You come home from being out for the day to find a mess in your home. Whether it is a rug that was used as a toilet, a chewed up ‘non-dog’ item, a trashcan spilled and pilfered, or worse, you are annoyed. You may yell out your dog’s name, and when you see him say "what did you do?" One thing is for sure; he will move very slowly as he approaches you as if he feels very guilty. His head is low, his ears are back, and he cannot look at you directly. But does he feel guilty? Researchers say definitively no, but rather he is being submissive because you are upset. Rather than assuming your dog feels spite and guilt like humans, you are better off recognizing how your behavior is affecting him, and understand what his behavior is actually trying to say.
The Root of the Behavior
Dogs definitely look guilty, but behavioral researchers argue and have proven that they are more likely reacting to your behavior than actually feeling guilt. Dogs do not want confrontation, they want to appease you and make you happy. When you stand in front of them in a tense posture, waving your arms and pointing fingers, using a loud angry voice and saying "look what you did" and "bad dog," they get the message that something is wrong. They can even see the mess that has been made, but they do not connect their making the mess and their actions as the source of your anger. Researchers had dog owners show their dog a treat, tell their dog to leave the treat, and then leave the room. They then had the owners walk back into the room calm and happy as if nothing had happened. All of the dogs responded to their owners with wagging tails and happy dances. Some of the dogs had disobeyed and eaten the treats, and others had not. But, the dogs reacted to the owner’s behavior, not based on their obedience or disobedience. A similar study left a table of food out for the dog and again the dog was told to not eat the food. When the owners returned they did not know if the dog had obeyed and simply greeted the dog as if nothing was wrong. Again, none of the dogs showed ‘guilt,’ even the ones who had disobeyed and eaten the forbidden food.
Dogs learn that certain situations will lead to them being scolded, so they will automatically come to you with an apologetic stance when they have performed a behavior that has earned a scolding in the past. Imagine you come home and your dog has peed in your shoes. Humans assume that such behavior is spiteful, so you become angry. You imagine he is being spiteful since you were out, so you scold him and he lowers his head, keeps his eyes averted, ears back, and approaches youslowly . He will endure the scolding in this apologetic posture in the hopes that your anger will ease. However, it is more likely that your dog was near your shoes to be near something that smelled like you. Out of separation anxiety, he urinated, and it just happened to be in the object he was near to be closer to you. He now knows you are angry. He does not repeat the behavior to make you angry, but he does repeat the apologetic posture to dispel the anger.
Encouraging the Behavior
Once you accept that your dog is not misbehaving on purpose, does not purposefully go out to break your rules, and is not trying to retaliate, you can reframe the way you handle his mistakes. Understanding that his ‘guilty slow walk’ is more about diffusing your anger than about feeling guilty you can take measures to make your home a more pleasant place for you and your pup. Your first step is to lessen or eliminate situations in which he can misbehave. If he gets into your trash, keep it locked up. If he is chewing on your shoes, keep them in a closet behind a closed door. Finding a place in your home that your dog does not have access to for those things he can destroy while home alone should be a high priority for his safety and your sanity. If your dog is urinating or defecating from separation anxiety, consider hiring a dog walker who can come exercise him and give him a break during the day.
A bored dog can be a destructive dog, so leave him plenty of toys and stimulation for when you do have to leave him alone. Second, you need to re-think how you behave when he does make a mistake. Keep in mind that one of his main goals is to make you happy. When you come home and he has made a mess, still greet him as if there is no problem and then without emotion clean up the mess and move on. Your reaction will determine how he behaves the next time he makes a mistake. If he continues to trash your house, consider hiring a professional trainer to seek out why he is destroying things and how you can better manage your household to eliminate these behaviors.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Dogs are not humans and they do not reason the way that you do, nor do they see cause and effect like you do. By ascribing human perceptions and feelings to a dog, you are setting yourself up for frustration. If you shred up paper, point to it and yell "why did you do that?" at your dog, he will look guilty. In homes with multiple dogs, when one dog makes a mess they will all act guilty if the owner seems angry. Dogs are just trying to keep the peace. Focus more on the situation that you are putting him in rather than on how he behaves. Look for why he would destroy out of need rather than out of anger or spite. Dogs look guilty when they feel threatened and scared, not because they know they did something wrong and feel badly about their actions. Remembering that your best furry friend needs you to protect and love him, rather than punish him, can help diffuse the situation.
Dogs may look guilty when they have done something wrong, but that is not the message they are intending to send. They do not correlate their actions with being disobedient. They most likely misbehaved out of a need you are not meeting. Rather than being angry with them, limit their ability to destroy and make a mess, and show compassion when they make a mistake. If your positive approach and changes do not stop the destructive behavior, consider consulting a trainer.
By a Black Lab lover Zoe Byer
Published: 03/12/2018, edited: 01/30/2020