Do you know what Dog Shaming is? If not, here is a quick description. Recollect a time when you came home to find that your dog had engaged in something you deem as “naughty”. Perhaps the food on the counter was eaten or things were destroyed at home. You gasped in horror. Your dog gave you “a look”. He looked incredibly guilty. You admonished him adequately. But his look was just too irresistible. So you grabbed a large sheet of paper and a marker and wrote out “his confessions”, hung it around his neck or placed it next to him and took a picture. If you shared that picture, you were dog shaming.
The whole idea of dog shaming is quite popular on the internet these days. It can be quite hilarious and endearing. In today’s day of social currency being collected in likes and shares, well-executed dog shaming is social gold. True dog lovers though would want to know more. What is going on here? Is the dog truly guilty? How does the dog feel about dog-shaming? Do dogs feel anything at all about such things in the first place or are they oblivious to it? So let’s examine.
The first question to ponder is whether your dog is expressing guilt. Unlikely. There is not enough ethological evidence to support that dogs experience guilt. In fact, more studies point in the opposite direction – that dogs do not experience guilt. Interestingly, there is enough ethological evidence to support that “the look” the dog is giving you is actually some form of a calming signal.
What is most likely going on here is that the dog has been “naughty” by your definition. But by his definition he has only found an outlet for his excess adrenaline / cortisol or his under-stimulated brain. Having found his outlet, he is blissfully resting when you arrive and gasp. He senses your stress, perhaps anticipates that he will be the object of it and starts giving out calming signals as a way to calm you down. And there you have it – the ‘guilty look’. Turning the head away, cowering, furrowed brows, whale eyes (where the whites of the eyes are showing) are all signs of stress in a dog. Your dog is getting stressed and is sending signals out to calm you down.
Here is the rub. At this point, one needs to diffuse stress. Instead, if one continues to interact with the dog (admonishing, hanging boards around and taking pictures), stress only escalates. Escalating stress in a dog is never good news. It’s precisely this kind of miscommunication that leads to bites ‘out of nowhere’.
So, how does the dog feel about dog shaming? The dog may not really know he is being shamed. But the problem the dog has with dog shaming is that when he is signalling to you that he is stressed and that he needs you to calm down, you are most likely making matters worse by interacting with him. As far as understanding his feelings are concerned, he may not have an opinion on where you share those pictures. But he sure has a problem that you are doing it around him.
Isn’t it interesting that something so seemingly benign, fun and endearing can be such a cause of stress to our dogs? Learning their language means learning to read these signals. On Talking Terms with Dogs is an excellent book to learn calming signals from. The first step to understanding dogs is to understand these subtle signals they give and what they really mean. So begin today.