There have been many different studies about the behavior of dogs, many of which have come about from human insistence in projecting our own emotions onto our pets. Much of the research has been into whether dogs feel guilt and shame; so far, the general consensus is that we don’t really know.
But despite the scientific research being inconclusive, many dog owners believe that their dogs can and do say sorry to them when they have been bad.
I don’t believe that dogs can apologize, and I will explain why. But I do think that dogs are able to learn from the way react, knowing certain behaviors and actions can elicit certain responses – and some of those will be reflected in their body language, expressions, and eyes.
And because of this, it’s no wonder that dog owners think that dogs can say sorry.
Dog’s body language can look like they are saying sorry
For example, dogs know when we are angry and when we are telling them off. Over the years of domestication, dogs have grown to understand that things like cowering, being subservient, and puppy dog eyes result in owners calming down, and possibly giving them a treat.
I’ve seen this with my own dog Claude when we are playing. If he is mouthing during play and accidentally bites me, I will do a loud “yelp” to signal he’s gone too far. He will back down, step back a little, and does look very sorry for himself… and I then go in and give him a cuddle and lots of love.
Essentially dogs learn from their bad behavior and understand that they will get rewarded for being good or displaying certain action. If you are scolding them, they might then give you those puppy dog eyes which we can mistake, understandably so, for dogs saying sorry and apologizing.
Here’s what a few experts say about the idea of how dogs say sorry or not.
Dogs look like they are saying sorry with a sad look
“I don’t think dogs actually feel shame. I think they know how to placate us with this sad puppy-dog look that makes us think they’re ashamed of what they’ve done. My guess is that their thinking is: Oh man, my owner is super mad about something, but I don’t know what, but he seems to calm down when I give him the sad face, so let’s try that again.” (Pascale Lemire of DogShaming.com)
We do not know if dogs can apologize
“Humans have a natural desire to know what an animal is thinking, and yet we are limited to reading body language and measuring physiological reactions. The bottom line is we will never truly know because we cannot ask them.” (Dr Bonnie Beaver, Professor at Texas University of Veterinary Medicine: source)
How to dogs say sorry to each other?
Whilst I don’t believe dogs can sorry to humans, I wondered if there was any evidence into whether dogs can say sorry to each other.
From my own research and seeing my own dog playing with other dogs, they do act subservient to each other. This can take the form of bowing their heads and rolling on their backs to act submissive.
I’ve seen this behavior during rough play, and it could be interpreted as being apologetic. Perhaps this is how dogs say sorry to each other after a problem… who knows?
What about the other way around?
I’ve also looked into how humans should apologize to dogs, and whether dogs even understand an apology. You can find out all I learned in this other blog post.
How do dogs say sorry?
As I’ve established, I don’t genuinely believe dogs can say sorry, but I know that many dog owners will completely disagree with me.
So, to keep things fair and balanced, I decided to ask dog owners and on social media how their dogs say sorry to humans when they have been bad.
Here’s a selection of the best responses.
How do you know if your dog is saying sorry?
“My dog knows if he has done wrong and will act all sorry with droopy ears, wide eyes, and occasionally looking down and avoiding my eye contact. It’s hilarious to see. Dogs can apologize, and this is how they do it by acting all guilty and shifty!”
“Our French Bulldog says sorry with the puppy dog eyes first of all. If that doesn’t work, he will then shuffle up to us and get right into our personal space by rubbing up against our legs and rubbing his head into us. It’s obvious he’s saying sorry to us, especially after he’s been naughty and chewed another cushion.”
“I know that dogs lick to say sorry. I’ve seen it with loads of my own dogs down the years who will apologize by muzzling into my neck, licking me, and generally giving me as much attention as possible until I give in and forgive them.”
“How dogs say sorry is very simple. It’s the classic tail between the legs body language. Acting submissive. Looking guilty. This are all signs of how your dog can apologize to you.”
“My dog says sorry by licking me, but only once I give him the go-ahead that I forgive him. It’s super cute and adorable, and anybody who says dogs can’t apologize don’t have a heart. They can and do say sorry!”
Despite the studies we will never actually know whether dogs know how to say sorry of whether they even have a concept of remorse and apology.
Fundamentally dogs live for the moment, so being able to say sorry would require that they were aware of time and the past action. Personally, I don’t believe that dogs have the mental and emotional ability to offer an apology.
Dog owners around the world will disagree with me, and I understand why; your dog can look sorry and guilty when you tell it off. But I believe this is purely because they understand what response that results in when their owners are emotional.
It’s “pleasing” behavior that they have learned works in response to negative body language from us. That’s what the puppy dog eyes, sad looking face, tail between the legs, and submissive pose is all about… surely?
There are no studies that comprehensively show that dogs can say sorry, or how they apologize. If and when that ever happens, I will put my hands up and accept I was wrong.
In fact, I will say sorry!
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