Does What We Think of Our Dogs Tell Us More About Ourselves?

“My dog loves me no matter what; she’s my best friend. She understands me better than most people.”

“I shouldn’t have to give treats to my dog to make him listen. I’m the alpha in this household.”

“I’m trying to figure out if Tiffany really enjoys being a therapy dog. Sometimes I’m not sure.”


We all make pronouncements about our dogs. And because they don’t have verbal language, they can’t dispute what we say. And although the science of exploring the intelligence and emotions of dogs is young, we can’t help feeling that we know all about our furry companions. After all, we live with them every day. We must know them.

I suspect what we say about our dogs says more about ourselves than it does about our dogs.

Golden Retriever Chewing a Bone

What's to know? I'm beautiful, I'm friendly, and I like bones. I'm an uncomplicated kinda gal.

In his book, Dog Days, Jon Katz wrote about his lovable lab, Clementine. Clem, he said, would follow anyone with a cookie in her purse out to her car and ride out of his life forever without a qualm.

Living with my own friendly retriever, I believe Honey would also happily ride home with a stranger. (And if you’re getting any ideas, stop it right now. I would hunt you down and hurt you real bad if you ever tried it.)

But I don’t think it’s as simple as Jon Katz seemed to. Honey would look back to see if we were following. She’d adjust to living happily with a new family. But if she saw us again, Honey would remember and go right back to being happily in our presence.

I think Jon Katz’s Clementine would have done the same thing.

And that’s why I think Katz’s firm insistence that Clem would follow the nearest cookie holder without pause tells us much more about him than it does about her.

When I first read Katz’s statement about Clementine, I didn’t recognize it as a statement about the nature of dogs or even the nature of a particular dog. I recognized it as a wound. His statement resonated deep within me as being self-protective more than factual.

In his wonderful blog, Bedlam Farm Journal, Katz reflects on life and healing and spirituality. He’s open and generous in what he writes and shares about his attempt to heal old wounds and grow as a person. When I read it, I wonder if 5 years from now, Mr. Katz will bring a more nuanced understanding to Clementine’s behavior.

Of course, maybe I’m doing the same thing. And you can tell more about me by how I reacted to Mr. Katz’s words than you can about him from writing them.

Dogs serve as a blank canvas for our emotions. We project onto them understanding and empathy or even apathy or willfulness if that serves our needs or image of ourselves. And the real challenge is to see them as they really are, not as we wish them to be. To give your dog credit for the complexity of his emotional life without feeling it exactly mirrors yours.

My dogs from over the years have taught me about myself. Seeing the choices I’ve made on their behalf and how I’ve responded to the challenges of living with them has brought sometimes painful realizations about the kind of  person I am.

But living closely with dogs has also taught me about them: I’ve learned that dogs can be fearful or have poor social skills; recognized that dogs have strong preferences and like to spend their time with compatible people and animals; and recognized that although they adapt well to a life they have little control over, they still need autonomy and decision-making to round out their lives.

Have you ever thought something was true about your dog just to be surprised to find out later it wasn’t? Do you ever wonder if you’re overestimating or underestimating your dogs capabilities? Is there anything you say about your dog that says more about you than about her?

Or am I just full of horsesh*t?

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  1. I had to read your post three times before I really understood it, and yes, I agree. My worries I have about myself are the same ones I can verbally say about the dogs. I’ll have to check out his books.


    • I was worried that this post might not make any sense. This is my third attempt to write on this topic and the other two ended up in the trash. I’m impressed by your tenacity to read any post 3x!

      Katz writes extensively about his own dogs but a more general book is The New Work of Dogs which talks about how people are using dogs for emotional support in an age where we’re increasingly disconnected from other people. It’s very provocative.

  2. Funny you should write about this topic. I’m currently in the midst of Horowitz’s”Inside of a Dog” (I like it so far, but have a qualm or two already). It’s really fascinating to think about what their world is really like – a world of scent – and yet how well they’re able to understand us. Much better than I think we understand them, which then leads to difficult/often incorrect assumptions about dogs and their behavior.

    You make a very salient point. And I really appreciate that you’re able to see it. Charlie has long been my therapist and I know that for a l very long time I saw him as an extension of myself. It’s only since I’ve begun working with dogs professionally that I’m finally able to see him as a dog. It’s powerful stuff.

