Is that a guilty look or is your dog scared of you?

This is the first installment from the Modern Pet Dog workshop that challenged the knowledge of Northern Beaches dog owners on Thursday night. The focus of the evening’s sessions were on busting some of the common myths around dog behaviour including:

  • Are they looking guilty, or are they just scared of you?
  • Getting your dog to reliably come back when called (99% of the time).

Dr. Heather Chee – Vet Behaviour Team

Human beings tend to misinterpret classic signs of fear as guilt, especially when their dog has done something they shouldn’t have such as chewed an object or stolen food, typically when their owner isn’t around. These signs include looking away from you and not making eye contact, the ‘whale eye’ where the white shows, lip licking or yawning, squinting, running away, walking slowly etc.

She quoted an experiment where dogs were left in a room with food and their owners told them not to eat it, then left the room. When the owners returned, they were given various scenarios about what their dogs had done. And the dogs that ‘looked’ the guiltiest were those who had been scolded by their owners, even though they had not eaten the food! They were merely reacting in fear to the way their owner was responding to them, in anger, in that moment.

The bottom line: dogs cannot feel guilt. They only live in the moment and it’s a human emotion we put on them.

Heather’s advice was that yelling at your dog when they “look guilty” won’t teach them anything except to be more scared of you. The best thing to do is clean up the mess and move on. Also, address the underlying cause of their behaviour. If they are chewing things they shouldn’t, are they anxious about being home alone? Dogs cannot feel guilty and are they therefore just acting like that because they are scared? If they are frightened, do something to make them feel better, such as during a thunderstorm, as you cannot reward fear.

Barbara Hodel – Goodog Positive Dog Training

First and foremost, Barbara believes you’re never going to get a 100% recall and the best you can ever hope for is 99% in a distracted environment. Other myths relating to coming when called include:

  • Not all dogs need to come when called. Busted: Apart from it being healthy for dogs to run free sometimes, what happens when they run out of the car or front door without a reliable recall?
  • They come back because they love me. Busted: We don’t work for free and neither should our dogs. Give them something worthwhile, such as a yummy treat or toy.
  • You can use any method to teach a recall. Busted: Using aversive techniques such as shock collars for chasing cars or livestock means you “poison” the cue of “come” and they brace for the shock that is coming as they know something bad will happen and if they get through that they might get a treat at the end. What will that do to your dog’s emotional wellbeing? And it certainly won’t help with the recall.

Barbara’s tips for reaching “come when called”:

  • Teach what come means – reward for the smallest motion towards you at the beginning.
  • Their name doesn’t mean “come” so don’t confuse the two.
  • Make it worthwhile by giving high value treats, not kibble and don’t be stingy with dishing these out.
  • Manage the environment. Start in an enclosed area with no or few distractions or use long leads to prevent them running away if you can’t practice in a fenced area.
  • When at the dog park, call them, put the lead on and let them go again a few times so they don’t learn that “come” means the fun is ending and you’re going home again.
  • Increase distractions gradually, as well as the range of the recall. Built it up slowly.
  • Never tell them off for coming back, even if it took them a while to get back to you. Also, don’t use “come” when you’re about to do something they don’t enjoy to them e.g. clipping nails or having a bath – go and get them instead.
  • Great games to play to practice the skills include: hide and seek, to and fro, hide and find toys etc.

Look out for the second installment of the ‘Modern Pet Dog’ workshop coming soon.

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One thought on “Is that a guilty look or is your dog scared of you?

  1. Pingback: Get your wolf off the couch and other dog myths |

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