Category "Problem Behaviour"


Are dogs capable of feeling guilt?

Not according to a study done by Alexandra Horowitz in 2009.  In this study, dog owners left their dog in a room with a treat, after having told the dog not to eat the treat.  Some dogs ate the treat, researchers gave some dogs the treat, and with some dogs the researcher took the treat away.  Regardless of what actually happened, some owners were told that the dogs had behaved as the owner wished, that they had not eaten the treat, and some owners were told that their dog had eaten the treat.  All dogs who were told off by their owners showed signs of ‘guilt’ regardless of whether they were guilty of eating the treat or not.

Although research is ongoing, the current belief is that the part of the dog’s brain that does the thinking is too small to be able to process the effect his behaviour will have on others as well as knowing and caring what others are thinking and feeling, therefore dogs are not able to feel guilt.

So why do dogs look ‘guilty’?

We are seeing ‘human’ signs of guilt and are assuming that they mean the same in dogs as they do in humans; avoiding eye contact, deflection, anxiety, apologies.  In dogs, these are signs of ‘appeasement‘ and are used to deflect confrontation.  Rather than your dog trying to tell you that he’s sorry, he’s really trying to say ‘don’t hurt me, I mean you no harm’.

If you perceive the dog to be ‘guilty’ of something then your dog is reading your body language (or your actual !@#$% language) to be hostile and is trying to avoid reprimand or violence.

Dog’s understand consequences (reward or punishment), but associate the consequence with the behaviour that was immediately prior to the reward or punishment.  For example; your dog sits, you give your dog a treat, your dog understands that he was rewarded for sitting.  If your dog rips a cushion up at lunch time and you come home at tea time and smack your dog, he’s not going to understand that he’s being punished for destroying the cushion, regardless of whether you’re gesticulating at the cushion or waving it in his face.  He’s going to associate the punishment with happened immediately before the punishment – you coming home.

Does your dog know what he did was wrong?

Probably not.

To him, ripping up the cushion probably alleviated his boredom.  Can you expect to be able to leave your dog at home for hours on end without some form of entertainment?  Take a look at some ideas for enriching your dog’s life.

If you come home to a smelly ‘present’, has your dog toileted on the carpet to spite you?  No, that’s not how a dog’s brain works.  You may have left him too long, he may have an upset stomach, or he may even be so stressed that he looses control of his bodily functions.

If your dog is chewing at doors and windows, he may be distressed at being left alone.

Is it funny?

No, dogs showing signs of guilt is not usually funny.  If you have a dog that looks guilty, I’d recommend looking at what you could be doing to repair your relationship with your dog.


Firstly, who says it’s bad behaviour?  Not your dog, he probably loves it, that’s why he’s doing it.

Let’s reword the question.  Ignore unwanted behaviour – yes or no?

Dog owner:  “I don’t like my dog chasing sheep, but my dog trainer told me to ignore unwanted behaviour.”

Is ignoring this behaviour going to make it go away?  No.

Should this unwanted behaviour be ignored?  No, this particular behaviour shouldn’t be ignored, it needs to be addressed.

Is the behaviour going to get worse?  Probably, yes.

Why is this behaviour likely to get worse?  The dog’s reward for chasing the sheep is that he’s enjoying it; the enjoyment is reinforcing the behaviour.  Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour increasing, or happening more often.

Really, dog trainers should be advising dog owners not to reinforce unwanted behaviour.

So which unwanted behaviours should you ignore?  You need to look at what the dog finds rewarding about the behaviour.  Are you in control of the reward?  You’re not in control of the enjoyment a dog gets while he’s chasing sheep, but you are in control of the attention your dog gets when he jumps up at you, for example.  One of the definitions of ‘ignore’ is to refuse to take notice of or acknowledge, in other words not to give attention.  By giving the dog attention when he jumps up at you you are rewarding the dog and therefore reinforcing the behaviour.  Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour increasing.

Where attention is what your dog finds rewarding and when you are in control of the attention the dog gets, then yes, you can ignore this behaviour.  This should stop the behaviour increasing or happening more often.  It won’t necessarily stop the behaviour though as reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour increasing.  

So how can you stop the behaviour?  In addition to ignoring the jumping to stop it increasing, you could reward the dog when he jumps off you and all four paws are on the floor, reinforcing that all four paws should be on the floor.  Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour increasing.

If you can predict when the unwanted behaviour is likely to happen, you could also replace the unwanted behaviour with a different, more desirable behaviour, one that would make it difficult for the dog to perform the unwanted behaviour.  For example, you if know that your dog jumps up at people when they come to the house, you could ask him to sit when people come to the house and reward him for that, reinforcing that he should be sitting when greeting people.  Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour increasing, so he’s more likely to sit when greeting people in future.  If he’s sitting then he can’t also be jumping up at people, so the jumping isn’t being reinforced.

You could also train him that a ring on the doorbell means to settle in his bed, as he can’t be jumping all over the guests if he’s chilling on his bed, but that’s a training challenge for another day.

So, what you need to do it stop the reinforcement that the dog is getting from the unwanted behaviour.  Get in touch if you need help.