Behavior Myth: the Guilty Pet

Clients often tell me that their pet knows that he/she has done something wrong. People are convinced that their pet’s behavior indicates guilt. Yet pets don’t feel guilty about their behaviors. If dogs and cats engage in a behavior and immediately receive positive reinforcement, those behaviors will continue. If there is an adverse outcome to the behavior, the dog or cat will avoid that behavior in the future. Learning occurs immediately after the behavior, in less than approximately 3-10 seconds according to most research.  

As an example, Peanut, a 4 year old male neutered pit bull mix, liked to unstuff throw pillows when his owners were at work. It was fun! He got positive reinforcement for that behavior because he had a good time doing it. When his owners came home, they were upset by the mess and angry at Peanut for causing it. Since Peanut is a dog, he did not realize that the act of tearing up throw pillows was the problem because it had been hours since he had done it. Peanut realized that his owners were mad when they returned home and there was stuffing strewn around the living room, but he did not make the connection with his earlier act of pillow destruction. Even when his owners brought him to the fluffy stuffing and yelled at him, he had no way of associating the punishment with the act. His response when his owners came home and there was stuffing on the floor was to offer submissive behaviors to deflect their anger. He would cower, avert his eyes, and lick his lips.

Canine submissive behaviors include averted eyes, ears back, body low, tail between legs, and hiding. It is understandable that humans interpret these behaviors as guilt. Guilty humans behave in a similar way.

The problem with assigning guilt is that people assume that their pet knows what the problem is, but this isn’t so. Not only does this lead to a continuation of the problem behavior, but it can lead to aggression toward the pet, frustration, resentment, and relinquishment.

Luckily for Peanut, his owners got good advice. They set Peanut up to succeed by removing throw pillows from his environment and providing fluff-filled dog toys. Happy pet, happy people!