Myth: Dogs perceive guilt. When he gets scolded and cowers, or scurries away, Fido knows what he’s done!
Truth: Dogs have complex emotions, make no mistake, but not such complex ones as guilt. Even assuming your dog links your anger to something he did (which is doubtful), he isn’t sorry, he just doesn’t want to get in trouble
The behaviours we consider as being manifestations of a dog’s guilty conscience are actually known as appeasement behaviours, like gaze aversion, head lowering, tail tucking and cowering are exhibited to defuse tension.
A common situation that seems to prove to so many owners that canine guilt exists is the pathetic display of appeasement behaviours once you return home, and Fido has done something: You don’t know what it is, or where it’s been hidden, just that it’s somewhere in the house. Fido comes bounding towards you, happy to see his favourite person, and you immediately ask him, “What have you done this time?” He knows your slightly tense body language from the last time you yelled at him, while pointing to some slobbery pieces of rubber, the only remnants of what was once a shoe — Remember: he doesn’t remember chewing it!
Uh-oh. Time say “sorry” by cowering and looking away…
But what really happened? Simple: he doesn’t want to get yelled at, so he immediately averts his gaze, cowers and moves away from you. Last time he did that, you let up, and the tension dissipated.
While most dogs don’t want to incite your ire, every dog is different: some will be put off by as little as a stern look and slightly tense posture, while others shake it off (sometimes literally!) and aren’t as affected by your irritation.
Never punish a dog for destructive behaviour that you didn’t catch as it was occurring. This will only serve to confuse your dog. Reprimands upon catching your dog in the act of doing something inappropriate won’t guarantee that he won’t exhibit that same behaviour in your absence. For this, teaching an incompatible* behaviour is better than reprimands (chewing a chew toy rather than your coffee table…)
Making sure you slowly allow a new dog more and more freedom, and never more than he can handle, will make house training much easier and successful.
*In behaviour studies, an incompatible behaviour is one that cannot occur at the same time as another. Replacing an unwanted behaviour with an incompatible acceptable behaviour is a very effective training technique.