Does your dog pout? Do they perpetually have a frown on their face and make your heart stop when you see it? There are many good scientific arguments that state dogs do not have the capacity to feel sadness or remorse and yet dog owners everywhere see the sadness painted across their face. Could these theories be right even though the evidence is in front of us every day to the contrary? Many of these arguments state this is a learned behavior and we see the sadness on their face simply because we taught them that appearing to be sad can get them what they want.
Let's take a look and see what this is all about.
The Root of the Behavior
When it is said that this is a learned behavior the meaning can often be lost on people. This is not to say that you have taken the time to train them to appear sad or physically went through the process teaching them to act this way. Rather it is a learned behavior because they act sad knowing how we react to that cute pouty face. It is learned through daily lessons which reinforce this behavior. Assume for a moment your dog has done something wrong, how do you react?
It is fair to assume you get upset and try to show your dog what they did wrong and reprimand them for that behavior. If during that process, they seem very sad and remorseful, you may react differently then you would if they seemed to not care about it. They act sad because we have shown them that if they do they will be forgiven more easily. In this sense, they are not likely actually feeling remorse, or at least not how humans feel it, but rather exhibiting the behaviors and outward actions of what we consider remorse in an attempt to receive less of a punishment or an easier path to forgiveness.
This all goes to say that when you see your dog appearing to be sad, consider the circumstances that have brought you to that point. Evaluate what your dog actually has to be sad about and you will be able to identify more easily when they feel true sadness compared to when they are displaying the emotion of remorse because they know that is what they need to do to earn your forgiveness most easily.
Dogs are not sociopaths, however, and sadness is a real emotion your dog can be feeling. This is not to say that is the only reason your dog may appear to be sad but sadness can occur in dogs often when something impacts their daily life. If they recently lost a friend or someone has moved away from home then this behavior is typical.
Encouraging the Behavior
The sad truth of it is they will likely always behave this way, at least to some degree. If they pee in the house and you go after them for doing that, they will act sad because, even if it is only subconsciously, it will reduce the punishment they receive. It is hard to punish something so adorable as a pouty pup.
If by sad you are thinking more of their resting face, just always appearing sad due to their natural physical features, then we may need to discuss this differently. Human and canine companionship over thousands of years has changed the physiology of dog breeds drastically and to many humans the adorable features that can often mimic sadness were sought after.
The features people liked most have been passed down from generation to generation, so facial structures like these were often bred when other facial features were not bred as often, making more and more dogs have these features while dogs that look mean or otherwise have features that were not considered desirable were not bred and those features fell out of the gene pool. This manipulation from humans has essentially specifically chosen the features our dogs carry today, and as human preferences change with the times, so will the features our dogs are most likely to carry.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Your dog can and may be suffering from some sort of depression or chronic pain that is causing them to feel and act this way. A veterinarian or behavioral specialist is really your best and only option in cases like these as treating the underlying issue of their depression needs to be done before the happiness can return. Many different illnesses can cause depression as well as just a lack of activity and things to do. Make sure they get plenty of exercise and have toys and games they enjoy throughout the home. If they have an underlying medical issue then the help these steps give may be limited, but without one, these steps will likely cure the depression in its entirety.
They may pretend to be sad, just have a sad looking face or truly be sad, and unfortunately, there is not one cure-all. Figure out which category your dog falls in to and you will be well on your way to correcting the behavior as best you can. Dogs will always have a reason or two to be sad, and you're not going to eliminate this behavior entirely, but you can make sure they are happy regardless of how they look.