Owners of rescued dogs often tell me they think their pets really do understand how lucky they are to have been taken into a good home, and that they seem thankful to their adoptive families. I can relate to that sentiment. My adopted borzoi, Skylar, is the epitome of the “thankful adopted dog.” He seems to exude thankful cheer in nearly every situation (except bath-days.)
A treat? Oh, my gosh! Thank you so much!
A car ride—again? Could life get any better?
Breakfast and dinner, too? I’m the luckiest dog in the world?
A snuggle up? I could just burst with joy!
Yes, I’m guilty of anthropomorphizing my dogs, which may seem odd coming from a professional dog trainer when so many modern dog experts discourage it so vehemently. But what does it mean to anthropomorphize something, exactly? Merriam-Webster defines it this way: “to attribute human form or personality to things not human.”
Certainly, the culture of dogs is very different from that of us humans. Our languages are miles apart. Our customs differ drastically. But I’d argue that dogs do experience emotion. Joy, fear, sadness, loneliness, anguish, irritation—I don’t believe that these are exclusively human feelings.
I’ve seen all of these emotions in various dogs I’ve met through the years. In my heart of hearts, I recognize these emotions in dogs when I see them, and I know that this doesn’t qualify as anthropomorphizing. (However, I’ll admit that when I actually come up with voices for my pets and narrate in English what I imagine they might be saying, that’s undeniably full-blown anthropomorphization!)
Still, is it fair to go so far as believing that a rescued dog is thankful for landing in a loving home? Let’s consider what it means to be “thankful.” Merriam-Webster defines it as being “conscious of benefit received.”
I do believe that dogs are capable of being conscious of the benefits they receive through their relationships with their humans, but I can understand how that might be hard for some people to swallow. I had a discussion along these lines with a good friend of mine the other night, in fact.
My friend argued that it is an inherent part of Skylar’s personality to behave in a cheerful, seemingly appreciative, manner. He thinks Skylar would behave the same way in practically any situation he was thrust into. I have my doubts.
Given how wary Skylar was of humans when he first came to live with me, I doubt that that he felt happy and cheerful during his time in a New Jersey shelter. The rescue organization I got him from told me that after they found him from that shelter, they adopted him out to a woman who had more than a dozen cats and three or four other dogs. Considering that she returned him to the rescue organization after keeping him for about three years, saying she had never bonded with him and needed to tend to a favored dog who had cancer, I suspect that Skylar got food and shelter, but not much affection, in that home.
He still remains a bit shy of strangers (men in particular) despite two years of consistent behavior modification work and a prescription for Prozac. However, he’s playful, loving and snuggly with me—as he’s been from the first day I brought him home.
In any case, whether or not we can say that Skylar is actually thankful to have been adopted into a loving home at long last, I’m certainly thankful that he joined our pack. Although I was a bit reluctant to take him on when the rescue asked if I might at least foster him for a while, I’ve never once looked back since day three of our time together when I decided he had, indeed, found his forever home.
In the end, I guess it’s simply impossible for us to really know what goes on in a dog’s mind. I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand how they experience the world around them. All we can do is draw conclusions based on our observations, whether scientific or anecdotal. This may just be a topic over which some of us will ultimately have to agree to disagree as we hold our own beliefs close.
As for me, I truly believe that dogs can be thankful, and I also believe that there are lots of well-deserving homeless pets out there who’d be thankful to find their own forever home. If you’re an experienced dog owner with space available in your pack, please consider whether adopting from a rescue or shelter might be a good option for you. If you have a rescue or shelter to recommend, please feel free to leave their contact information in a comment.