Why Dog Shaming Isn’t all that Funny
Seems like dog shaming is the latest pet meme to invade the internet. In all the photos you see a “guilty” looking dog, a torn up item and / or a hand written note listing the dog’s “bad” behavior. While on some level we can all relate as every dog has or will destroy something valuable in its life, the result is ultimately damaging to the understanding of canine behavior.
A while back I wrote a post commenting on the interpretation of “guilt” in dogs. Where pet owners see a dog that is “sorry” or “guilty” for a behavior done minutes or hours ago, behavior scientists see submissive or fearful body postures in response to the owner’s behavior right now. The postures I’m referring to are the lowered body, ears pinned back against the head, wide eyes, and a wrinkled brow from tension making the dog look “worried”. All this paired with avoided eye contact contributes to a humanized interpretation of canine behavior that the dog “knows” better and that his behavior was “bad”. As a result, many well-meaning pet owners may feel justified in punishment after the fact.
This is a set back for the field of animal behavior and a blow to behaviorists who have been trying for decades to teach the public about the fundamentals of animal learning. The outcome of a good or bad behavior must happen immediately (within 3 seconds) in order for a dog to learn. Without this understanding, an owner might think that by punishing a dog after showing him his “mess”, the two are connected and the dog learns that his past behavior was bad. While this may be effective with children who, at a certain age develop the cognitive ability to connect past behavior with future consequences, it has never been effective at stopping the unwanted behavior of dogs. In fact, all a dog could learn is that the owner is unpredictable (a source of affection and fear) and can’t be trusted.
It seems that us humans have a bad habit of over complicating everything. Dogs are simple creatures that live by cause and effect relationships that allow them to apply meaning based on associations between the owner’s words or behavior and the outcome that follows. After return of the owner has been paired with punishment, it doesn’t take long for a dog to stop greeting and avoid the owner or behave submissively when there is no mess. Also, dogs have no knowledge of ethics or morals. While they do not know “right” from “wrong” they can learn the contexts in which reward or punishment occur. As Suzanne Hetts wrote in a similar article:
most dogs easily learn the rule not to get in the trash when someone is present.  But many dogs raid the trash when alone because it often results in tasty tidbits and no one is home to yell at them.  That’s quite different than concluding a dog knows it’s “wrong” to get in the trash, but tries to “get away with it” when no one is home.
So while I prefer the clay model version to real life (thank you Cuddles and Rage - U R AMAZING!) go ahead and have a laugh at some of the dog shaming pics. Just remember that dogs don’t “know better”, do not understand punishment after the fact, and that their “I’m sorry” face is a fear response elicited by the owner’s behavior. 
Related Post
"Sorry" Dog
Lesson in Canine Body Language 1: Ear Rotation
Lesson in Canine Body Language 2: Too Much Force

Why Dog Shaming Isn’t all that Funny

Seems like dog shaming is the latest pet meme to invade the internet. In all the photos you see a “guilty” looking dog, a torn up item and / or a hand written note listing the dog’s “bad” behavior. While on some level we can all relate as every dog has or will destroy something valuable in its life, the result is ultimately damaging to the understanding of canine behavior.

A while back I wrote a post commenting on the interpretation of “guilt” in dogs. Where pet owners see a dog that is “sorry” or “guilty” for a behavior done minutes or hours ago, behavior scientists see submissive or fearful body postures in response to the owner’s behavior right now. The postures I’m referring to are the lowered body, ears pinned back against the head, wide eyes, and a wrinkled brow from tension making the dog look “worried”. All this paired with avoided eye contact contributes to a humanized interpretation of canine behavior that the dog “knows” better and that his behavior was “bad”. As a result, many well-meaning pet owners may feel justified in punishment after the fact.

This is a set back for the field of animal behavior and a blow to behaviorists who have been trying for decades to teach the public about the fundamentals of animal learning. The outcome of a good or bad behavior must happen immediately (within 3 seconds) in order for a dog to learn. Without this understanding, an owner might think that by punishing a dog after showing him his “mess”, the two are connected and the dog learns that his past behavior was bad. While this may be effective with children who, at a certain age develop the cognitive ability to connect past behavior with future consequences, it has never been effective at stopping the unwanted behavior of dogs. In fact, all a dog could learn is that the owner is unpredictable (a source of affection and fear) and can’t be trusted.

It seems that us humans have a bad habit of over complicating everything. Dogs are simple creatures that live by cause and effect relationships that allow them to apply meaning based on associations between the owner’s words or behavior and the outcome that follows. After return of the owner has been paired with punishment, it doesn’t take long for a dog to stop greeting and avoid the owner or behave submissively when there is no mess. Also, dogs have no knowledge of ethics or morals. While they do not know “right” from “wrong” they can learn the contexts in which reward or punishment occur. As Suzanne Hetts wrote in a similar article:

most dogs easily learn the rule not to get in the trash when someone is present.  But many dogs raid the trash when alone because it often results in tasty tidbits and no one is home to yell at them.  That’s quite different than concluding a dog knows it’s “wrong” to get in the trash, but tries to “get away with it” when no one is home.

So while I prefer the clay model version to real life (thank you Cuddles and Rage - U R AMAZING!) go ahead and have a laugh at some of the dog shaming pics. Just remember that dogs don’t “know better”, do not understand punishment after the fact, and that their “I’m sorry” face is a fear response elicited by the owner’s behavior. 

Related Post

"Sorry" Dog

Lesson in Canine Body Language 1: Ear Rotation

Lesson in Canine Body Language 2: Too Much Force

CAUTION: Every animal is a unique being in a unique situation and what you see on these webpages is generic and general and may not specifically apply to your animal's situation. Any responses to questions through this website similarly cannot be as precise and informed as is possible in a face-to-face assessment. Accordingly, you should not rely on anything set forth herein as the last word, and you hold Helping Pets Behave harmless from any liability whatsoever based on your reliance on the information you receive through this website.

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