Dogs Are Simple People
And, I certainly don’t mean this in a bad way! I like simple!!
I know how dogs think, I have been training them for almost 20 years and have worked with a plethora of different types of dogs and personalities.
I also believe that dogs have emotions, sometimes not as complex, but they feel the basics just like we do!
Recently I had an argument/disagreement with a dog owner online. I posted a photo with a person pointed at a dog and it says “He doesn’t know what he did; He just knows that you are angry” and we got into a slight debate about dogs and feelings of guilt.
And, today I had a dog owner that tried to convince me that her dog pooped or peed in the hall as some kind of retribution for any indiscretion it assumed the owner had shown against it.
But I know that dogs are simple. They don’t spend their days planning ways to get back at us. They don’t feel guilt after the fact. Like it or not dogs live in the moment.
If he pooped or peed in the house after he got in trouble, it is probably because the confrontation made him need to go potty and he was afraid to come and tell you or spend time with you when you’re angry.
Does stress ever make you need to visit the bathroom? Stress and confusion can cause a dog to make a mistake.
People plan revenge, but revenge and the repercussions and planning of it is not in a dog’s vocabulary or ability. They are just not sneaky creatures! We cannot always anthropomorphize everything a dog does.
The same holds true for dogs and guilt.
Dogs do not think that urinating or defecating (anywhere) in the beginning is bad behavior. It is something that they HAVE to do and is natural for them. It is also natural for them (most of them) to go as far away from their sleeping and eating quarters as possible this is what makes them easier to potty train.
If they hide from you after they have done so in the house, it is because they have previously gotten in trouble for it. I have never seen a 5, 6 week or 8 week old puppy show signs of “guilt” after going potty.
Dogs do not come with a rule book, and for the most part they don’t understand us and our rules at all!
They get in trouble for going potty which is a natural behavior.
They get in trouble for stealing food which is fairly natural and a “survival of the fittest” behavior.
They get in trouble for eating out of the trash; where we store all of our great unused food! For help with that and counter surfing click here.
To Put it Simply Dogs Are Not Small Humans!
They learn through interaction with us, what is wrong and what is acceptable.
Guilt is a very complex feeling and requires remembering and thinking about and focusing on the past.
It is the experience of getting in trouble that gives them that “guilty” or appeasement look. They avert their eyes, they may crouch down, and some even pull their lips back.
Denver the “guilty dog” was a video that was posted about a year ago. It even made national news as she squints her eyes and pulls her lips back when asked “who ate the cat treats”. But this video made many of us dog professionals sad, because we know that dogs don’t truly feel “guilt”. Even renowned behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell was horrified and saddened by the video to read her response click here.
I also feel sorry for the dogs in the similar video with the 3 poodles in the hall. I have often thought that I bet the one that shows signs that he is “guilty” is probably not even the dog that committed the transgression. He is just the dog that wants to appease his owner and make the distress stop! Not all dogs are as sensitive as others… some dogs don’t care about getting in trouble or making their owner’s mad.
But 74% of owners think that their dogs experience guilt and 60% of dog owners say that their dog’s guilty behaviors lead them to scold their dogs less.
But guilty behaviors or appeasement activities; such as avoiding eye contact and keeping the head down reduce conflict and elicit tolerance from other members of the social group/family.
So the question is:
Do guilty behaviors follow from transgressions and the dog knowing what he did was wrong; or are these behaviors a result of previous scolding?
Let’s face it; all dogs get in trouble for something.
Just because your dog is showing appeasement gestures doesn’t mean that you beat him. It just means he knows you are unhappy with him and he cares and wants it to stop. So do not think that this article has anything to do with blame. Heck, my dogs know when I am angry about something, and they have never had a beating; some of my dogs care when I am upset and some don’t!
But many people get carried away when they are livid and find the first transgression.
“Did you do this?? DID YOU EAT THE CAT TREATS?” or “DID YOU POTTY ON THE FLOOR?”
The dog recognizes how VERY angry you are and even though he may not understand why you are so angry, he realizes that he is the cause so he pulls his lips back, or dips his head in what seems like shame; although at first I am sure it is in appeasement and fear. The first time they probably get in this much trouble they are probably terrified! He just wants the yelling and negativity to stop, so he does whatever he has to to stop the behavior.
Think about it from when you were a child and got in trouble. If you accepted and admitted to what you did (even if you didn’t do it) and said how guilty you felt and sorry you were chances are your parents or teacher would be much easier on you. But if you insisted you didn’t do it or wanted to fight, the anger would just escalate!
But dogs are very, very easily and quickly conditioned. They learn more quickly than most other animals how to affect our behavior and how to take cues from us.
Did you know the dog is better at learning our cues than one of our closets relations; the primate?
Dogs are even better at picking up just small cues or behaviors that we show, when we are happy, sad, or even during training. Picking up on these slight nuances, means that our dogs are conditioning to our behaviors under certain circumstances; and this makes them sometimes easier and sometimes harder to train when we are not aware of what they are learning from us!
Knowing that a guilty look or appeasement may lessen the endurance of a scolding the “guilty look” may just be a learned or conditioned behavior!
In 2009 an experiment by Alexandra Horowitz found evidence that dogs were more likely to display behavior associated with guilt after being scolded, whether or NOT they had actually been guilty of a perceived violation in the first place. However (interestingly enough) dogs who had not misbehaved but were scolded displayed more guilt associated behaviors than dogs who had actually misbehaved and been scolded. And, those behaviors also appeared in situations in which owners did not scold the dogs at all.
To read more about this and other similar studies click here.
As much as we want to feel like dogs know what they have done was wrong; the research shows that dogs are feeding off of our behavior (when we are angry) and past experience or conditioning from when they did get in trouble!
Let’s face it; it is a good thing that dogs are simple “people” that they don’t feel guilty or feel the need for revenge!
By understanding these things we can better train, and live with our dogs and lessen some of the negative conditioning they are receiving that we might not even realize!
And less dogs will end up in shelters because people think they are sneaky manipulative animals!!!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.