thereby, improving physical health.
  • Patients with high blood pressure have been found to reduce or avoid spikes in readings during times of mental stress when they have pets. Heart attack survivors with pets are likely to add one year more to their lives than those without.
  • Dogs have been found to have a marked beneficial affect on autistic children, and to the disposition of elderly people, patients in nursing homes, hospitals, and hospices. They relieve loneliness, ease grief, and give a safe outlet for the expression of feelings. They create a friendly, warm atmosphere that most humans respond to.
  • Pets help children to see outside of themselves to develop responsibility and compassion.
  • Animals have, on many occasions, relieved depression and suicidal tendencies by giving a sense of purpose, and boosting self esteem.

1.7 Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism means to transfer human characteristics, emotions, behavior, and motivation to non-human creatures, especially to our pets. It is probable that much of the challenging behavior our pets exhibit is related to our anthropomorphism, giving rise to more focus on animal psychology.

Without an emotional bond, we are unlikely to have pets except to serve a purpose such as a guard dog to keep us safe or a cat to keep away vermin. Yet, this emotional bond can lead to issues. Many people look upon and treat their pets like little people. There could be a correlation between the fact that the number of children per household in the western world is reducing, and the number of pets is increasing. Pet owners affectionately refer to themselves as moms and dads to their beloved creatures.

When we share such a deep emotional space with animals, it is easy to understand how some blurring occurs between our objective and logical understanding of how an animal operates, and what we project onto them.

For example, owners who treat a dog like a person might project a sense of responsibility that the dog is incapable of understanding. For example,  punishing the dog when they ‘know they have done something wrong.’ They may have no idea it is wrong but cowers upon sensing your displeasure. We might see a response in a dog that we attribute to a human emotion but it may be an example of how dogs imitate us.

Mostly, anthropomorphism involves interpreting animals’ actions, expressions, and motivations with more depth than they are capable of feeling. Dogs are good at blending happily into human lives. It is easy to understand why we believe their motivations and feelings are the same as ours.

In a Swiss study, 64 dog owners were shown pictures and video clips of dogs interacting with other dogs and humans. Non dog owners were shown the same visuals. Both groups correctly identified dogs’ facial expressions with things like fear and curiosity. However, the dog owners also attributed feelings like anger and jealousy that the non dog owners did not.

The commercial world takes advantage of the emotional relationships with our pets and uses it to sell products adding to their ‘humanization’. Advertisements and movies portray pets as humans. The retail industry sells human clothes and accessories designed for them.

As much as we love them, pets are not human. They are animals and only capable of feeling and thinking like an animal of their species. It creates a much more harmonious environment for humans and pets when we understand this. These points illustrate how you can develop a healthy, loving human/animal relationship with your pet:

  • From a pets point of view, when they arrive at your home they become a member of your pack (rather than family). They will be instinctively working out who holds what place in the pecking order of their new pack.
  • Naturally, you want to establish yourself as the pack leader. If you give constant affection without any limits or rules, a dog will interpret this as him being equal to you, and could lead to trouble.
  • Animals need boundaries and limitations. They need to know first of all that you are in charge, and you make the rules. Secondly, to know how they must behave in order to be accepted in the pack. This must always be done with ‘loving guidance’.
  • Feeding time is an important signal to animals as to who is ahead of them in the pack hierarchy. Those who eat first are at the top – never feed your animal ahead of yourself or your family. Wait until you have had at least some food before feeding them.
  • Animals are equipped with the ability to deal independently with situations and stresses. If you believe your dog is anxious and you comfort her; you deny her the ability to develop resilience so she is able to withstand the next similar situation. She gets the message that she needs you to make it alright and stays anxious. By sharing the fear, she also sees you as a weak pack leader – not good.

What is important to remember is that interpreting your pet’s behavior or reactions through a human lens instead of an animal lens can lead to misinterpretation of what is really going on. Small issues can turn into ongoing ones, and challenging behavior can escalate. We hope that by the end of this course you will have a better understanding of your pet and can enjoy a truly loving bond that benefits both of you.

