The sad truth about guilty dogs

During our time in lockdown due to COVID 19 seems like everyone is busier online. The sharing of hilarious animal videos is even more frequent, but some of them are not as funny as they seem. 

Isn’t it a delight to live with dogs? Witnessing their unpretentious, instinctual and spontaneous responses to the world. They chase stuff that moves, eat anything that tastes good, say hello to everyone, bark at interesting things, and sleep when they are tired. I say dogs are simple creatures as the sweetest compliment; they are not complicated enough to experience emotions like remorse, guilt, or wanting to exact revenge. They are, however, extremely good at reading human body language. 

Dog’s ability to gage our mood gets them into trouble because it is very easy to plant human emotions onto our dogs. If you come home to find your dog destroyed something in your home you will be visibly, and understandably, upset. Your dog, seeing your body language, will become scared and behave submissively to try and appease you. Avoiding eye contact, running away, behaving ‘sheepish’, becoming as small as possible; these are not indications of guilt, this is how dogs yield when faced with aggression. Instead of adopting a threatening position when faced with a menacing owner, they are using dog language to say, “I know you are angry. Please don’t hurt me.”                                                                                                     

When dogs are bored and restless they can do one of the following four natural activities: digging, chewing, running, or barking. Most dogs will only run if they have something to chase. If it’s not another dog it could be cars driving past, birds in the sky, squirrels in the trees, or people walking near the house. Something triggers a chase reaction – dogs don’t really run in circles alone until they are tired. Some dogs bark for long periods of time if left home alone, and for others the go-to home activity for bored dogs is to chew or destroy something.

 Your smell is a comfort to your dog, many are drawn to chew on things that smell like their owners, the very things you hold often. Remote controls, glasses, phones, favorite shoes, the edge of the couch where you sit to watch tv. Chewing is what we in the animal behavior world call a ‘self-rewarding behavior’, which is a fancy way of describing an enjoyable activity dogs will do for long periods of time by themselves. People have these behaviors too: smoking, chewing gum, chewing our nails, eating food when we are not hungry. Not to mention tapping screens.

 Dogs do not chew valuable items to send an angry message or get revenge on their owner. Dog’s motivations are not that complex. They chew up stuff when they are bored and need something to do, not because they know the couch is expensive and they want to hurt your feelings! In coming home to destruction of some sort most people assume dogs are acting guilty, when in fact they are really sh*t scared of how angry their owner is. They would be as scared if there had been nothing chewed; it’s the owner’s body language, not the ‘evidence’ the dog is reacting to. The trend of ‘shaming guilty dogs’ in videos is absolutely heartbreaking. In my opinion, it is psychological abuse to lecture and intimidate these poor dogs who are trying in the only way they know how, to get their owners to stop being threatening.

The main reason dogs destroy property is a simple one: they have been left bored and alone, and that is the owner’s fault, not the dog’s. This habit, like all dog behavior problems, can be improved by educating yourself about effective ways to work with it, exercising your dog more, not leaving them unattended with tempting potential chew ‘toys’.

I have had this conversation many, many times with my clients over the years. I have been an animal behaviorist for more than twenty-five years helping people with their dogs who are behaving badly for a variety of reasons.

 One client I will always remember: ‘Jane’ called for help with her two Jack Russell dogs who were destroying her furniture. As I arrived for our appointment Jane called to say she was running late, so her neighbor let me into her flat. Her two dogs had been sleeping when I came in; they were stretching and waking up to say hello to me. Her couch was indeed half destroyed, it looked like many days of excavation efforts. I heard a car pull up and watched as the two dogs body language suddenly changed. Their eyes got big, ears went flat against their heads. They both started to
shake and hid under the couch. Jane came through her door and said “Look! I told you, look how guilty these two are. They know what they did, they know they are bad dogs. They do this when I come home because they know they have been naughty. I shout at them every day and show them what they did.” I explained to Jane that the dogs had in fact been fast asleep before she came home, but the sound of her car was now so scary they were trying to appease her by staying out of sight. If they had been chewing it was hours ago, probably to get rid of some energy in the morning. By the time our session was over Jane was in tears, she had never intended to make her dogs scared of her. After changing her routines, we solved the chewing problems and the relationship with her dogs was sweet again. 

When you come across ‘guilty dogs’ videos please don’t share them. Instead, notice the stress in the dog’s eyes and the humor will disappear. If your own dog is destroying parts of your house get guidance from a reliable source about what needs to shift in your habits or lifestyle, so your dog can be more peaceful at home.

Find me @karisnafte