Tonawanda News

January 21, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: Do wagging tails and purrs actually mean anything?

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Anthropomorphism was one of the first vocabulary words that I ingrained to memory. It was an interesting concept to me at a very young age: using words, that are only characteristic to humans, to describe animal attributes. 

Examples include describing your pets as happy, sad, jealous and playful. Animal behaviorists and biologists have been told it is taboo to use these emotional words to describe behavior in animals. These scientists have been told to avoid assuming animals can have the same emotions as humans and record and report only physical actions, and not attempt to find out the underlying emotional state the animal is feeling.

To some point I agree. If I am training the behavior “sit” and the animal is waging their tail, I do not need to know what is going on in their mind. I have learned when the animal is waging their tail, it will quickly react to my presence of treats. If the same animal is growling, I still do not need to know what is going on in the animals head. 

I only need to know the animal will most likely not react favorably to my reinforcement and that I should give that animal a break from training. For me to try and think what the animal is thinking would have me going in circles. Reading body posture would be much more beneficial.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, John (Jack) Bushnell Hanna was widely discredited as being an animal expert from the scientific community. He would go on the television, act silly and talk about the emotional state of the animals he was presenting. 

However, Hanna could do one thing the other scientists couldn’t do: connect with the audience. He could not only create compassion but empowerment and action, which led to conservation efforts to help animals. Today, whenever there is a zoo story, Hanna is the person news stations go to get the information. A few weeks ago Hanna turned 66 years old, and as he ages it is interesting to think who will replace him.

While skimming the internet I found a few anthropomorphic, and fun, lessons we can learn from dogs. Although these are not scientific, they good morals:

When loved ones come home, always run to greet them like they’ve been gone for a year. 

Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joy ride in the car. 

Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy. 

When it’s in your best interest, practice obedience. 

Let others know when they’ve invaded your territory. 

Take naps. 

Stretch before rising. 

Run, romp and play daily. 

Avoid biting when a simple growl will do. 

On warm days, stop to lie on your back on the grass. 

On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree. 

When you’re happy, dance around and wiggle your entire body. 

No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout ... run right back and make friends. 

Delight in the simple joy of a long walk. 

Eat with gusto and enthusiasm. Stop when you have had enough. 

Be loyal. 

Never pretend to be something you’re not. 

If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it. 

When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently. 

Enjoy every moment of every day.

But for myself, I will stick to what birds have taught me: They grieve and they celebrate. They have preferences and habits, good and bad. And they can be jealous, demanding and affectionate.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to, or search for "Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan" on Facebook.