Southern Skies Flat-Coated Retriever Club

To Forgive is Canine
Cynthia McCollum

 "He acts guilty while I'm scolding him then 5 minutes later it's as if nothing happened!". "She doesn't seem to care if we yell at her. She acts like we're playing. She even wags her tail!".
Frustrated people want me to give them some clues as to why their dogs show no remorse. They want me to help solve their dogs' misbehavior problems. They also seem to want me to teach their dogs to display some obvious form of guilt.

Human beings are good at grudges. If I get mad at my husband in the morning, I might still be mad at him in the afternoon. He knows this. He understands it. He even remembers what it was that made me mad. At work if a superior scolds us we feel angry and embarrassed. We manage to turn the situation around in our minds so that the superior is wrong. We may stay angry for a long time. We hold a grudge.

Dogs don't understand grudges. They get angry at each other rarely and it is over very quickly. In my pack at home there is the occasional scuffle. Before Whoopi, the youngest, learned proper respect for her elders scuffles were more frequent. Here is a typical scene: Whoopi wants to play. Rose wants to rest and meditate. Whoopi repeatedly play bows at Rose. Rose ignores her. Whoopi paws at Rose and play snaps at her. Rose is clearly annoyed but continues to ignore the puppy. Whoopi loses all control and hurls her body onto Rose, biting her on the ears. Rose has had enough. With a roar she jumps up and bites the puppy (bloodlessly) on the head. The puppy cries and leaps back. Rose stands very still and erect. Whoopi approaches Rose with her tail wagging low. She licks the dominant dog's mouth and ears. The she steps back and play bows at her, tail wagging high and issuing play yips. Rose allows this for a few moments then walks away to lie down. Whoopi goes off is search of a more fun subject. If Rose felt like it, she would join the play.

This is a clear example of doggy misbehavior, discipline and forgiveness. One dog misbehaves, the dominant dog disciplines, then both dogs forgive each other. The puppy apologized by kissing and low tail wagging, then forgives the adult's roughness by inviting play.

Dogs are much better at forgiveness than we are. No matter how severe the transgression, dogs forgive in about 10 to 15 SECONDS. They are confused by our behavior, our grudge holding, our continuing to growl for hours after they have forgotten why we were angry. But the truth is they still love us and will forgive us quickly even we behave very badly. To the dog forgiveness and trust go hand in hand (or paw in paw). So our little problem with forgiveness confuses them and causes stress. Guess what canine stress causes? Inappropriate behaviors like chewing and housesoiling.

After the fact discipline seldom is worth the trouble. Punishment based training programs are stressful for both dogs and people because people don't handle discipline and forgiveness well, and the dog only vaguely remembers doing whatever the problem was.

So what do you do? First, you need a positive plan and a set of rules. Make a list of all the behaviors your dog does that annoy you and when they occur. These behaviors are not bad, they just need to be redirected into a positive behavior. So make a second list to go along with the first of what you want your dog to do instead. Example: the dog jumps on people during greeting. What do you want to dog to do instead? Most people want the dog to Sit. So on the second list you will write Sit to greet people. And so on and so on until you have a desirable behavior to match every undesirable one.

Now is the time to make some dog rules. Use your two lists as a guide and make a positive and goal oriented list of rules. Instead of "The dog is not allowed to jump on people" your positive rule should be "Rover will sit to greet people". Be honest with yourself about your dogs problems, but don't discount your dog's capacity for learning.

Some problems have two solutions, such as inappropriate chewing. The dog must always be directed to toys, but it must also be prevented from chewing your shoes, the furniture, the walls while you aren't paying attention. So your rule list will say "Rover must chew only on his toys" and "Someone must always be available to redirect Rover to his toys" AND "Rover needs to be in his kennel when unattended or alone". You need three rules to deal with this one problem.

When you have done all that AND worked with a trainer, whether in a class or privately, and genuinely made the effort to train you dog to behave in a civilized manner, you will be much happier with your relationship. Then your dog will do something so totally stupid you will be amazed. THEN you can scold, recognize and accept a true doggy apology, redirect to the good behavior, then mutually forgive each other and have a good play in celebration.

We have a lot to learn about forgiveness from our dogs.

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