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Ask A Vet: Does My Dog Know He’s Been Bad?

Have you ever come in the door to a poop pile and your dog sees you notice it and gets the guiltiest look on his face? Or you open your door to a blizzard of pillow stuffing and your dog instantly slinks away? Clients tell me almost every day that their dog “knew he did wrong.” I know (trust me, I completely KNOW) how easy it is to humanize your pets’ expressions and emotions. I laugh just like you do at the pictures of pets doing silly things with captions like “you are home early” or “thank God you are here, the pillow blew up.” But is it fair to your pet to assume she can connect her actions to your reaction?

Smith dogs guilty

GUILT is a human emotion that requires a complex understanding of actions and consequences. Human children cannot even grasp these concepts in many cases. The passage of time has a different meaning to your dog as well. The simplicity and purity of animals is what makes them such a joy and their special knack for living in the moment is the best lesson I think we as humans can get from our animal friends. Thankfully your pet will never premeditate his actions, nor will he understand later consequences.

It is important to think about how animals are completely dependent on their ability to be tuned in to cues from their environment. Being alert to subtle details can be a life or death skill for an animal and you are the pack leader. So when you come in the door and your dog sees you tense as you notice his accident, he is immediately on alert. He can’t connect the poop accident (which may have occurred hours ago) with his actions or your reaction, but he is heightened to your body language of displeasure. He is concerned by your reaction. His body is signaling him that he should be prepared for “fight or flight” because you are stressed and it is written all over you like a flashing billboard. As his pack leader he depends on you to guide him and keep him safe. What he feels is not guilt and responsibility for past actions. He really feels fear, of whatever has created your tension and if you scold him, his fear becomes a fear of your actions too.

So don’t let him down by trying to force him to recognize that his actions are the source of your stress. His brain is unlikely to connect action with reaction. Instead, set up circumstances where he is likely to make better choices. Use his instincts for both of your benefits. Create an environment where house training is easy for him to maintain. If you know that you will gone a longer time than usual, put him in a crate allowing him to fall back on his instinct to not soil his den and encourage him to hold his bowel and bladder. If you have been consistent in his training, you will be surprised how long he can “hold it.” If he has been given every opportunity to make the best choices, then you have set up a “win-win” guilt-free environment for you both.

 

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Written by Dr. Kathryn Primm
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