We’ve all been there. You accidently hurt your dog, perhaps shout at them, leave them home alone for too long, or don’t show them enough attention. The guilt can eat you up, and all that’s left it to say sorry to your dog and hope that they forgive you. It will make you feel better, right?
Now obviously what we’re doing here is projecting human emotions and behavior onto our dog. Whether dogs do forgive you is unknown but what I have done is reference some research into it below.
But the bottom line is this; if you do think you have hurt your dog’s feelings, it does pay to apologize to your dog. It gives you the opportunity to show them that you love them, that you are sorry, and hopefully for them to begin trusting you again.
But how do you tell your dog you’re sorry? And even if you do, will a dog understand when you apologize? I decided to find out with a mix of what the scientists say, personal opinion, plus the views of other dog owners.
Do dogs understand when you apologize?
Whether dogs understand when you apologize is open to debate, with opinions on both sides of the fence. For example, in Masson’s “The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving” book he explains how dogs understand when a human says sorry.
The example he gives is when an owner steps on a dog’s tail, and then say sorry over and over again. You will often then see the dog come over and give the human a lick on the hand which is the dogs way of accepting the apology.
For a more scientific perspective I found some commentary from a certified applied animal behaviourist called Emma Griffin. She’s a post-doctoral research associate at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine and was quoted as saying the following:
“We don’t know if they have the emotions that require them to do a lot more cognitive processing. That isn’t to say they don’t, but we don’t have any evidence. You’d expect them to have the ability to read social signals, to some degree. We can’t say for sure whether they know that what you’re doing is an apology. But does it matter? The important thing is reconnecting and making sure the dog knows you’re not angry with them. You want to ensure they know that you’re still supportive and still their human.”
So, we’re still no closer to really knowing whether dogs can understand when you apologise, but there definitely some kind of emotion… whether they forgive you or not is another matter!
Do dogs forgive you?
From my own personal experience, I would say that dogs do always forgive you. We own a cat and a dog, and our cat really doesn’t care much about us as long as she gets fed. Our dog on the other hand is an entirely different emotional species.
For example, if my dog is upset with me, within seconds it’s all forgiven. Or at least, that’s how it seems.
You only need to look at people who badly treat their dogs to understand how forgiving dogs are. From reading horrific stories online, and see people badly treat their dog in public, we all see how the dog quickly forgives the human.
Whether dogs process forgiveness like humans do is unlikely as canines don’t have the emotional intelligence of a human. That means they are probably unable to hold grunges or even go into a sulk all day.
All pet owners are very aware that the emotional response of a dog is completely in the moment. Meaning they are scared for a few moments, react badly out of fear briefly and so on… regularly forgetting as time moves on.
To conclude on this aspect, I would say that it appears dogs do forgive you, but this is very much based on how we as humans perceive things – in other words, us projecting our emotions onto animals.
How to show dogs you’re sorry
And now moving into the crux of the matter, and how to apologize to your dog. There are lots of ways but bear in mind that how to tell a dog you are sorry will depend on what they respond to.
Some dogs love treats, other love cuddles, others like a good walk… perhaps the best way you can show dogs you are sorry is to combine all of them.
I decided to speak to various owners I know, to find out how to apologize to a dog. Here’s the best and most impressive ways you can get a dog to trust you again after an apology.
1. Get the timing right
It’s hard to say whether dogs do understand when you sorry, so if you are going to apologize to your dog, do it right at the point you did whatever it was that was wrong.
By saying sorry to your dog at the point you upset them, scared them, and broke their trust, there’s more chance that they might understand the context of the apology.
2. Use a soft and soothing tone of voice
Dogs work off the body language of their owners and can tell when you’re angry or when you’re happy and a calm.
If you have just trodden on their toe and made them yelp, the best way how to let your dog know you’re sorry is to be ultra-calm. Do this by lowering the tone and volume of your voice, moving down to their level, and talking in soft and soothing tones.
You can supplement this soft apology approach with tactile messages such as strokes, whilst apologizing to your dog for hurting them.
3. If you hurt your dog don’t immediately hug them
If your hurt your dog and want to apologize to them to regain their trust again, don’t be tempted to drop down to their level and hug them immediately.
This could backfire and could be perceived as a threat rather than a soothing action.
Give them a little physical space and talk calmly to them. That way it’s more likely that your dog will forgive you when you accidentally hurt them.
4. Give them lots of attention and play
If you have been out all day or perhaps haven’t been giving your dog the attention they deserve, then you might owe them an apology. The best way to that with an active dog is to take them out to do what they love… play, run and chase!
You can offer an apology to your dog by playing with them, showering them with attention, and making them your sole focus.
5. Consider not using treats to say sorry to a dog
One of the ways in which owners all around the world apologize to their dog is to give the puppy or adult a treat. It makes sense in many ways, because you feel bad, dogs love treats, everyone’s a winner, right?
Well, not quite, and it could send mixed signals.
Treats are used as training tools for dogs and should only really be given to reward good behavior.
If you are giving your dog a treat to apologize, it’s giving them a reward when they haven’t actually done anything to deserve it.
The bottom line is we don’t really know if dog’s understand an apology from humans. Saying sorry to your dog is probably more to make us feel better than anything else. Whilst they might not understand the apology, they will appreciate the love and attention you can give to them!