Not Guilty

Everyone knows that when a dog has done something he knows is wrong, he’ll act guilty, right?

Wrong. Dogs don’t really do guilt.

Dogs do learn not to do things that make their owners act like crazy people. They might, when their favorite human becomes unhinged for no apparent reason, try to soothe or appease the source of dinner and walks.

But chances are that whatever behavior has triggered the human’s meltdown happened in the distant past (more than five minutes ago) and was perfectly normal dog behavior. The dog is unlikely to connect his own past behavior with the human’s antics. And if he did, he’d probably still not see any reason to feel guilty.

The common misconception that they do feel guilty arises from, well, appeasement behavior that looks a lot like what humans interpret as guilty or apologetic behavior.

This image (below) — in fact this entire blog post — explains it all. As social animals, wolves and dogs need relationships. They need to communicate, trust each other, and mend the inevitable rifts. They need to prevent other pack members from harming them, hence the broad range of appeasement behaviors. They don’t need guilt.

It’s important that dog owners understand this. Assuming that a dog feels guilty inherently includes an assumption that he knows he did something wrong (or why would he feel guilty?). This is often not the case, so any anger or punishment from the human is simply baffling (or terrifying) to the dog.

The typical  human response to a “guilty dog” is to punish. An appropriate reaction would be to teach the dog what to do and what not to do. Or to manage the situation so the dog didn’t make the same mistake.

  • Dog ate food that was on the counter? Don’t leave food out. Teach the dog that the counters are off-limits.
  • Dog pooped in the house? Don’t leave the dog home for so many hours. Take him for a good walk first thing in the morning. Make sure he goes before you leave.
  • Young puppy chewed your stuff? Provide him with appropriate chew toys and teach him that your stuff is off limits.

Those are all situations where a dog might show appeasement when confronted by an irrationally angry human. Not one of those is a situation where the dog did something “wrong” (in a dog’s world), though he may have broken a house rule or transgressed a human norm.

Dogs need to learn the rules. It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen by magic. Work at it, go to training classes.

If your dog is showing behaviors that you sill think look like he “acting guilty” — and he’s done something wrong, what’s going on? He might know that you’re angry; if you have a close relationship, he might even know whether you’re angry at him or just generally grumpy. In some cases,  he likely knows that you are angry about something he did.

But don’t assume that his attempts to calm you down mean he knows that what he did was wrong and he’s sorry. He just wants you to stop being scary and mad and crazy. He really just wants you to move on, to throw the ball or get him a cookie.

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