Dog as Inkblot?

March 2, 2009 at 5:24 am 4 comments

Pareidolia, the phenomenon where a person believes he sees significance in stimuli that have none is the basis of Rorschach inkblot testing.  Psychologists who use the test believe that our interpretations of patterns in the blots are based on the patterns of our mental and perceptive processes, not the patterns of the blots themselves.  The Rorschach is a projective test where the patient is believed to project his personality traits into the inkblot as they interpret it.  Projective tests like the Rorschach are designed to encourage subjects to respond to ambiguous stimuli and thereby reveal hidden emotions or internal conflicts.

The test was developed by Swiss psychoanalyst and artist Hermann Rorschach in 1921 after he noticed that children that had different psychological problems  responded in different ways to the popular parlor game  Blotto.  Victorian Blotto players would create inkblots then compete in developing elaborate descriptions of them (note: this differs significantly from the modern version of the game).

The test quickly gained popularity and by the 40’s and 50’s, it was the test of choice among clinical psychologists. The test is still used today but it’s less popular than it was in the past because many psychologists see its interpretation as problematically subjective.  The shape and pattern of the inkblots are ambiguous, so each subject must project his own thoughts, feelings, and narrative to make sense of them and the therapist must use his judgement in scoring the results.  Because our responses to these kinds of tests are, at least to some degree, subconsciously elicited; projective tests like the Rorschach are believed to be especially useful in situations like criminal forensics and employment screening where the test subject may not be willing respond candidly.

Other projective tests like the Thematic Apperception Test, Children’s Apperception Test and Blacky test ask subjects to tell stories about pictures they are shown. These narrative tests provide insight on the content of a person’s thinking, whereas the Rorschach provides information on thought process and forms.  The Children’s Apperception Test and Blacky Pictures use drawings of animals to elicit responses and an Animal Thematic Apperception Test has been designed specifically to assess attitudes toward animals.

Why are projective tests valuable?  Well, as a species, we humans tend to greatly overestimate causality. We like need to see the world as a nice orderly place that makes sense, so we seek explanations for situations even when there are none.  This drive to make sense out of nonsense helps explain why a devout Christian sees an image of Jesus on a dog’s bum and a neurotic dog owner sees the Freudian reflection of his own unresolved bed-wetting issues when his dog refuses to pee outside.  Our dogs have become furry Rorschach blots.

Because dogs can’t talk, we dog owners often speak for them. Inwardly and out loud, we put their actions and expressions into emotional and intentional context.  Our dogs are more than just companions, we see them friends, brothers, children, protectors — even adversaries.  While dogs and men evolved to live together, no human is born speaking dog; so their behavior can be both comfortingly familiar and maddeningly perplexing to us.  To add another layer of complication to the matter, our social identities are tied to the way we perceive them our dogs too. We don’t just love our dogs for who they are, we love them for what we think they say about us.


The emotions and intentions we project onto our dogs typically take the form of complex narrative.  And while much of this interpretative narration is part of a healthy reciprocal, thoughtful relationship — sometimes it can lead to serious problems. As we project ideas and emotions onto our dogs we need to remember that they don’t think, feel and react the same ways we do.  And, like it or not, we should also keep in mind that part of the function of this narrative is to satisfy our desire to have our hopes and fears mirrored back to us.  If we project our fears onto a dog we can create a problem where one didn’t exist.  In projecting our hopes we can blind ourselves to problems that are obvious to others.  


Our minds have a very strong tendency to create images that fulfill our preconceived ideas, hopes or fears.  This can be as amusing and  harmless as seeing animal shapes in clouds. But when it’s combined with dysfunctional ideas or intense emotions, pareidolic observation can be a huge problem because it provides us a with very strong built-in validation of those feelings and beliefs. Our imaginations are really good at convincing us we’re right — especially when we’re not…

As a dog trainer I’m often confronted with dog owners who are completely and utterly convinced that they “know” what’s wrong with their dog — and who are also completely and utterly mistaken in their beliefs.  The woman who was a abused by her father and is now positive that her dog hates all men.  The man who seeks freedom from the restrictions and limitations his work and family place on him and is convinced that his dog can only be happy if he’s allowed to run free. These  people see the idealized dog they need to validate their world view; not the living, breathing one sitting right in front of them.  And they’re making their lives — and their dogs’ lives — a lot more complicated than they need to be.

Perhaps therapists should explore the relationships we have with our dogs instead of using Rorschach blots to ferret out our hidden thoughts, fears and desires.  Dogs are comfortingly familiar and charmingly mysterious.  Our images of them are ambiguous and emotionally charged at the same time. We’ve turned them into perfect projectors of our inner selves — like Rorschach blots on steroids.


Entry filed under: behavior science, dog training, dogs, science. Tags: , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jill  |  March 2, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    True enough. APO using dogs to project a wide range of *human* psychological flotsam and jetsam; unhappily, the phenomenon isn’t limited to APO. More frightening are the self-annointed (or board-certified) dog behaviorists who look at a dog and see only $$$.

    Or the best-selling authors who’ll project on to the dog, then throw the dog under the bus…sit back and collect royalties off the book and movie-deal.

  • 2. Gail  |  March 2, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Jesus on a dog’s bum!Thanks for the laugh this morning. Thanks also for the good posting, and thoughtful writing.

  • 3. SmartDogs  |  March 2, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    I find it interesting — and distressing — to note how many trainers and behaviorists project almost nothing other than fear onto dogs.

    Why? Are they afraid of dogs? Are they afraid of taking responsibility for dogs’ actions? Are people with huge amounts of unresolved fear, stress and confrontation issues inordinately attracted to the field?

    Or have they (like some now in Washington) discovered that fear is a valuable tool to manipulate others’ behavior? After all, why wait for a crisis to occur when you can manufacture one to take advantage of….

  • 4. Audie's Gramma  |  March 2, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Afraid of life.

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