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“Guilty” Dog? Think Again!

He lowers his head, looks away, tucks his tail and flattens his ears.

What is causing your normally friendly, happy-go-lucky dog to behave like this? Is it because he feels guilty about the shoe he chewed an hour ago or the trash he overturned this morning after you went to work?

Does he remember his earlier misdeed when you begin scolding him about it hours later and does he “know he was wrong”?

Or is he trying to tell you that you’re being scary and he wishes you would be nice again?

Dog owners often translate a dog’s behavior into human terms – treating the dog as if he were an adult human with a moral conscience.  But animal behaviorists agree that a mature dog’s emotional capacity is comparable to that of a toddler.  A two or three-year-old doesn’t yet understand the difference between right and wrong, but they quickly discover how to do whatever works!  And so do dogs!

A toddler doesn’t “know he was wrong” when he breaks, spills, throws or flushes something adults value.   He’ll react emotionally to an angry adult, but does a two-year-old feel guilty or is he feeling scared by the adult’s anger?

Keep in mind that dogs have the emotional maturity of a toddler.

That’s emotional maturity – not cognitive! Dogs are incredibly brilliant at solving problems and learning complex tasks.

But they’ll never grow up, leave the nest and start their own lives independent of yours!  That’s why we crave having them in our lives!

Because dogs are so intelligent and so close to us, we jump to conclusions about their similarity to humans.  When your normally happy dog reacts to your unhappy emotions by looking “guilty”, he is mirroring your feelings.  If you feel angry, your dog will feel afraid of your anger.  He will instinctively try to appease you by showing you he doesn’t want to fight with you.  His behavior says, “Please don’t hurt me.”  And, “Please calm down because you’re scaring me.”

It’s a huge mistake to treat a dog who is offering appeasement as if he were connecting a thing from his past with you getting angry now.

Dogs are constantly learning better ways to survive in their world. 

They learn through experience how to predict when something good will happen and also when something bad is about to happen.  Remove the lid from their cookie jar and dogs will awake from a sound sleep with bright eyes and wagging tails.  And a thunder-phobic dog will shrink and hide under the bed at the first sign of a dark sky.

Dogs learn by associating things that repeatedly happen in a predictable sequence.  First this, then that.

First, the lid is removed from the cookie jar, then he gets a treat.

First, the sky gets dark, then he hears the frightening thunder.

In behavioral psychology, this kind of learning is called Classical Conditioning. 

What’s key to all of this is that your dog does not relate your present anger to a past event.  Classical Conditioning doesn’t happen in reverse.  What he did an hour ago is in the past and your dog can’t connect what he did then to what you are doing now.

It may be your intention to punish him for what he did five minutes ago, however, that’s not what really happens.  He won’t associate the punishment with a past action.  But he will remember that first, you returned home and then you scared him. And he didn’t know why.  So, it’s possible to condition your dog to fear your return! Why would you want to do that?

So what can you do about your dog’s past behavior?

Is there an alternative to scolding the dog after the fact?

Yes! 

Be proactive, not reactive.  Start by using a good management plan that will set your dog up for success instead of failure.

Teach your dog some basic skills that will help him understand your expectations.  Positive, science-based behavior training rewards your dog for successes and is the foundation for a joyful bond with the dog you love.

If you need more help, it’s easy to contact me.  Helping you is why I’m here!

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