Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The great debate

The scenario: Your dog pees on the carpet while you’re gone. You return home and open the door to find your dog sulking, with his tail tucked and wearing the best sorrowful eyes he can muster.
The great debate: By displaying the sulking behavior, does your dog “know” he did something wrong?
I remember walking Sensi with a friend of mine and her dog when the sticky issue came up.
Like Sensi, her dog has some fear issues. Unlike Sensi, she also has some anxiety issues that flare up when she’s left alone.
This dainty lady, a likely shepherd-pit bull mix, would frequently take her anxiety out on the vertical blinds covering the door wall. My friend would return home to her find her dog in the foyer, tail tucked and looking guilty.
“When I find her like that, I know she did something,” my friend said. “I say, ‘What’d you do? Did you do something bad?’”
There’s no debating with my friend — to her, the answer is clear. Her dog is always happy and waggly when there’s been no incidents. And every time she sulked, my friend walked farther in her house to find some sort of mess. The dog knows, she swears, and the record of behavior proves it.
“But you’ve got to understand, in order for a dog to make a connection between a consequence and a behavior, the consequence has to be immediate,” I argued. “She doesn’t ‘know’ that what she did was wrong, and punishing her at that point doesn’t do anything to address her blinds-destroying habit.”
I do believe that dogs may make an association between a situation — like blinds being on the floor — and being punished when their human gets home. The guilty look, then, isn’t guilt at all, but anxiety.
The dog is anxious about their human arriving home because they have an association between blinds on the floor and human walking in the door angry.
It doesn’t mean they understand their action — be it ripping down blinds or relieving themselves on the carpet — was wrong.
I usually never win these arguments with people.
What’s your take on the great debate?
Leave me a comment, share your experiences and maybe I'll be persuaded.
Does your dog know when it does something wrong and what makes you believe he/she knows?


  1. If you're asking if I think my dogs have a moral compass similar to us, I would say no. I don't think dogs have the same sense of right and wrong that we do, no matter how much we may be anthropomorphizing them.

    I believe when my dogs sulk after doing something, it is because they associate the action with being scolded or punished, not with the moral concept of being "wrong." They just don't want to be scolded or punished. There's a reason dogs are trained using a reward/punishment system. They learn actions based a a very primal cause-effect relationship. Anything that gets them positive attention/rewarded is "good" anything that will get them punished is "bad." There's nothing moral about it.

  2. Jerry Wolffe, Voices of Disability columnistMarch 10, 2009 at 3:44 PM

    Are you kidding? Of course, dogs know when they are in trouble. A week ago Sunday, my service animal, Mr. Norton, snuck out of the bedroom where my wife and i were dressing. He went into the great room and swiped the peanut-buttered covered bagel my wife makes for me every weekend. Sometimes Norton and I have a ritual of me sharing a bit of peanut butter from my fingertip with him. HE LOVE IT. My wife finished dressing quicker than I and I heard her yelling: "BAD DOG, BAD DOG NORTON. YOU KNOW BETTER!" So Norton came trotting back to the bedroom and tried to hide his 85-pound lab-retriever body behind me and escape my wife's wrath. He had his head down and was moving plenty fast to seek refuge behind me. Sorry, but I just told him: "You did it, Pal, now you have to take the consequences of your bad behavior." He kind of moped around all day the rest of that Sunday.

  3. I can just imagine Norton trying to hide behind you!

  4. My boyfriend's dog has a VERY distinct look on his face when he comes in from outside after doing something he's not supposed to, namely rolling in, or eating whatever organic matter he happened to find. He usually comes inside, running around and barking, ready to play. We know he has done something bad, however, when he walks inside ever so slowly, head down, glancing up at us with only his eyes. He is a very good dog, minus his penchant for wanting to take on the scent of any dead animal he can find (which, in his defense, I know is instinct), but when he does something he isn't supposed to, he lets us know with his body language before we even have a chance to figure it out on our own.

    I agree with Andrew; it's not that he understands WHY he's not supposed to do things, but he definitely knows what behavior is going to get him cuddles and belly rubs, and what behavior is going to get him sent straight to the bathtub (which he HATES!).