On the surface, it seems simple. Dogs can display body language that we take as an apology, so they must be apologizing to us. However, the question is much more complex than it seems at first glance.
How do dogs say sorry?
Before we look into how dogs say sorry, we have to determine whether they understand what they are doing. Do they know when they’ve done something wrong, and are they really sorry?
Do Dogs Know When They’ve Done Something Wrong?
Everyone agrees that dogs know when they’ve displeased us. However, whether they understand what they did wrong and how they see it are not as easy to answer.
Researchers explain that dogs don’t have the same type of moral code that we do. If they chew your shoe, they may not see it as wrong. At least not until they see your reaction.
If you’ve trained them, and they know not to chew your shoe, then it’s possible they recognize it as being “wrong”. In this case, you can expect them to look guilty or apologize as soon as they are caught.
On the other hand, if they don’t recognize the bad behavior, they will still apologize when they see that you are upset or angry with them.
The Evolution of Apologizing
To get a better understanding of dog apologies, we can look at their ancestors, wolves. Wolves also apologize to each other. When a wolf does something wrong, they are shunned by the pack.
Dogs and wolves are social creatures. This isolation and rejection hurts, likely as much as it hurts us to experience this type of situation. With canines and humans, fitting into society is instinctual. Living as a group is necessary for survival. If you are permanently shunned, your odds of surviving become very low.
When a wolf makes a mistake and is shunned, they will apologize. They display submissive behaviors, and are then accepted back into the pack. This usually occurs when wolves are young, and are learning to coexist as a member of the pack.
Science Says It’s All About the Owner
Research has shown that dogs will react with apology behaviors when the owner expresses displeasure, no matter if they have actually done something wrong.
This suggests that the dog takes its cue from the owner, instead of their own moral code. Your dog may not be able to recognize the difference between right and wrong the way humans do, but they do understand when they have displeased us.
If dogs aren’t apologizing in the way we think they are, why do they seem to act guilty and provide an apology? Researchers say that anthropomorphism is what is actually going on.
Anthropomorphism is our tendency to project human feelings, emotions, or consciousness on to other beings, or even things. It occurs when we name our car or yell at our laptop. It may also be why we attribute so many human emotions to our pets.
This is the generally accepted theory, but the truth is that even science can’t tell for sure. Research has led to some startling discoveries about man’s best friend, including their ability to learn words and remember their owners, even years later.
It may be some time before the line between anthropomorphism and a dog’s actual emotions is really clear.
How Do Dogs Apologize?
Now that we know dogs do apologize, how do they do it? They can’t say I’m sorry or send a Hallmark card. Instead, they use their body language to show you they are sorry.
The most common ways a dog apologizes is a tail tucked between their legs, puppy dog eyes, and looking down. They may also stop or reduce panting. Their ears will be lowered or droopy.
Some apology behaviors are cuter than others. A play bow is one of the cutest ways dogs apologize. They may also hide their face with their paw, or wag their tail in a shy or tentative way.
If the initial apology isn’t accepted, they will likely up the ante. They may climb into your lap and nuzzle you, or lick you. They may also curl up in your lap.
Do Dogs Feel Guilty?
Guilt is another emotion owners often attribute to their pooches, but are they capable of feeling guilt?
Most experts say that dogs don’t actually feel guilty. Instead, it’s anthropomorphism. However, many dog owners will tell you that their pooches do feel guilty when they do something wrong.
Many cite incidences when the dog has guilty behavior before they get into trouble. Scientists say this is simply because the dog has learned from previous situations what’s coming. If they ate your shoes and got into trouble, they will expect to get in trouble the next time they eat your shoes.
Since we can’t ask our dogs exactly what they think and feel, both owners and researchers are left making inferences from their observations.
How do dogs say thank you?
We’ve all heard that actions speak louder than words. Your dog can’t say thank you with words, but do they say it with their actions? Are they capable of feeling gratitude?
Do Dogs Feel Gratitude?
Ask any owner who has adopted a rescue dog, and they will tell you their dog is absolutely grateful. Even owners who have raised their dog since they were a pup feel that their dog is grateful to have them as their owner. We can find a potential answer to whether dogs actually feel gratitude in nature.
A pair of chimps were stranded outside in inclement weather. They were cold, standing in the rain, and feeling dejected. Perhaps they even felt abandoned.
