There are a lot of dog shaming calendars available in bookshops and pictures on social media. They show signs of dogs looking guilty with signs next to them. They concern me.
I feel that anthropomorphism of animals in this way (which often happens to dogs, presumably because they are mans and women’s best friend and live so close to us), can be dangerous and detrimental to their welfare.
Why do I feel this way?
Dogs are sentient creatures. Is it, not therefore sensible to assume that they know when they have done something they shouldn’t have? Well, no, because guilt is a very subjective experience. I may feel guilty for eating the last biscuit in the tin, when I know my Mum would like it, whereas my uncle would not bat an eyelid about doing this.
Many people describe how their dog will look guilty when they have done something wrong. Rather than guilt, the facial expressions are fear (showing the whites of their eyes, pinning their ears back, moving away), they are responding to your body language.
There is no point, and it is infact dangerous, to punish your dog for doing something such as chewing a slipper/shoe/ toileting in the wrong place after you have found the item/ the toilet incident. They will not know why you are telling them off, or anything else and think you’re unpredictable and scary. Dogs can react aggressively out of fear, so there is a welfare concern for them, you and others, if aversive methods are used.
Is he trying to dominate me and do I need to be the pack leader?
There is no valid evidence to suggest that dogs have a dominance hierarchy. In fact, they live together using co operation. It is costly to fight, therefore it’s avoided as much as possible. Dogs learn through experience: if something has worked once, they are likely to do it again. For example if a dog barks and the postman walks away they may think their barking behaviour works, and they are likely to use this behaviour again to help them feel safe. Getting to the root of the fear and using techniques to help them overcome their fear is important. Methods such as shouting, using pain or force can be hugely dangerous and increase the likelihood of aggressive behaviour.
Balanced dog training utilises a mix of positive punishment (adding something such as a pat on the nose to stop a behaviour) and positive reinforcement (giving treats), and negative reinforcement (taking the pain away if the dog obliges- such as a slip lead). Positive punishment and negative reinforcement are aversive, painful and dangerous – they can affect the dog mentally and physically. They could potentially result in a dog who is shut down as it doesn’t know what to do, after all it hasn’t been taught to offer an alternative behaviour that is incompatible with the behaviour that it’s offering: it has only been reprimanded for doing something wrong. Imagine doing something at work and constantly being told off for doing the wrong thing, but provided with no explanation of what to do. Stressful hey?
What should you do instead?
Set up a video camera to see what your dog is doing when you’re out. If you don’t have a video camera, then a zoom session. See if they are showing any signs of distress such as barking, chewing, whining or over vigilance. This can be a sign of separation related challenges or frustration or boredem.
Remember that you have an incredibly close relationship with your dog but they’re not doing things to spite you – they don’t have the mental capacity to do this.
Behaviour can be genetic, due to pain, breed related, learnt or something else.
Reach out for support if you’re struggling from a qualified trainer or behaviourist (a behaviourist needs to have done a university course) depending on what you need support with.
Ziv, g. (2017) the effects of using aversive training methods in dogs – a review. Journal of veterinary behaviour, 19:50-60