1.8 Choosing Your Pet

Certain pets can gain popularity and rise in demand due to popular TV shows or movies. For example, the very cute French Bulldog who is a character in the TV series Modern Family, or the St. Bernard in the movie Beethoven. Fish sales increased after the release of the movie Finding Nemo. Labradors have always been popular and became even more so after Marley and Me hit the bookshelves and screens.

The problem with this trend is that for a pet to fit comfortably into their new environment, and for the whole arrangement to work well, a lot of thought needs to go into choosing your pet. Consider the various characteristics of particular breeds. Your pet must suit your lifestyle.

Pet ownership brings responsibility as well as joy. Depending on the typical life-cycle, this can be long term. You need to consider many factors before choosing. Too many animals end up having to leave the home they have become accustomed to. Their needs cannot be met or their habits or presence causes a problem for the owners. Often, people do not see past the excitement of having a pet and are faced with a commitment they did not allow for. This in turn creates an extra workload and expense for animal welfare groups.

1.8.1 Checklist For Choosing Your Pet

1. Are you considering a domesticated pet like a cat, dog or rabbit?

2. A caged pet like a guinea pig, hamster, mouse or terrapin?

3. Maybe a pet whose instincts have not been altered to adapt to a human relationship, like fish, insects or reptiles? These types are more likely to be a hobby rather than providing companionship.

4. Is everyone in the household in favor of this type of pet?

5. How many members will actively involve themselves in taking care of the pet?

6. Can responsibilities be shared and assigned to different people?

7. How often will the pet be unattended? Will these times be an issue for your particular choice?

8. Will your pet, e.g. a cat, dog or rabbit, need access to the outdoors as well as indoors when you are not there? How will you arrange this? What about security?

9. Do you have the appropriate amount of space for the pet?

10. What about when you go away, on business, on family trips, on vacation? Can you bring the pet with you? If not, can you easily make arrangements for their care?

11. Will it disturb you at night time?

12. How much will it cost to buy and to support on an ongoing basis – food, vet bills, equipment, care when you are away, grooming, and insurance?

13. Does it suit your climate?

14. Will it suit your activity level? This is especially relevant to dogs. Do a thorough investigation into the different exercise needs for different breeds. Giving dogs the required amount of exercise daily for up to 16 years or so is a big commitment. Know what you can manage so you and doggie are happy and satisfied. You cannot blame a dog for being hyper such as a Springer Spaniel. They have the energy and enthusiasm to run several miles every day and get naturally disruptive if they do not get it.

15. Can you chew-proof your home?

16. Shedding – this applies mostly to dogs and cats. How much can you cope with in your home? Investigate tendencies and seasonal patterns in different breeds.

17. How will the pet fit your life/lives as time goes on? When children are older? When they move away? When you retire? If you want to consider moving to a new home/country?

18. If it turns out it is not a good idea for you to adopt a pet, there are other ways to have a fulfilling relationship with animals:

  • Encourage birds to your garden with inviting food – ask your pet store.
  • Volunteer to help at an animal rescue center.
  • Become a pet sitter.
  • Foster a pet for a certain length of time.

It is a good idea to talk to a vet before making a decision – she or he will probably be able to answer most of your questions. Also, do research in your library and on the internet. There is lots of information available that will help you make a decision. Talk to people you know who have the kind of pet you are thinking of owning.

When choosing your pet, please give thought to where it has come from. There are many animals in rescue shelters in need of a loving home. The love you will get in return is immeasurable.

1.8.2 Avoid Cruel And Unethical Dog Breeders!

Many puppies are bred in heart breaking conditions for them and their mothers. They are treated in ways we find too difficult to outline here. But take our word for it, there are people who will ‘manufacture’ dogs purely to make money, and pay no mind to their welfare. The more people buy their pups, the more encouraged they are to continue.

Take all the precautions you can to find a pet from a place where they have been lovingly, and responsibly cared for. Support animal rescue organizations as much as you can.

Well Done!