I’ve just seen for the umpteenth time, a video of a, so-called “guilty” dog! I’m sure you’ve all seen them. The 3 Poodles being asked “who did this”, the Lab that ate the cat treats, the poor dog that chewed up a roll of tape, the list goes on and on. If you go to YouTube and search for ‘guilty dogs’ you’ll find hundreds of them. Some are almost heart breaking. Enough all ready! These poor dogs. If their owners really understood canine body language maybe they would stop scolding their dogs and laughing at their attempts to appease them! I just want to cringe each time I see some poor dog huddled in a corner displaying every appeasement signal it knows, while his owner shakes some item at them all the while wanting to know “who did this”. Evidently people find these videos entertaining. I’ve been searching the comments on some of them to see if anyone out there sees what I see. So far I’ve only seen a few comments that seemed to be from folks that are as disgusted about this as I am. Hopefully, people who don’t find this funny just aren’t watching or commenting on the videos. but let’s look at this from the dogs perspective, shall we?
First of all, dogs live only in the present moment. The behavior they are displaying is only in reaction to what is happening to them in the here and now. Those behaviors we are seeing that look to us like guilt are in fact “calming signals”. Eye squinting, grinning, lip licking, yawning, shrinking, turning their head away, crawling away, are meant to tell us that they mean us no harm, that they ‘re uncomfortable with what we’re doing, it’s their attempt to avoid aggression and danger. Unless you’ve actually caught your dog in the act of chewing something up there is no correlation between eating the cat treats and you waving the empty bag around at him hours later. They just don’t have a clue what you’re doing. However, they do learn by association and repetition. They can understand that you are scary when you do that. And if you’ve done it enough, they’ve probably chained together that you coming home means danger, so they’d better get out of your way.
Secondly, dogs view the world in terms of safe and dangerous. Think for a moment about what you’re conveying to your dog when you rant like a crazy person. Dogs do not speak english so most of your words are probably meaningless. But dogs are experts at reading body language, so you’re posture speaks volumes to them. So here’s your dog, happy to see you at the end of a long and probably boring day. And you come at her, your body stiff, bent forward at the waist, pointing a finger at some meaningless thing on the floor or worse yet, waving the thing in her face, and speaking loudly or firmly at her. Okay, lets put humans in a similar situation. You’re in a country where you don’t speak or understand the language. You accidentally trespass into an off-limits area. Strangers appear out of nowhere and start yelling at you and waving their arms around, some may even be pointing clubs or guns at you. You have no idea what they are saying, you have no idea that you’ve done anything wrong. How does that make you feel, frightened, panicked? What if you can’t run away? How do you feel now? Would you drop to your knees, put your hands up in the air, lower your head, beg, plead? Now think for a moment about those threats coming from someone who you trust and love. Think about it happening randomly, so that you never know when to expect it…pretty nerve wrecking.
I’m in no way suggesting here that these dog owners are intending to be abusive. I think that they truly believe that their dogs are feeling guilty. I would love to see every dog owner learn to speak even just a little dog. Dog’s aren’t humans anymore then we are dogs. Dogs have evolved along side us over thousands of years to be our guardians, working partners, nannies, friends. How arrogant of us to think they are nothing more than tiny humans in fur coats. Don’t they deserve to be understood for who they really are? For who they really are, is an intelligent, emotional species that has adapted to our own life style better than any other species on earth!
If you are interested in learning more about canine body language, you can find that on YouTube as well. I would recommend videos from Jean Donaldson and Turid Rugaas for starters.