A professor walked by and noticed the two chimps in the rain. Realizing they had accidentally been locked outside, he opened the door. Both the chimps paused to hug the professor before continuing inside. It’s important to note that chimps are not huggers, at least without a good reason. Logic says this must be a show of gratitude.
A research study involved chimps as well. Chimps groom each other. Was this simply a symbiotic act, a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”? Or did it come closer to what we know as gratitude?
The researchers kept close track of who groomed who on a specific day. When the chimps were fed, they noticed that they would share with each other. However, they only shared the food with their grooming partners from that day. It certainly seems like they are grateful and saying thank you.
Similar behavior can be observed in impalas. One impala will groom another. When they are finished, they trade places.
Signs Your Dog is Saying Thank You
Whether dogs can feel gratitude may not be settled science, but there’s certainly enough evidence to allow for the possibility. If they can feel gratitude, how do they express it?
One way your dog shows gratitude is with a smile. A dog’s smile is irresistible, and sure to make your heart feel warmer. This is often accompanied by a wagging tail. Kisses are another way dogs show affection, and potentially gratitude.
Perhaps the most important way dogs show gratitude is loyalty. They seem to love us unconditionally. No matter how many times you are too busy to play with them or forget to feed them on time, they love you. Mistakes, big and small, are forgiven and seemingly forgotten.
How do you apologize to a dog?
It’s bound to happen sooner or later, when any two animals get together. No matter if its dogs, humans, or a combination of the two, everything makes mistakes. At some point, you’ll screw up and need to apologize to your dog. But how?
If you want to apologize to your dog, do it as soon as possible after the event has occurred. If you step on their paw, for example, pick them up immediately and apologize.
Use the Right Tone
Dogs respond to a high pitched tone. It’s often called puppy talk or baby talk, and is very similar to the tone of voice we use with babies. Keep your voice soft and calm when apologizing. Your dog needs to know that you aren’t angry or upset. Of course, you feel bad, but if you display sadness when apologizing, your dog may think they’ve done something to make you sad.
Space vs. Cuddles
This really depends on the dog and what happened. Your first instinct may be to grab them up and hold them close. Some dogs will welcome this when you are apologizing.
However, if you scare or hurt the dog, hopefully unintentionally, this may not be the right approach. If your dog seems scared or standoffish, give them some space. Instead of picking them up, get down to their level and extend your hand.
If they come to you, pet them while speaking to them in a soft voice. If they don’t, speak to them without advancing. Wait for them to come to you.
Apologizing for Lack of Attention
If you want to apologize for not giving your dog enough attention or some action that seemed to hurt their feelings emotionally instead of causing fear, the best thing to do is give them what they love. Time with you.
If you’ve been at work longer than usual and you come home to a sad pooch, or you keep promising them a walk but life interferes, your attention is the best way to apologize.
This can include playing with your dog, taking them for a walk, or simply lap cuddles and lots of petting. Whatever you do, give them your undivided attention for a bit and show them lots of affection.
Treats or No Treats?
It can be tempting to give your dog a treat to get on their good side. However, training experts say giving them a treat is a bad idea. Treats should be used as training rewards. When you give them a treat when they haven’t done something treat worthy, you send mixed signals. This can confuse your dog and set your training back.
If you do want to give your dog something special, set aside a “just because” treat. Give them this type of treat after you’ve apologized or just because you want to treat them. Do not use this type of treat for training.
If you choose to give rawhide bones as a “just because” treat, then save chicken livers or another type of treat for training.
How do dog’s feelings get hurt?
Dogs are believed to have the same emotional capacity as a 2-year-old child. They can experience many basic emotions, including fear, happiness, excitement, and sadness.
Lack of Attention or Neglect
Lack of attention is the most common way our dog’s feelings get hurt. Of course, you aren’t intentionally being neglectful. However, intentional or not, a lack of attention can easily hurt your dog’s feelings. You are their human, and they depend on you for love and social interaction.
Dogs can also get their feelings hurt if you dismiss their fears. If your dog is afraid of the dark or loud noises, it can be easy to dismiss their fear. It’s the same concept as telling a child to “grow up and get over it”.
It’s important to be supportive and understanding when your dog is afraid of something, just as you would want someone to be supportive of you if you were scared.