Theory of dogs matching their owners fine,but has its limits

Anna Campbell’s daughter, Hannah, poses with the family dogs Freddie (foreground) and Louis....
Anna Campbell’s daughter, Hannah, poses with the family dogs Freddie (foreground) and Louis. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Many years ago, I handed in an assignment on sea urchins when I was doing a second-year zoology paper at university.

When I received my mark, the associated comment said that I had used "excessive personification throughout" . I was quite astounded, mostly because I had no idea what personification meant.

I looked it up to find that it is "the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something non-human." Clearly, I had crossed some unwritten zoological boundary, which I have chuckled about ever since as I observe its prevalence in human behaviour.

As you know dear readers, I have two dogs, Freddie and Louis. Along with most dog owners, I personify "my babies" in a rather gushing manner. This generally works out OK, they are mostly well behaved and I receive comments like, "Oh what beautiful dogs you have" . I feel the reflected glory, and all is right with the world.

There is something quite tangible in this reflected glory when you put it alongside the theory that "dogs look like their owners" . Michael Roy, from the University of California, was one of the first psychologists to put this idea to the test. He went to three nearby dog parks and photographed the dogs and their owners separately and then asked a group of participants to try to match them up. There were no additional cues for the participants and he found that they were able to work out who lived with whom with reasonable accuracy — a finding which has been repeated since many times.

Back to Freddie and Louis, they are full brothers from different litters. Freddie is the more sensible, elder one of the pair, he is 7 and Louis is 5 — they have reached an age where a certain maturity and standard of behaviour has been established.

Until recently that is, when Louis has exhibited excessive amounts of behaviour that could only be described as sexual. Louis has been neutered for many years but despite this, he has started to try to hump most dogs that we meet.

According to WebMD, humping in dogs under the age of 1 is normal, sexual behaviour, but in older dogs "it can be a sign of dominance, a reaction to something that has excited the dog, or a sign that a dog hasn’t been socialised correctly and doesn’t know appropriate canine behaviour". Clearly, I have not taught my dog "appropriate canine behaviour".

There is a certain camaraderie forced upon dog owners when they meet in a park. As our dogs meet and greet, we stand patiently and make polite conversation. These follow a standard format — "Oh what a lovely dog, what breed is he?" or "Is she a schnauzer, she has a lovely coat doesn’t she?" These niceties frame our dog owning world, until that is, naughty Louis starts humping their precious schnauzer.

In the past six months for some reason, the timeframe between meet, greet and hump has shortened considerably — a quick sniff and then straight up for Louis — barely time for the owners to complete "Hello, what a lovely dog you have".

What does one say when your dog is humping someone else’s dog? I have tried to act like the experienced parent of teenagers that I am and ignore the offensive behaviour. I have tried chortling embarrassedly, apologising and engaging in deep conversation — a difficult act for both parties. Mostly, I valiantly try to straddle Louis to pull him off poor schnauzer — a task that is more challenging than it sounds — he can be surprisingly agile and determined when a hump is in the offing.

I have decided the only answer is to revert to my early zoological training. My embarrassment and any other person’s embarrassment are scientifically incorrect. The personification ends here, just because my dog is willing to hump every dog he meets does not mean that I have a desire to exhibit the same behaviour.

We live in a world where we put up a face — an image we would like to portray. We mould nature and all its wonderful species into that image, including our pets. Isn’t it glorious when nature doesn’t comply?

- Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.

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