Has the recent popularity of ‘dog shaming videos’ convinced you that dogs can feel guilt or shame and that they really know when they have been ‘bad’?
There have been great responses from experts in dog behaviour that help explain that it’s not the emotion of guilt that dogs are displaying, but a reaction to their owner’s actions—body language and voice tones.
All true, but only reveals part of the story, as many dog owners swear that they have walked in the room consciously remaining calm and quiet—and their dog still displays the ‘shamed’ look. How can we explain this??
Dogs learn by association. For example, if Fido gets a treat every time he comes inside, he will associate the act of coming in with getting a treat. If he runs into the road and gets swiped by a truck at the southwest corner of your street, he will always be wary of ever venturing near that corner again.
If Fido got into the garbage while you were gone and spread it all over the kitchen and you entered the home with frustration or anger, your body language and voice tones will be more threatening or dominant by nature. You may not have even directed your dismay at Fido but he picks up on all the subtleties and will act submissively to stay in the good graces of the ‘top dog.’
Now the association of garbage being on the floor and you walking through the door and presenting a more dominant demeanor is set. It only takes once and you may never get mad at him again. Every time that same situation presents itself, Fido will show submission as he acquiesces to the leader. The garbage could have been strewn earlier by a visiting child and the dog was nowhere near when it happened. It doesn’t matter as the association is ‘garbage is on the kitchen floor and my leader gets cranky’. It’s NOT, ‘my leader gets cranky when I get into the garbage’.
We make that leap that our dogs are thinking about what they did in the past and then showing their guilt later…they cannot reason that way and will not be able to connect the act of getting in the garbage with your stern reaction unless it happens in the present moment. The teaching moment is when your dog is considering making a mistake. Unless you correct him at the moment he’s thinking about the garbage, he will not be able to learn what the mistake is.
So, yes those doggie shame videos are cute, but they don’t indicate anything more than your dog’s willingness and desire to revere you…even though you can be really confusing at times.