No More Guilty Dogs, Please!

A common misconception is that a dog behaves badly because it is getting back at us. We think this is so because it looks guilty when we come home and discover the mess. But dogs don't actually have the capacity for complex human emotions such as guilt and revenge.

Unfortunately, the dog is punished for something it doesn't know it has done. Many dogs are relinquished because of their supposed bad behaviour, when in fact the problem is our lack of understanding of the dog's normal behaviour.

Signs of anxiety in dogs

When you come home to find the lounge trashed or furniture chewed you are understandably upset. The dog has its tail between its legs, eyes and head lowered and looking away from you because it is adopting submissive postures to appease you, not because it is feeling guilty, but because it is feeling anxious. It is trying to defuse the anger it is reading in your body language or expecting from you based on previous experience.

Signs of anxiety in dogs include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Looking away
  • Pulling the corners of the mouth back (may look like a smile)
  • Salivating
  • Pulling ears back
  • Creeping around in slow motion
  • Standing with tail tucked under

Sometimes this looks funny but in reality the dog is not feeling very happy at all, it is predicting a bad outcome from the owner.

Destructive behaviours

Dogs perform destructive behaviours such as digging, chewing, pulling the clothes off the line and knocking over garbage bins mostly because they are bored. These are normal dog behaviours - dogs love to dig and chew as part of play as well as investigating their environment - but may peform these behaviours to excess when left alone all day without sufficient exercise, human interaction and mental stimulation. This is particularly so in puppies and highly energetic dogs.

Destructive behaviour can also be a sign of stress. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety become extremely anxious when separated from their owners, and show the anxiety by barking, howling, panting, house-soiling, destructiveness, drooling, attempts at escape, or even vomiting, diarrhoea, or refusing to eat when the owner is gone. The signs begin as soon as the owners prepare to leave and most destructive behaviours occur within the first 20 minutes.

When should I get help?

So, when destructive behaviour occurs the first thing that needs to be done is to look for the reason for the behaviour, not punish the dog. Your vet can help you here by asking you detailed questions about the dog's environment and history of the behaviour. Even better is to set up a video camera and record exactly what the dog is doing after you leave. The results can be very illuminating to both the owner and the vet when they see how distressed the dog actually is.

If your dog is showing any signs of fear (anxiety or aggression) in any situation or destructiveness and/or excessive vocalisation while you are away (possibly separation anxiety) your vet is the best person to assess your dog and its environment and develop a program to help you and your dog manage the causes of its anxiety.