By Kim Downing, Dog Trainer

You may have heard someone refer to their dogs as their furry children before, and while we do have significant emotional attachments to our dogs, they are not the same as people. This doesn’t mean that dogs should be downgraded, treated poorly, or disregarded. What it means is that one needs to understand that there are some similarities between humans and dogs, but there are also many differences. These differences, in particular, can cause humans to misunderstand their dog’s behavior as well as cause a breakdown in canine and human communication.

Dogs are wonderful animals, and they have so many exceptional traits about them.

But there are a few things that are very different for dogs versus people.

1. Dogs don’t love close touching

This includes kissing, hugging, and tightly hanging onto them. This is a human way of showing affection, and it’s common to invade someone’s personal space on a daily level, but dogs don’t view this intrusion into space as well as we do. Your own dog may not always mind being held or hugged, and some dogs truly do enjoy it. But, you should never, ever do these things to a dog you don’t know or to your own dog if it makes him uncomfortable. You should also learn to read your individual dog. Does he truly enjoy these actions at all or does he merely tolerate them? Dogs are very good at giving off body language cues that can tell you how he is feeling, so read up on what these signs look like so you can avoid stressing your dog out.

2. Dog’s don’t have a moral compass

Ethics and morality is an entirely human concept. Nature isn’t moral, and there aren’t good or bad or evil acts that take place. Dogs think on a natural level, and they aren’t plotting out malicious actions against the humans in their life. If your dog bites someone, he doesn’t think anything of it afterwards. He doesn’t feel guilty at all. This is important to realize because it’s very common for dog owners to feel that their dog operated out of spite (“He pooped on the rug to get back at me.”) or that he knows what he did. A dog may look guilty when you come home after he’s chewed something up or had an accident, but it has no emotional connection at all. In fact he only looks that way because he has learned a pattern of you getting upset when you come home.

3. Dogs don’t have a sense of time

They truly do live in the present. That doesn’t mean they can’t remember people or dogs they have met in the past. They can do that. What they can’t do is make connections between their behavior and what happens any more than about 15 seconds into the past. That’s why it’s so important to have praise and rewards occur in the moment that the dog is doing a particular behavior you like. Dogs learn through patterned, learned associations between a behavior and something that came from it (a reward, for example). They won’t make the connection unless you pay attention to rewarding the dog in the moment.

A lack of sense of time also plays into a dog not understanding when he’s done something wrong. That pile of urine soaked into your carpet from two hours ago means nothing to your dog right now. Remember that when you’re housetraining your dog. You can’t get upset with a dog over something that isn’t happening right now.

4. Dogs are more forgiving than humans

It’s amazing how large their capacity to forgive is. There are some people who have this capacity too, but dogs as a species are incredible. They forgive so many human mistakes in training and in life. You can take a severely abused dog who should hate people and yet the dog still has the capacity to forgive, love, and move on. It’s probably because they do live so much in the present and don’t dwell on the past.

5. Dogs rely more on body language and non-verbal cues

They will always pick that over a verbal cue; whereas, humans are much more language driven. That’s why during training it’s essential that you limit unnecessary or accidental body cues and be very consistent with any hand signals you use.

There are other differences between dogs and humans, but these are some of the larger ones that will most influence your relationship and the training of your dog.

There are also a few similarities between dogs and humans.

A few of the more common similarities are:

1. We are both social animals

Most people and most dogs want and in fact need to be with others. We find comfort in close relationships. This is part of why we can bond so tightly to a dog even though we aren’t of the same species. They want to be with us.

2. We both need to communicate and have ourselves heard

Dogs are exceptional at trying to talk to us even though we use different forms of communication. They learn what works best to speak with you so some dogs will bark or use verbal cues and others will use more body language driven cues. The important part is that we both want and need to communicate. The trick is figuring out the best way to do that across the species barrier.

3. We both learn in patterns although it’s more complex with humans because of language and advanced skills

That being said, dogs learn by association. This behavior happened, and this is what happened next. Humans are the same way. We learn by association things we want to have happen again and those things we want to avoid. Understanding that the pattern is the same for both species really does help with training your dog because you can understand how his associations happen and how he is learning.

There are more things that are different between humans and dogs than there are similarities, but somehow we still manage to forge close bonds with our canines and they with us. Understanding the basic differences and similarities helps you to better understand how to work and live with your dog.


Kim Downing is a professional, certified (CPDT-KA) dog trainer. She is the owner of Your Best Dog Training. She is a Professional Member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and a member of The German Shepherd Dog Club of America. Kim previously worked as a service dog trainer for the organization Paws for Freedom and is also an AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator. She enjoys writing about dogs and training and is the author of Animal Planet Dogs 101: German Shepherd Dog. She has also helped create several training programs. In her free time she enjoys training and competing with her personal dogs.