Canine Body Language
We've all seen videos online of 'guilty' dogs that have shredded something or even come home ourselves to find a big mess with our pups huddled to one side, head down looking up at us under those eyebrows. The stance is almost textbook of what you would expect from a toddler or young child who had done something similar. However are these dogs actually feeling guilty or is there something else going on?
Canine Body Language
Despite how much some dogs bark, they are not predominantly vocal creatures. Dogs primarily communicate via body language. That is why they can so often guess what you are about to do next, as they have been watching how you are moving and what you are doing, rather than what you are saying and how you are saying it. That is not to say that they don't listen to verbalisations, but they tend to respond with body language first before moving on to vocalisations when necessary.
The standard 'guilty' look is typically head down, looking up out of the corner of the eyes, shoulders hunched, usually looking from a body turned position and lots of lip licking and sometimes yawning. Sometimes you will also see a dog get up and move away slowly making more space, or going to sniff something as they go. These are all signs of stress and anxiety in dogs rather than signals of guilt or remorse. Dogs will display these even if they have done nothing wrong, as they are trying everything they know to calm the situation and change your mood from frustration or anger to something more pleasant for everyone. From the graphic by Lili Chin at doggiedrawings.net we can see these behaviours come from 'anxious', 'peace! look away and sniff ground', 'stressed', 'respect' and 'need space'.
These different postures and movements are called 'calming signals' and have been very well documented in canine behaviour literature. An extremely good overview is given by Norwegian behaviourist Turid Rugaas in her DVD 'On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals'.
Imagine you were having some fun with a new toy or game and suddenly someone twice as big you came in, obviously furious and started yelling at you in a language you don't understand. Typically this can go one of two ways: one is you shrink away, put your hands up and try to calm the person; the other is to fight back in fright. Neither of these options is particularly nice for either party.
A big issue is that the calming signals that dogs give us to calm down such situations are so similar to what we do when we are feeling guilty that it is extremely difficult to see them as anything but a companion looking remorseful rather than a friend of a different species trying their best to talk to us in their language. The best thing we can do here is learn to speak their language, to defuse the situation and move on. As the old saying goes, 'there is no point crying over spilt milk'.
Dealing with bad behaviour
At this point many people will query that, if we don't let them know by giving out when we find the mess, how on earth do we let the dog know that this behaviour is not appropriate? We will deal with this in more detail in a later post but, in a nutshell, rather than telling the dog what you don't like, instead teach them what you do like.
Just like in work, if your boss is constantly criticising what you do, it gets very frustrating and degrading. Instead, if you get the suitable training and support to do your job, everyone is much happier and more productive.
So consider what your dog has done that you don't like and decide exactly what you would like them to do instead. Think of a positive behaviour rather than the absence of a negative one. That is rather than 'I want him to not chew the rug' instead consider something like, 'I want him to chew this chew toy instead of the rug'.