Many Pack Leaders have experienced something like this before: They arrive home to discover a huge mess. Somehow, their beloved pooch got out of his crate and tore into the furniture. Again. The fluffy innards of your comfy chair cover the floor and the couch. Some of it is even stuck to the curtains.
And where’s the culprit? You find him hiding in your closet. Looking down. Avoiding your gaze. Clearly he knows that he’s been bad and feels guilty about it… so you soften. Instead of scolding him as you’ve done previously, you just sigh and grab his leash to take him for a walk.
Maybe his guilt will keep him from doing it next time, right? Well, that depends on one important question: “Do dogs feel guilty?” Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Wait a minute! But you know your dog feels guilty when she’s bad. She makes her guilty face. She won’t look at you. Sometimes you can tell something you’re not going to like has happened solely because of the way she acts. If that isn’t guilt, what is it?
Where “guilt” in dogs really comes from
Let’s take a quick second to talk about emotions — particularly what scientists define as primary and secondary emotions.
Primary emotions are simple: things like fear or happiness. There’s a wealth of evidence that animals feel these kinds of emotions.
Secondary emotions are complicated: things like jealousy, pride and, yes, guilt. As far as we can tell, they require a mental sophistication that is beyond animals.
So what about those behaviors we see that look like doggie guilt?
Do you know when dogs are most likely to exhibit those behaviors? When they’re being scolded. But here’s the kicker: They do it regardless of whether they’ve actually done anything wrong.
So rather than guilt, the behavior is actually a form of submissiveness. “I don’t know what you’re saying, but you’re mad about something. I’m just going to look meek and let you know that you’re in charge.”
How about those times when your dog acts guilty before you start scolding him? It is a learned association. In other words, the last time you scolded him, there was couch fluff all over the place. So now when there’s furniture fluff, he associates it with being scolded and automatically starts his submissive dance.
What does this tells us about correcting dogs?
The goal in correcting your dog should be to get her to associate doing the behavior with being corrected. In the above example, the dog associated the physical presence of furniture fluff with the correction, but not the actual act of tearing into the furniture.
If you correct her after the fact, the only thing that she is going to know is that you are mad and that the way to get you to stop is to display submissiveness — what we often interpret as guilty behaviors.
This is why it’s so important to carefully time your corrections to interrupt your dog in the act. Do this, and she will come to associate her specific actions with being scolded. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll actually stop ruining all your furniture.