We love our dogs, but sometimes we regret how we treat them – either because we’re tired and grumpy, or we’ve lost our temper at something they’ve done.
We yell at them, the dog shrinks away, we feel terrible and we’re full of apologies. What can we do to stop us becoming abusive to our dogs on a regular basis? And can our dogs forgive us when we slip up?
Repeated abuse, however, changes their personalities and can turn a happy, confident dog into a nervous, shut-down, aggressive one. Can they be brought back to their former selves? Many can, and there are countless examples of rescues being successfully rehomed.
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Do Dogs Ever Forgive?
According to an article in Science Daily, dogs have the cognitive ability of a toddler so they don’t experience more complex emotions like guilt and forgiveness.
That “guilty dog look” they give us when they’ve chewed yet another cushion isn’t saying they know they’ve done wrong, it’s a response to cause-and-effect.
In previous situations when they’ve chewed a cushion, we’ve yelled at them, so experience tells them we’re likely to yell at them again. They back off, drop their heads, show signs of appeasement.
What they don’t have is the concept of right or wrong, and forgiveness needs an understanding of that. They don’t understand that you’ve done them wrong, only that they were afraid or hurt.
Can You Hurt a Dog’s Feelings?
We often attribute human emotions to dogs, and we do share many in common – love, attachment, fear, anger, pain – but dogs don’t share the feelings that require higher cognitive ability like unfairness, jealousy, guilt, forgiveness.
You can’t exactly hurt a dog’s feelings but you can induce fear or anger in them, especially with repeatedly abusive behavior.
A one-time yelling will leave your dog momentarily confused but it passes quickly. Repeated yellings for the same “crime” will leave the dog nervous in that situation.
Random yellings where the dog can’t predict when they’re going to be yelled at, and that they can’t link with a specific behavior eventually creates a nervous, fearful or aggressive dog.
How Do I Tell My Dog I’m Sorry?
I have two rescue sighthounds who I love to the moon and back. The older one came from a very abusive situation and even after four years, he can be jumpy.
They’re loving, intelligent and quirky dogs but they’re also high-energy, given to stealing food from kitchen counters and chewing things when they’re bored. The older one can be reactive to other dogs too, so they can be hard work.
Yes, it’s my bad for leaving the food out or for not giving them enough mental stimulation but one day I snapped and yelled at the older one for a crime I can’t even remember now. I do still remember how awful I felt the instant I’d yelled at him though.
He backed away, ears flat, body in a really submissive posture. My first instinct was go to up to him and cuddle him and tell him how sorry I was. I think that’s just human nature. I didn’t.
If your behavior has resulted in your dog showing fear: backing away from you, dropping lower, flattening their ears, and/or showing the whites of their eyes, step back and put some space between you.
You can talk to them in a quiet, soothing voice, and apologize: doggy won’t understand your words, but it will do you good. Let your dog come back to you in their own time. When they do, be loving and calm.
If, on the other hand, your dog is still looking adoringly at you, a little loving and some gentle words are enough.
In both cases, you can use the words you use to reward them like “good boy”, “well done”, whatever words you use when you’re snuggling with your dogs on the couch. I call mine “my preciouses” and that often gets me a little loving lick.
Do Dogs Understand When You Apologize?
Dogs don’t understand the language of your apology but they do understand the tone of your voice, the look on your face, and your body language. They can tell that the “dangerous” situation has passed and that it’s ok to come back to you.
You may find that they’re a little cautious for a few minutes after the event but if it’s been a one-off, all will soon be forgiven and forgotten.
It’s when abusive behavior becomes repetitive that dogs become confused by the swings between apologies and abusive actions, and trust breaks down.
How Do I Get My Dog to Trust Me Again?
There are two important elements in getting your dog to trust you again: patience and consistent behavior.
If you’ve shouted at or hit your dog multiple times, the first thing you need to do is find a way to redirect your frustration so you can avoid the damaging behavior.
Your dog will need time to get used to not being yelled at/hit but each additional day of loving interaction with your dog will bring more trust between you.
