Dog Shaming or "Guilty Dog"
and "Is your dog leaving when a certain someone enters the room?"
Approaches to antecedent management and methods to create new, healthy associations that may alleviate the dynamics that can cause fear or anxiety in dogs in response to presentation of a particular person.
Dogs are naturally good at making quick associations; whether it be good or bad. It may be only one experience the dog learns from, or repeated exposure to many that has reinforced their belief.
“What did you do?” The dog may have learned that that particular rhythm, pitch and delivery predicts you (or someone else) getting upset, ending in some form of unpleasant escalation and/or punishment to the dog. To appease, the dog cowers, tongue-flicks, repeatedly blinks, lowers herself, may show teeth (looks like an attempted grin), or seek refuge or escape to submit to and calm the inquisitor.
Too often we see social media clips of dogs looking "guilty" or being “shamed” for doing something, as if the dog actually did it it to be naughty, or to make you angry, as if they were socially and intellectually sophisticated enough to punish you for leaving, and as if the dog could measure time. The dog is simply yet desperately demonstrating that s/he has detected a pattern, in the clearest canine language she understands, attempting to appease you to prevent or reduce the predicted outcome.
Is your dog leaving when a certain someone enters the room?
A holistic approach as opposed to symptomatic—getting to the root of the problem rather than just treating the symptoms. The cause could be that there was a single, unrecognized by you though significant-to-the-dog event that left a lasting impression. Perhaps the dog is inadequately socialized and feels insecure, or the subject person has an expressive personality that is frightening to the dog, or both. In the latter example, the dog’s fears are confirmed with repeated exposure, especially reinforced if the episode ends in pursuit or negative physical contact with the dog or a loved one that the dog felt needed protection. Symptoms may look like (the dog): leaving the scene, hiding, lowering self to the ground, nervousness (pacing, lip-licking), giving calming signals (blinking, placing themselves between humans, bringing gifts, nestling up against you), or even growling, barking, snapping and biting. Some dogs move immediately to growling and snapping while others may give more subtle warnings until being pushed or reinforced to growl or bite.
The pattern gets reinforced, the subject human enters the room and the dog leaves the room to avoid the anticipated storm (from the dog’s perspective); possibly triggering the human to respond negatively with frustration toward the dog for “blowing the whistle” or inaccurately indicting him or her. And so the cycle self-perpetuates. The ongoing cycle of stress is unhealthy; prolonged effects of stress are illness and emotional instability and undesirable behaviors. Unless the cycle is redirected or changed, we can expect it to continue and grow in intensity which unfortunately, will ultimately be at the dog’s expense. In the short term it may feel like only the human’s expense, but the long term will be the dog’s burden as s/he will be labeled a biter, an aggressive dog, unfriendly, and possibly unadoptable.
We owe it to the animals we bring into our home as family members to provide a secure and healthy life, just as we do for our own children. Since our dogs live within our social circles, we must make accommodations so that their needs for emotional and physical health are tended to. Dogs are sensitive animals and keen to changes in human emotion, often sensing mood changes before we are even aware of them ourselves.
Unless you have good reason, be careful about impressing upon your dog that you are afraid of this person and that you need your dog’s protection. This may seem like a harmless role play but the message to your dog is loud and clear; that person is a threat! If you think you have given your dog this impression, then it’s time to manage the situation and start working on making new, positive associations.
Eliminate any form of physical punishment or corrections; rather, constructively use time outs (containment) or redirects as an alternative to help maintain boundaries while you work to rebuild trust. Actively manage the environment and interactions through containment, supervision and reinforcement of desired alternative behaviors. If you are certain the fear is related to a single event, then preventing it from happening again or protecting your dog from exposure should be pretty straight forward.
Get to work on creating positive associations by using the, “when presented with the fear-causing stimulus, you get STEAK!” counter-conditioning protocol. Okay, yes, steak might be over the top, a little rich for their stomach and demanding on your budget to say the least, but the point is:
the reward must be of high-value to the dog, and it absolutely must be timely . . .
delivered the moment the dog sees the person or at the moment the person displays whatever it is that triggers the behavior. Please note that this method could backfire if you handed your dog a reward after the person appeared and the dog already started growling… the person appears, the dog postures and growls, and then you give him a reward—this could reinforce the unwanted behavior. So the correct sequence would be like this instead, (let’s call the person the dog responds to negatively as “subject”); visualize you hanging out casually with Fido and talking confidently-calmly, subject calls out your name from another room, you immediately feed the dog a treat. Subject says something random in a louder tone from another room, you feed the dog a treat. Subject appears at entrance, you feed the dog a treat, AND subject tosses the dog a treat, eventually moving into positively interacting with the dog—as long as it's something the dog enjoys. Here we are impressing upon our dog that you feel the subject person is no threat and it’s a good thing having him/her around—when the subject appears, good things happen. Again, be careful not to offer the dog shelter from this person, instead, help them feel like you welcome the subject’s presence.
Employ counter-conditioning protocol to triggers such as, loud voices, a slamming door, stomping of feet, etc. If you feel these human behaviors are absolutely unavoidable in the home, then try counter-conditioning to the stimulus: slamming door = chicken, or raised voices = cookies fall from the sky. Important! Introduce the fear-causing stimulus gradually and from a manageable distance, food-treat the dog before the fear response is triggered. The desired result is when the dog is presented with the stimulus, the dog instead anticipates a treat and positive, healthy interactions.
Improve your dog’s socialization and confidence skills by acknowledging and praising your dog for outgoing behavior vs. insecure behaviors. Strive to provide a constructive and predictable environment for your dog. Gradually and positively introduce new people, places and things, helping your dog feel more secure in his/her environment. Learn to speak dog—learn more about the many ways dogs communicate their fear and stress, and how your own dog communicates stress and comfort.
A side, but relevant conversation. Are dogs empathetic? A simple e-dictionary definition of empathy yields, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” In a recent study, “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs” (Learning & Behavior Journal, 2018) sought to uncover whether or not dogs would “go beyond focusing attention on humans in need by providing more substantive help to them.” Their case study found evidence that dogs will provide prosocial help for their humans; providing the individual dog is able to suppress their own stress enough to offer help. I think it’s fair to deduce that dogs do not understand the reasons or complexities as to why we feel the way we do, but they can, similar to a human toddler, pick up on and react to variations of sadness, anger, and happiness in us. Some behaviorists argue that the dog is simply responding to, mimicking the emotions of another, rather than interpreting or expressing empathy; though the empathy findings above indicate otherwise. Bottom line, the social sensitivities our dogs' possess calls upon us to be mindful of our their emotional health and kindly consider how our own behaviors affect them.
Sanford, E.M., Burt, E.R. & Meyers-Manor, J.E. Learn Behav (2018) 46:374.
Animal Cruelty and Domestic Violence, The Link Between Cruelty to Animals and Violence Toward Humans. Retrieved from: