Pets | Animal Communication | Behavior

Do You Have an A.P.E. Complex?

Bonnie Kreitler
7 min readJul 11, 2021

If you’re having trouble with your pet, your mindset about human-animal relationships may be the root of the problem.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Blame it on Darwin. The relationship between humans and animals seemed pretty straightforward until he came along.

Before he mused on the origins and connections among species, humans believed that they were the top dogs of the natural world. They believed they possessed unique communication and thinking skills that put all of earth’s other mammals beneath them in the category of “not as smart as us.”

Then Darwin’s travels, observations, and writings stirred up controversies about animal-human likenesses and differences that continue today.

Those of us who love our dogs and horses and cats (and even the mammals still around that might view us as a meal) believe our animals do communicate and think.

Communication wires get crossed, however, when people believe dogs — or any other animal — communicate and think exactly the same way humans do.

The Problem With Thinking

We can all agree that animals don’t communicate in a human speech pattern like English or write as humans do. However, animal-human relationship problems begin when people assume that the animals in their lives think, analyze, and plan the same way we do. That they experience life from the same perspective as we do. Even have and express feelings exactly the same ways humans do.

Heck, what if you expected that all the people in your orbit (sibling, spouse, best friend, co-workers) thought exactly the way you do. Reacted to situations the same way. Had the same emotional responses.

That isn’t going to happen.

So why do people expect that the animals in their lives will observe, react, or have the same feelings in a given situation that they, as a human, do? Three mindsets can impede a satisfying relationship with your dog, cat, horse, rabbit, whatever critter.

Just for fun, let’s call this trio of mindsets the human A.P.E. complex. Do you have one?

A is for Anthropomorphizing

Anthropomorphizing means assigning human characteristics to an animal.

For example, your toddler crawls over to your Saint Bernard and begins “cuddling” and “playing” with the dog. Sooo cute, you think. That giant dog just lays there like an indulgent nanny.

Meanwhile, “Nanny’s” body language might be telegraphing she is desperate to relieve the discomfort she feels as this crawling human lays on her back, knees her belly, and pulls her hair. Her anxiety grows by the moment.

Stop anthropomorphizing and notice her slight panting and tongue flicks.

Notice the whites of her eyes are showing as a calming signal. Then you might proactively rescue Nanny from the anxiety she feels about your toddler’s shenanigans. And rescue your toddler from a potential nip or worse. Before poor Nanny gets blamed.

P is for Projecting

Projecting means that you think your animal experiences some feeling you’re actually having or trying to pretend you don’t have.

An example might be coming home to find a chewed boot in the hallway. One of a favorite pair, which is no longer a wearable pair. Your face clouds over, maybe you even start yelling. You lean over and shake the shoe in your pet’s face. Bad dog! Your dog cowers, hangs his head, lowers his gaze. Maybe pees on the floor or submissively shows his belly. Or all of the above.

“See! He’s acting guilty,” you declare triumphantly.

Meanwhile, the real reason for your outburst might be that you’re angry with yourself. You know your dog’s shoe fetish. And you feel guilty because you didn’t put those boots in the closet before you left.

Your dog isn’t acting guilty. He chewed that boot hours ago. It carries your marvelous aroma. Maybe he needed to do something to soothe his anxiety about when you might be back. Maybe leather just gives so much chewing satisfaction to his teeth and gums he couldn’t let an opportunity go by.

To the dog, there’s no connection between chewing that boot hours ago and the raving, threatening human now waving it in front of his face.

What’s a dog to do? Just offer some submissive signals and hope that the raving human will notice them, calm down, or go away

E is for Expecting

Every dog has its own distinct personality. Every dog has a unique set of life experiences. Expecting a new pet to be just like or similar to a former one isn’t realistic. But many people are disappointed when a new dog doesn’t behave like a dog they had before.

Similarly, expecting your dog to just hop into an elevator with sliding doors and a moving floor is not the same as successfully navigating different kinds of stairs. One behavior doesn’t necessarily predict the other. Even if the human understands that an elevator or a staircase accomplishes the same goal.

The third of The Four Agreements in Don Miguel Ruiz’s philosophical book by that name is don’t make assumptions. “We have the tendency to make assumptions about everything,” Ruiz says. “The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth.”

We see a cute face on the internet that reminds us of a beloved pet. We build up expectations about this new relationship. We make assumptions and build stories around them about what this new dog is going to be like. We dream of what our new pet will be like.

Then the rescue arrives. And the new dog’s personality and behavior don’t align with our expectations. We are not pleased. The poor dog is off to a bad start through no fault of its own.

Or because our dog plays gleefully with the neighbor’s dog, we assume that she’ll also love the mob at the dog park.

When our expectations about a fun time aren’t met or a fight breaks out instead, we blame the dog. What’s with her? Why does she behave that way?

But who’s responsible here?

Some A.P.E Fixes

Fixing an A.P.E. involves changing your mind. Recognize if you’re anthropomorphizing, projecting, or expecting. Then choose to stop.

Study the way that your pet thinks, reacts, and communicates under different circumstances to find the common ground where you can meet and move forward without drama or disappointment.

Be observant. Body language is a common ground we share with animals.

Every species has its particular body language. Learn to read it without projecting or anthropomorphizing. Take Luiz’s advice and make no assumptions about your animal’s behavior based on human body language or facial expressions.

For example, if you have an anxious dog, how far away from another person or another dog does your dog need to be before his body language signals stress? Does it make a difference whether you are between your dog and the other person or dog? Do you throw your pet into new situations with the attitude of “deal with it”? Or are you a supportive advocate for good experiences?

It helps to keep notes on your observations. Over time, patterns will emerge. You’ll see which training approaches motivate your pet’s personality, which techniques work best to modify her behavior, and how environmental changes affect your pet.

Studying the nuances of animal body language in photos is a great starting point.

Body language often involves tiny movements that are easily missed in a video.

Some Helpful Starting Points

Turid Rugass’s On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals offered me some valuable visual lessons that I now apply with any new dog I meet.

I wish I’d carefully studied Sarah Whitehead’s He’s Only Playing! Meeting, Greeting, And Play Between Dogs. What’s OK and What’s Not before we visited dog parks with our newest pup. If you plan to use dog parks for training or exercise, this pamphlet can help you avoid bad actors at these canine playgrounds.

Patricia McConnell’s The Cautious Canine: How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears is a great primer on how to make careful observations then use them to create a training plan. While McConnell explores a specific problem, this short manual is a good template for addressing any training challenge.

Keep Going

Training a dog takes time and effort. Commit to the time it takes. Find help if your initial approach isn’t working. And remember that even professional trainers mess up from time to time. That’s OK. Mistakes are learning opportunities. If one approach doesn’t work well for your dog, try another. Don’t get discouraged.

Just keep going.

And if you work on your A.P.E issues, you’ll be better equipped to help your pets through whatever their training issues are. Win-win!

© Bonnie Kreitler 2021. All rights reserved.

Writer Bonnie Kreitler creates content to help fellow animal addicts build rewarding relationships with the critters in their lives. See more at www.ramblingdog.comWhat’s not to like about that.

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Bonnie Kreitler

Author, journalist, animal addict, observer, and explorer creating connections between our critter relationships and life lessons at