It’s worth understanding why your dog is being “naughty”:
If you can address some of your dog’s unwanted behaviors, you’ll find it easier to be calm around them.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that says that dogs do learn to trust again. Even severely abused dogs like Vicktory dog Layla, rescued from a notorious dog fighting ring, can become loving, happy family members.
I yelled at my dog and I feel bad
So, you’ve yelled at your dog and now you feel bad. Once you’ve made peace with your dog (and yourself), it’s worth looking at where you can reduce the sources of frustration.
My older dog digs his dog beds, and has managed to destroy many. It’s frustrating and I used to scold him for it but he always ignored me.
I’ve found ways to reduce the friction: I’ve added warm blankets to his beds and he makes nests in those instead of the bed itself. I bought much tougher beds that stand up to his claws.
Mostly I’ve just come to terms with just replacing the ones he’s demolished. It’s a deeply innate behavior for him and we’ll live with it. He’s happier and I feel less like a horrible dog mama.
My dog is scared of me because I beat him
If you continually take your frustration out on your dog, at some point they will become afraid of you. They’ll lose their confidence in general and you may end up with a host of fear-based behaviors that will make things worse. It becomes a vicious cycle.
One of the best things you can do for yourself and your dog is to take on a dog trainer either through classes or one-to-one if you can afford it. There are also numerous charities that offer help, and charge only what you can afford.
Positive, force-free training methods focus on both owners and dogs, and since they focus on both members of the relationship, have shown remarkable results. Owners become more confident in handling their dogs and their dogs respond over time.
You’ll learn how to give your dog clear but kind direction that is easy to follow. You’ll learn to get your dog to do your bidding because they want to, not because you’ve forced it on them.
Another option is to consider anger management classes where you can learn to channel emotions like frustration and anger in more productive ways. You’ll also better understand why you get triggered and that knowledge can benefit you in all parts of your life.
If you really feel like you can’t manage, you could think about rehoming your dog through a no-kill, well managed rescue/shelter. That should be the last option once you’ve exhausted all other avenues. Remember that your dog is a member of your family, and wants to please you.
How to repair the relationship with your dog
There are a few things you can do to repair the relationship with your dog:
- Spend time doing fun things with them, even if it’s only playing outside for a bit. Go on long, exploring walks, at your dog’s pace. Try agility. Have a good belly rubbing session on the rug. Play with their toys. Trust comes when the bond between you and your dog is strong, when you’re like family.
- Find ways to distract your dog from the behaviors that you find frustrating, and be ready to make your peace with some. Remember, you fell in love with who your dog is and training all of those traits out of them will leave you with a lesser dog.
- Invest time in learning about dog behavior. It will help you understand why they do what they do, and how you can work with that rather than against it.
- Help your dog understand and learn by being consistent with them. If something isn’t allowed one day, it’s not allowed on the following days either. Your poor dog will get very confused if he has to guess what’s okay and what’s not every day.
- Join a group of like-minded dog owners. They can be in-person groups, but virtual ones work well too.
I can’t tell you how many times a visit to my favorite doggy Facebook group has saved my sanity. I get to “hang out” with people who have dogs like mine, who are facing the same challenges.
We commiserate, share funny stories, offer support, encourage and share practical information. Mostly, these visits help me feel like I’m not alone, and remind me why I love my dogs as much as I do.
We’re humans and sometimes we treat our dogs in ways that we’re ashamed of. Dogs don’t understand the concept of forgiveness per se but their actions and body postures will tell you when they trust you and also when they’ve become afraid of you.
If you’ve reached that stage and you’re willing to put in the work, you can regain their trust. Just look at the rescue dogs who come from horrific abuse and learn to love and trust again.
Although no one should condone scolding or smacking dogs, it happens. If it’s a one-off, then the damage done is easily and quickly remedied with loving words and gentle touches.
If it’s a regular pattern of behavior, there are things you can do to help yourself and your dog reach a place of greater trust.