    Both of my pups might follow someone with a cookie for 50 feet. And then they’d bark at them for being so deceiving and run back to me. Emma might make 100 feet. (I’ve actually tried this with Charlie. After the person tried to lure him out once, he completely ignored, and even chased away with barking, any further attempts to lure him away.)

  3. So what does this tell you about me? Nobody could get near the house to give any of the dogs a cookie? BOL!!

    Yes, I’ve gotten caught up that everything the dogs think and do has to do with me, they are my therapy dogs. The only thing I would argue is that I do believe there is a relationship with dogs that there is a two way street of understanding each other. A give and take between two different species when we allow that to happen. As much as I depend on the dogs, I also have always let them be dogs. More times than not I have try to meet them on their level rather than the other way around. I like the connection it gives me to peer into a pure heart and bond with the true animal I am.

  4. I think this is true a lot of the time, but perhaps not for everyone. It would take a lot of self-reflection for most people to see the truth in it. Think about how many people we see doing the same things with their children, projecting their hopes and dreams onto them. Perhaps it is human nature to make that sort of mental leap.

    Now I’m wondering if I’m a bit schizophrenic, since I tend to notice the good in one of my dogs a lot, while I note the shortcomings in another!

  5. Interesting. I am not sure I fully understand what you are getting at but it has inspired some new questions in my brain. I agree with Houndstooth in that people often project things onto their children and animals, especially dogs. We see them often as we want them to be, not always as they are.

    Now that you’ve got me thinking, however, I do wonder if I look at my dog as I view myself. With perhaps more criticism than necessary. Focussing on the stuff we need to work on, more on the stuff we do well.

    Another reason not to have children, perhaps? I certainly would hate to project those feelins onto a child! My dog seems to handle it much easier.

  6. I’m not sure I project things I feel onto Our Best Friend, (though my husband insists he doesn’t need out as often as I think he does), but I definitely am afraid of being judged by who my dog is. If my dog is out of control, I’m afraid people will see me as a deficient dog owner. I want a well-behaved, well-socialized dog that I can take anywhere and makes my life more pleasant and not more stressful. Funny how that hasn’t worked out….

  7. I’m going to try to be serious here though it’s a tough topic.

    I think The Other Half tends to overestimate Georgia’s intelligence more than I do. I know he does with Rufus! ;P Although I blog as a dog, I have to say I’m not anthropomorphic. I think dogs are dogs and should be respected for what they are. They have different codes of [acceptable] behaviour, emotions and character nuances which, frankly, I don’t believe even the most well regarded dog behaviourist will ever be able to completely grasp. We can deduce, but will we ever know? Kind of like religion – impossible to prove right or wrong.

    Anyway, you didn’t really think Georgia is the opinionated one in the family, did you? Okay. Actually, she WAS terribly so, but is now growing out of it, which makes it hard for me, now that she’s no longer so much like me. Haha?

    Hope you had a good weekend. Can’t believe it’s Monday already. Eeek.

  8. This was one of the best posts I’ve read in a while! It really made me think–what would my 2 guys do? Would they be like Katz’s dog and leave with the cookie lure or stay? I KNOW Toby would stay and I would like to think Sage would also. We have a bond that extends beyond the superficial, but what is important to them? Hopefully, the pack we’ve established.

  9. This is heavy reading for a Monday night! I doubt Beryl would be lured away by a stranger bearing a cookie. Frankie probably could be lured but unless he was promised (and delivered!) lots of possums and rabbits to hunt then he’d soon want to come home:)

    I don’t have children and my 2 dogs are my kids, I love them like they are my flesh and blood. And I treat them like children in that I try and teach them good manners and to be respectable members of society. Having said that, they are also very spoilt, but they still have to behave nicely. I’m lucky my 2 kids don’t take advantage of me and my softness:)

    I’m sure I underestimate my kids capabilities and it’s basically because I’m lazy and can’t be bothered training them to their full potential! But it’s not wrong to enjoy your dogs as they are, is it? I know that when I haven’t got time to take them for a walk before training that they would prefer to go on a walk than go to class. And they HAVE to have a walk before class:)

    Hmm, I’m probably going to wish I’d written this 3 times I think!

  10. One day we were parked in a lot, and while I had my back turned Buster opened the screen door and jumped out. He ran a short distance and jumped in the back seat of a car with a family’s three kids! I think it’s in the nature of dogs to be adaptable. Buster loves us, of that I have no doubt – but he’d adjust happily to living with another family if it were necessary. I, of course, would not adjust so easily.