Anthropomorphize No More

Yes it’s an awkward title but sparked by an article that came to my attention about a recent acknowledgement in the scientific community that mammals and some other life forms do indeed have consciousness. In July 2012 the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was adopted at the first Francis Crick Memorial Conference. An excerpt from the declaration reads as follows:

“Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological  substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other  creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”  So controversial has this hypothesis been that a mere 10 or 20 years ago young scientists were advised not to consider publishing any statements that might allude to this newly-accepted fact or their careers would stall, if not end. Some pet owners and animal lovers among us are likely saying “we knew this all along. What has taken them so long?”

Whatever the reason for the tardy discovery, this truth forces us, as a species, to rethink everything we do in relation to the creatures with whom we share this planet. Our industrial approach to food derived from animal products, our scientific research models that rely on animal testing, our relationship with pets and other captive animals, all must needs be re-imagined.

In that re-imagining the concept of anthropomorphism could become outdated. Even animal lovers often subscribe to the belief that we must be careful about relating too personally with animals lest we risk anthropomorphizing them. Perhaps that is no longer a risk. There is however the continuing risk of ascribing motives and feelings to our animal friends that are not based in reality. They are often based on inaccurate assumptions and fuzzy thinking – something that we tend to do with our human friends.

A number of studies have been done that seek to determine if dogs really feel guilt  when caught during or after committing a ‘crime’. While the results are mixed there was evidence to suggest that in some dog-human relationships, assumption might play a part in the outcome.  (Retrieved Jan 2, 2013.

In the study a researcher set up a scenario where dog owners were asked to put out a treat and instruct the dog not to eat the treat while the owner left the room. The researcher stayed with the dog to watch its behaviour.  With the owner absent the researcher hid the treat and told the returning owner that the dog had disobeyed and eaten the morsel. The owner’s reaction was evident each time – he/she was shocked and scolded the animal for being disobedient. Now here is the interesting part: in each case the dog exhibited “guilty” behaviour despite not actually being guilty. The researcher verified with the owner that this was the dog’s typical ‘guilty behaviour’ before letting the owner in on the plot. The deduction from this experiment seems to prove that man’s best friends know how to behave according to our expectations of them. It also demonstrates that we don’t necessarily know our dogs as well as we think. Because they are like us in some ways we assume they are like us in their motivations, emotional responses and decision-making capacities. They, it turns out, know us well and know how to respond to cues that we are often unaware of giving.

This idea, that we get the behaviour that we expect, is fundamental to parenting and to managing people. While coaching with horses and people I have witnessed the same type of reliance on assumptions and of course been subject to it myself. This tendency we have to take mental short cuts – make assumptions – is often what gets us into trouble in relationships. Recent research in how the brain operates proves this out. (For an interesting article on the topic of our innate mental laziness check out the New Yorker magazine at Retrieved Jan. 5, 2013)

One of the reasons I love coaching with horses and use the method that I have chosen, is that it gets to the heart of clear communication and conclusion-jumping.  In relationship we are operating on a complex mix of assumptions, expectations, and knowledge. Horses are familiar enough to us as mammals that we can recognize common attributes and responses and yet they are different enough that we are not able to readily predict and understand all their behaviours. It is common for people, even experienced horse people, to label an unanticipated behaviour as “bad”, “laziness”, or to dismiss it as past of the nature of the horse – unpredictable. It turns out that horses are as predictable as humans and if we take the time to understand their language and culture they cease to be mysterious.

When interacting with horses we can develop the discipline of testing our assumptions, practicing clear communication,  making our expectations conscious, enhancing awareness of the moment, and improving our understanding of ourselves and our impact on others. Often – actually invariably – my clients recognize similar situations in their human relationships and find new options for reframing ‘stuck’ relationships or responding in more productive ways to achieve clearer communication. Invariably learning occurs and is usually vividly memorable. The experiential nature of equine facilitated coaching is powerfully effective because all of our being is involved in the experience – sight, sound, touch, smell, intellect, intuition, and yes, even our souls.

Horses, and other animals, are sentient beings deserving of much more consideration than we humans have typically given them.  As long as we place ourselves hierarchically above others (human and non-human), we risk missing the richness that the universe offers. We risk making bad decisions based on incorrect assumptions, not to mention we risk not knowing ourselves for who we really are. When we are humble enough to admit that we humans tend to be conclusion-jumpers, we become truly curious and open to the possibility of reaching a more accurate understanding of reality.

“Until animals have their own storytellers, humans will always have the most glorious part of the story.”  Retrieved January 5, 2013 from