Understanding Apologizing and Forgiving Behavior in Dogs

by Pets

Did you know that dogs were the first animals to be domesticated by humans around 40,000 years ago? While researchers do not completely agree on this, most of them confirm that dogs are the oldest and closest companions of humans. If you ask any dog lover, they will tell you that their canine friends are just like family members. Dogs are known for their loyal, gentle, and understanding nature, which brings extra warmth, peace, and friendship to a household. When you return home after a tiring day at work, your dog greets you with a big smile on its face, and you just can’t help feeling happy and loved.

If you have a furry friend at home, you may feel that you understand its behavior and that you have a special bond with it. You might assume that your dog knows you very well too and understands your behavior. But, do you really comprehend your dog’s feelings and motivations? When your dog behaves in a way that might upset you, does it come running to you to apologize by extending its paw, licking your face, or following you around? If you answered yes, you might have wondered if your dog is genuinely apologizing to you. Unlike cats, who seem to be happy to break things and knock stuff off tables, dogs are emotionally evolved creatures that can perceive human emotions and sense anger. So, when a dog misbehaves, it may want forgiveness.

Dog parents may encounter chewed slippers, ripped pillows, or scratched mattresses from time to time and notice their dogs staring at them with sad eyes. Short of speaking, your furry friend might be showing signs of regret and trying to apologize to you. But, why would a dog ask for forgiveness? What motivates it to apologize?

Three Reasons Why Dogs Apologize

When dogs exhibit physical cues such as sad eyes, a bowed head, paws on your hands, and licking your face, they may be trying to express regret in their own way.

These behaviors are passed down from their wolf ancestors, and droopy ears, wide eyes, or rubbing their faces against their paws are considered submissive expressions of apology. But why would dogs display these behaviors? Why do they want to seek and obtain forgiveness?

In order to answer this question, researchers have put forth various theories that can explain dogs’ behavior based on studies of their conduct. Kristina A.F. Walters et al. proposed three theories in their study on the reconciliation behaviors of pet dogs, which shed light on why dogs care about forgiveness:

  1. To remove uncertainty.
  2. To restore relationships.
  3. To provide social hierarchy.

The first theory posits that dogs apologize to remove uncertainty from unresolved and stressful situations. They want to negotiate after doing something that might anger their owners. Therefore, they exhibit self-apologetic behavior to ensure clarity in their relationship and prevent further negativity.

The second theory suggests that dogs apologize to restore relationships and go back to the way things were before the incident that angered their owners. Isn’t this just like humans? Don’t we want to restore our relationships with loved ones after hurting or upsetting them?

The last theory about dogs seeking forgiveness is that they want to compromise and restore social order by clarifying everyone’s place and status. They want to ensure that everyone is happy and that relationships are in balance.

American biologist Marc Bekoff evaluated these three theories and revealed four golden rules to follow in canine communication:

  1. Ask first and communicate clearly.
  2. Watch your demeanor.
  3. Admit when you’re wrong.
  4. Be honest.

When playing games, dogs constantly strive to understand and follow the rules, ensuring fair behavior by monitoring their partners’ conduct carefully. If they accidently bite too hard during play, they might take a step back with a message like ‘sorry, I will play more fairly.’ Dogs even perform role reversals to let high-ranking dogs dominate or control. In short, they try every possible way to maintain relationships, avoid conflicts, and keep the balance.

Finally, it has been found that dogs spend more time with dogs they disagree with- almost as if they’re spending time and effort to solve a problem.

If you are interested in learning more about caring for and understanding pet behavior, you can check out our related articles below.

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