Just saw a post on Facebook. A short video of a German Shepherd Dog curled up in a shower stall. The owner shot a few frames of a torn-up sheet then walked into the shower to film the dog hiding. The narration went something like, “She knows she’s guilty! Did you chew up that sheet? Did you? You’d better hide!” The GSD kept her gaze averted and as the man continued to speak to her, looked up and away. The man then said, “Now she’s praying for forgiveness! Don’t worrry, we still love you,” or something in that mode — however his tone of voice didn’t change.
Now, this man wasn’t yelling, and he wasn’t really using a lot forceful emphasis, either. I don’t know what he said before he started filming. I don’t know if he’s yelled in the past, but this apparently happens all the time — the dog proving she’s guilty by hiding in the shower. Even though he wasn’t yelling it was very obvious to a velcro-type dog like a GSD, that he was unhappy with her.
I am the first to say that dogs understand and can figure out a lot more than they’ve historically been given credit for. I also believe that they have a rich emotional life! However, current scientific studies indicate that dogs simply do not have the full range of emotions that humans do. Dr. Stanley Coren postulates that dogs, like human babies begin with the simpler emotions like Excitement, Distress, Contentment, Disgust, Anger, Fear, Joy, Suspicion, Love. Human babies have all these by age 1, then there is quite a lag before they develop the more complex emotions (Shame, Pride, Guilt, Contempt) around their third birthday. But dogs probably don’t develop those emotions since their emotional development stops in that long lag time that human infants experience.
“But she ACTS guitly!” people say! Maybe. Because we adults have all those complex emotions, and because humans tend to anthropomorphize, humans see a dog hiding in a shower stall after being “caught” with the “smoking gun” of chewed-up bedding and assume she feels guilt. Maybe it’s just that to the human, she LOOKS guilty. However, a closer look at the dog’s body language might tell us a different story.
In the dog world, one dog placates another by removing herself from the angry dog’s space. If confronted, she looks away and avoids eye contact. In this case, the human not only followed her to her retreat, but brought a “big eye” (i.e. camera — many dogs react to cameras the same way they would to staring eyes) and leaned in close. The human continued to talk in a way that told the dog she was in disgrace. The dog was curled up in a ball, trying to make herself small and show that she wasn’t going to challenge the “big dog.” Her eyebrows were going up and down, indicating she was worried and confused. When the human continued and got even closer, she looked up and away in an exaggerated manner to make sure he understood that she wasn’t going to be a threat. When he finally said something like, “We still love you,” the tone of voice didn’t change, his posture didn’t change, he didn’t back off and the poor dog had no way of knowing that she wasn’t still in “the dog house!”
However none of that says to me that she understood what she’d done wrong — which is absolutely necessary for feeling guilt. Her body spoke eloquently of her confusion and feeling of betrayal as her beloved human continued to push her down after her acceptance of his dominance. She couldn’t retreat any further, she couldn’t say any more. Many dogs in that position could turn aggressive. She didn’t. But it was clearly breaking her heart that she couldn’t make “her” human understand.
She probably chewed the bedding because it smelled like her humans. They left her alone in the house — she had no way of knowing it wasn’t forever. It made her feel better to chew and chew on something with her humans’ scent on it. When they returned, she was probably very very very happy to see them, but also very very conflicted. Remembering previous times when the humans returned and found chewed items, she anticipted receiving the same disapproval they’d shown before. So, she did what confused dogs do — pull away and hide.
I don’t say the dog was innocent of chewing. Dogs LOVE to chew. It makes them feel better! I suffered from a GSD dog that loved to chew everything that smelled of me. But she was innocent of malicious intent. She wasn’t trying to “get back” at them for leaving her. And she tried to say she was sorry for whatever it was that had displeased her humans. I wish they’d accepted her apology sooner.