What’s Wrong With Dog Shaming
By now you’ve probably seen the “shaming” pictures of dogs on the internet with hand-written signs about the “bad” things the dogs have done. These include peeing on the owner’s leg at obedience class, slamming against the bedroom door to wake the owner up, eating feces or TV remote controls, and more. We’ve included a couple of the cuter ones on this page.
(Right click for a larger image so you can better read the signs stating the dogs’ transgressions.)
We can all get a good laugh at these, in part because our dogs have likely done something similar. Publicly shaming kids on the internet is quite controversial, but we’ve heard no one complain about shaming dogs.
Obviously the dogs will never see their photos, so the “shaming” doesn’t create any direct emotional fall-out for them as it could for children who see their shaming online. BUT, dog shaming isn’t necessarily the harmless event it seems to be on the surface.
The problem is that dog shaming perpetuates a common, and sometimes damaging myth about dogs, their behavior and how they learn. Some of the dogs in the shaming pictures are showing what behavior scientists would call submissive behaviors. Their ears are back, they are avoiding eye contact, their eyes are wide, and/or the eyes are drawn together making their brows appear wrinkled (giving that “worried” look).
It’s a good bet some owners are scolding the dogs while they are taking the picture, which elicits these submissive behaviors that people often mis-interpret as “guilty” looks. Recent research has validated it is the scolding that brings out the submissive behaviors from dogs, not the emotion of guilt.
When people believe their dogs show guilt, and know right from wrong, it provides justification for punishment after the fact. From fundamental principles of animal learning, we know that the consequences of a behavior (whether good or bad) need to immediately (within about 3 seconds) follow the behavior in order for learning to occur. Attempting to show the dog his “mess” (whatever that may be) as a means of connecting past behavior with later punishment not only isn’t effective at stopping the unwanted behavior, but often creates conditioned fears and aversions (dogs that stop greeting their owners at the door). It’s certainly not fair to the dog, who can’t understand why he’s being scolded, and only teaches dogs not to trust their owners because the latter are so unpredictable.
Dogs also don’t know “right” from “wrong” in an ethical or moral sense. What they are quite capable of learning is under what conditions rewards and punishment can be expected. For example, most dogs easily learn the rule not to get in the trash when someone is present. But many dogs raid the trash when alone because it often results in tasty tidbits and no one is home to yell at them. That’s quite different than concluding a dog knows it’s “wrong” to get in the trash, but tries to “get away with it” when no one is home.
So the take home message is, go ahead and have a good chuckle at some of the dog shaming pictures. But don’t let them mislead you into thinking your dog “knows better” and therefore deserves to be punished when you find evidence of his unwanted behavior.
We hope you want to learn more about how best to have a well behaved dog and take a look at our many resources that will help you – from our Booklets “76 Ways To Get Your Dog to Do What You Want” and “What Dogs Need and How They Think” to our more intensive “Fundamentals of Animal Learning” Course or DVD.
And because many of these unwanted behaviors occur when dogs are left alone you’ll for sure want to get registered for our comprehensive 3 session course on "Help for Home Alone Dogs", appropriate for both pet pros and dog owners.