By | January 14, 2013

Many of you have been there; you come home to see garbage strewn about the kitchen floor, or maybe your couch was ripped to shreds. You look at your dog and he is staring back at you with a look of guilt written all over his face. This is something that I hear all the time. “My dog knows what he did.” “She did it to get back at me for leaving her home alone.” This is yet another myth and misconception that we think about dogs. Dogs are not capable of revenge. In order to plot revenge you need organized thinking, planning, and a long term memory. Chimpanzees have this capability, elephants are capable of this, humans are definitely capable of revenge, but dogs are not. They don’t have the brain pan for any of those complex activities.

Dogs do what benefits them. They are similar to humans in that regard. The truth of the matter is that it benefits a dog to rummage through your garbage. Dog food is a very new creation dating only until the industrial revolution. Before that, dogs of all but the rich and powerful were left on their own to find food. Dogs have a few hundred thousand years of experience scavenging, and that kind of evolutionary behaviour is hard to ignore. Moreover, dogs have no concept of ownership, if it is within their reach and unguarded, then it becomes fair game. Now dogs can be taught not to disturb garbage cans, but this is not behaviour that comes naturally to them.

It benefits a dog to rip apart your sofa. Dogs need to chew to relieve stress, relieve boredom and/or exercise their jaws. A leather sofa can appear to be no more than an over-sized raw hide to a bored dog. An upholstered couch can appear as a giant chew toy. Dogs who have been well exercised, both mentally and physically, see little need to engage in destructive activities. Bored dogs or teething puppies are more likely to rearrange your furniture.

It greatly benefits a dog to urinate or defecate on your rug. Adult dogs should not be asked to hold their bladder for more than 6 hours. Puppies should go far more frequently than that.  Asking a dog to hold it for longer can put them at risk for bladder or kidney problems.

Note that all dogs are individuals. Some dogs can hold it all day and not think twice about it, some dogs need to go more frequently than that. Get to know your own dog and if necessary, make arrangements for him to relieve himself during your work day.

Separation anxiety, excitable urination and bladder infections are separate problems and should be ruled out before attempting any new potty training regime.

“But my dog looks guilty!” you insist. Unfortunately, much of what we perceive to be guilt is merely us misinterpreting poor Fido’s communication. Humans have a long and drawn out history of anthropomorphizing dogs. This may be because we love them so much we believe them to be capable of things they are not. We all think that little Bailey is a genius, and maybe she is. But she is still a dog, she  lacks a fully developed neocortex. As previously mentioned, she is capable of basic emotions, not complex emotions. Guilt, shame, and embarrassment are all examples of complex emotions. That look you see is just your own (mis)interpretation of her communication.

What you really see is her reacting to strife within the pack. Don’t believe me? Next time you are in an argument over the phone or yell at someone inside the house, take a minute to glance down at your dog. You will see that she has that same “guilty” look about her. She understands that something is terribly wrong but she does not know what. Her look really means “I understand you are angry, but please don’t hurt me.”

Now if that last sentence broke your heart a little bit, resist the temptation to reach down and hug her, or for the little dogs, fight the urge to scoop him up and coddle him in your arms. If you approach a dog giving you those signals, he is going to feel he is in danger from you. He may feel the need to defend himself. Don’t put either of you in that situation.

A study conducted at Bernard College(1) revealed the origins of the ‘guilty’ look. During the study, owners were asked to show their dogs a tasty treat, command them to ‘leave it’ and then exit the room. While the owners were gone, those conducting the test gave some of the dogs the treat. When the owners returned, some were told they had eaten the forbidden treat, while others were told their dogs behaved. However, the owners were told wrong. Whether or not the dogs looked guilty had nothing to do with whether they had eaten the treat or not. Dogs looked most guilty if they were scolded for eating the treat, but these dogs were the ones who were innocent. The guilty look corresponds to the action of the owners.


(1) Elsevier’s Behavioural Processes