col Dogs' guilty appearance may really be fear

By Dr. Marty Becker

Knight Ridder Newspapers

A neighbor of mine asked me about a problem she was having with her recently acquired rescue dog. When she came home from work, it would crouch and urinate.

This dog had been relinquished by its former owner for problem chewing and, from her description, I strongly suspected this dog had been punished by its previous owner for chewing something in his absence.

I remembered a story my colleague and friend Dr. Janice Willard had told me and asked her to comment on delayed punishment and the appearance of guilt in dogs. Here is her story:



Following a disagreement I came home, still angry, walked in and sat at the dinner table. Silently, I stared at the center of the table until my anger subsided, making no outward sign of my internal commotion. Then I saw Raven, my Schipperke dog. Raven is a confident dog who generally acts like he is in charge of the universe. But he wasn't looking the least bit confident. His head and ears were down, he was cowering and trying to stand and show me his belly at the same time. This was so startling that I completely forgot my anger.

Raven was in a full submissive display. When a dog shows submission, they drop their tails and ears, they lower themselves and crouch to the floor. They may even flip over on their backs, show their belly and urinate. Any canine knows what this display means and will break off an attack when its family member cries "Uncle!"

Raven knew I was angry. I have no idea what sense he used to identify my anger. I had made no sound, no unusual movement. Whatever their radar is, dogs are very good at recognizing our emotional state. Raven knew I was angry and was asking me in dog-language not to hurt him.

Unfortunately, many humans don't understand dog language and we all too often do precisely the wrong thing. If the dog did some misbehavior in our absence, we attribute the submissive display to mean that the dog "knows" it did something wrong and it is being "guilty." Nothing could be further from the truth.

Psychologists have shown that for punishment to reduce the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring, it has to happen at the time or within a second or two of the behavior. It bears repeating -- a second or two. Otherwise, the two factors -- the behavior and the punishment -- are not connected in the brain. Placing your hand on a hot stove is a good example of punishment and avoidance learning. The pain is immediate and your avoidance of the hot stove is quickly learned. Avoiding poison oak, however, which has a delayed effect, is a lot harder to learn. Ask any mother: It takes language, instruction and many repetitions for children to get this message.

Dogs don't have symbolic language like humans. They can't connect the action hours ago with the punishment now. We can execute that abstraction in time and space because of our language and abstract reasoning ability, but they cannot.

What they can do is learn that when their human parent comes home and there is trash on the floor, the parent gets angry and the dog gets punished. The dog is saying, "please don't hurt me" in response to our present anger, not guilt for its actions hours ago.


I wasn't angry at Raven when he went into a full submissive display. In fact, there was nothing that he did that was wrong and no reason for guilt. I have no doubt that dogs, like any other thinking, feeling creatures, are capable of feeling guilt. But the submissive behavior we see when we are angry at our dogs and we generally attribute to a guilty mind, is not guilt. It is fear.

Learn this lesson and both you and your pet will be better off for it.

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