Some dogs have rotten luck. Thousands of abused and abandoned pups show up in shelters every day, and humans are often amazed at the forgiveness and resilience these animals show. But do dogs really forgive people who have wronged them? It’s important to understand some basics regarding dogs, their emotions and the ways in which they learn. Dogs do forgive, but it may not be the same forgiveness you’d recognize in the human emotional spectrum.
Dogs feel emotions, but they have a smaller range of feelings than humans. According to Discover Magazine, dogs feel at about the same level as a toddler, meaning they have basic emotions like fear, happiness, distress and love. They do not, however, feel complex emotions rooted in memory or social organization such as shame, guilt or pride. Because dogs don’t harbor resentments or grudges, they cannot necessarily “forgive” in the true sense of the word.
Dogs don’t spend much time thinking about the past or future. Most of what a dog thinks has to do with what is happening to the animal at the moment. While dogs can develop a sense of routine and will quickly spot patterns in your behavior, it’s beyond a dog’s thinking capacity to predict when you’ll be home from work or think back on the time you hit him with a newspaper. Most of a dog’s experiences exist only in the moment -- dogs don’t spend much time reminiscing.
What many owners mistake for complex emotions on the part of their dog is actually the manifestation of pattern recognition. For example, if your dog knocks a glass off the coffee table and immediately looks guilty, what you’re seeing in the dog’s body language isn’t guilt. Instead, the dog is reacting to the way you typically react and predicting a punishment based on previous accidents. Dogs learn all sorts of patterns; your German shepherd, for instance, may come to associate your putting on a hat with it being time to go outside and play. If you’ve never yelled at or punished a dog for a specific behavior, you probably won’t see the “guilt” body language.
The way dogs feel and think ends up helping them in the long run. A dog cannot “forgive” an abusive owner in the way humans might think of forgiveness, but the dog will also only associate that abusive behavior with the specific circumstances surrounding the abuser. This is the reason many abused animals in shelters are excited to meet new people and react with joy upon being handled by humans -- they don’t remember the abuse of their former owners enough to assume that every human is abusive. Some dogs can and do develop emotional traumas, but in most cases bad experiences are forgotten and replaced with newer, more positive patterns. Dogs forgive, but not quite as much as they forget.
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