Do dogs misbehave out of spite or anger? That’s a question I get asked a lot, including recently by a reader. I turned to my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker, for an answer.
Q: My boyfriend was two hours late getting home to feed his corgis, and one of them pooped on the kitchen floor. They had access to the yard, and it was a nice day. I think the dog knew that pooping in the house was wrong (he even looked guilty) and was being spiteful because he didn’t get dinner on time, but my boyfriend insists that dogs aren’t spiteful. Who’s right?
A: We are so close to our dogs, and so often they communicate with us so perfectly that it’s easy to think that they share not only our great qualities but also our less admirable motivations, like “getting even” or “being spiteful.” Those are complex emotions, though, and as wonderful as our dogs are, they aren’t capable of those sentiments.
That guilty expression isn’t an actual acknowledgment of wrongdoing, but what psychologists call an “appeasement behavior.” Our dogs can tell when we’re upset with them, even though they have no idea what might have caused our angry expression or tone of voice. In response to what they perceive as intimidating or threatening body language, they do their best to try to diffuse the situation by offering behaviors that signal submission or peaceful intentions. To us, though, it looks as if they’re saying, “Yes, I did it, and I’m sorry.”
In reality, dogs have no idea why we’re angry. They can’t connect the act of pooping in the house two hours previously with your current dismay over the mess. A dog who poops in the house while his humans are away isn’t trying to get back at them for leaving him alone or for being late with dinner. It’s more likely that he is anxious because his routine has been disrupted. – Mikkel Becker
Read more, including an update on feline mammary cancer, in this week’s Pet Connection!