Understanding Dog Psychology and Dog Emotions
Remember that time you took away the delicious chicken bone that your dog found fair and square on the sidewalk? Or even just this morning when you left the house, and your furry friend gave you the sad dog eyes? And there are those times when you went on vacation without her. Of course, you probably remember, but does your dog keep thinking about it?
We can see dog emotions being expressed in the moment, but the question is whether dog emotions are the same as our own, or even similar. Holding grudges is a prime example of the dog emotions in question. Most pet parents assume that their pets do remember—and hold a grudge about—the times when they were upset by something their humans did.
To get to the true dog psychology at work behind these so-called grudges, we turned to Robin Bennett, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), author and consultant for pet care facilities.
When Dogs Get Angry
There are plenty of expressions that have to do with animals being angry—mad as a march hare, madder than a wet hen (or hornet’s nest)—but not many come to mind about dogs. Still, we can all point out plenty of times where our pups were not very happy with us. It’s just that dog emotions work a little differently than a human’s. “I don’t think dogs get mad in the way we often think about it,” says Bennett. “They might not like something happening in the moment (for instance, being restrained for a medical exam or to have a collar fitting), but I don’t think they stay mad in the way we think about holding a grudge.”
Forgive and Forget
So, in terms of dog psychology, your pup will get upset when you insist that they go for their walk in the rain, but he’s most likely not actually mad at you. And while he may not hold a grudge, he may just learn to make certain associations that have to do with a particular incident that upset them. “I think it’s more about making associations that are either positive or negative,” explains Bennett. “An unpleasant situation may be remembered by the dog so that if they encounter the same situation that indicates that unpleasant situation, they may try to avoid it.” When your dog runs to hide under the bed when she senses a bath is about to happen, it’s not that she’s holding a grudge from last time. She just knows the series of actions you take right before, and remembers that these lead to a bath she didn’t like.
Dog Emotions, Not People Emotions
Then why does my dog snub me after she gets mad at me, you ask. Many pet parents swear that their best furry friend will give them side-eye or pout for the rest of the day. Well, you might be partially right, but it’s probably a question of perception and reaction rather than a set of complex dog emotions that you might be imagining. Bennett says that although humans like to project their emotions onto animals, “dogs may act differently if they sense stress or anxiety and any change in patterns can cause that sort of scenario.” Our dogs know us better than anyone—they can detect and interpret the slightest change in our moods. “So if an owner is upset about something, the dog may sense that and avoid the owner because the owner is acting differently,” Bennett notes. Now that’s some dog psychology people can relate to—when you realize that your co-worker or boss is not in a good mood, you definitely try to stay out of their way for the day.
Testing the Dog Grudge Theory
It’s not just pet parents that want to know if dogs hold grudges. Scientists in Kyoto University in Japan did an experiment with more than 50 dogs and owners to test out the theory. In the study, dogs watched their owners ask strangers for help opening a box. They found that, dogs were less likely to accept food from those who refused to help their owners. Does that mean there’s proof that dogs can hold grudges against those who have rebuffed them or even their owners? Bennett isn’t convinced: “I don’t think this has anything to do with holding grudges in the way we think of them.” She explains that dogs will eat enticing dog treats when they’re relaxed, but are less likely to when they’re stressed. So what’s probably happening is that the dogs in this study felt stress or perceived their owner’s stress or tension. “Dogs are very good at keeping an emotional connection with their pet parents,” she states. They’re less likely to take treats from a stranger who caused their owner to feel stressed. “But I think that’s a bit different from actually holding a grudge.”
It’s a little disappointing finding out that dog emotions don’t work exactly like ours. But now you know your faithful companion cares how you feel, and will even choose to have your back rather than gulp down a delicious bacon treat from a stranger who wronged you. And it definitely feels good knowing she won’t hate you forever for taking away that squeaky toy at bedtime.
When you’re ready to curl up with your dog and celebrate her amazing sixth sense, learn about her intuition, or find out how she interprets your behavior, check out some of our favorite books:
- The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs
- Chicken Soup for the Soul: Loving Our Dogs
- The Secret Language of Dogs
Nikki Naser, Pet Central Senior Editor
Instead of owning 30 cats, Nikki has an impressive collection of 30 cat-themed T-shirts, and just 4 pets—a ginger-haired senior cat, a senior Maine Coon, a middle-aged Choodle, and a young kitty who showed up one day on the back steps. A former Orlando resident, Nikki worked on several tourism publications before moving to South Beach. When she’s not stopping to take pics of community cats to post on Instagram, Nikki spends her time with the office pets at Chewy, writing for their Pet Central blog.