Words: Holly Leake
As dog owners, we often narrate how our dog is feeling and what their motives are. It is human nature to attribute human characteristics to other species to understand and bond with them. However, our conclusions about our dog's behaviour may not always be accurate. Nevertheless, many would argue that their dogs do hold grudges against them and can perform behaviours out of spite. Still, to determine if dogs indeed hold grudges, we need to examine a few factors.
Firstly, what do we mean by holding a grudge? Many would think this leads to resentment towards another due to some wrongdoing. This resentment may indicate they wish bad things to happen to them or result in the person seeking some form of revenge. Many interpret their dog's behaviour as an act of protest because they are unhappy about a particular situation, such as soiling in the house when they are isolated, but are dogs capable of such resentment?
We know that dogs are intelligent and emotional beings, but we need to consider what emotions dogs are capable of to determine the answer. Scientists currently believe that dogs have the same emotional intelligence as a 2 - 2 1/2-year-old child. A human child at this age can feel excitement, distress, contentment, disgust, fear, anger, joy, shyness, and affection. However, complex emotions, such as guilt, pride, shame and contempt, don't develop until much later. Pride and shame take nearly three years to develop, and a child is almost four years old when they can feel guilt and contempt. Dogs progress through the developmental stages far quicker than a human child; however, the range of emotions a dog feels cannot exceed what a human child experiences at 2-2 1/2 years of age.
Guilt is particularly intertwined with resentment because both emotions require an understanding of right from wrong and how personal actions impact others. This is why it takes many years for children to comprehend how their actions affect others fully. Dogs do not know the difference between right and wrong, and to truly feel resentment, they need to understand morals. If a dog truly behaved out of spite, they would have to reason that undesirable behaviour, such as urinating in the house, is wrong and that when you find it, you will be upset about it.
“Spite is an act that has the intent of malice. To plan to take action against somebody with the purpose to cause them emotional stress or harm in retribution for a perceived wrong previously done takes significant cognitive abilities.”
This would require dogs to have far greater cognitive abilities, which science hasn't demonstrated they have. All behaviour has a function and serves the dog in some form. Still, spiteful behaviour is not instinctive, nor is it in any way beneficial or rewarding for the dog. Thus, dogs do not have the thought processes to feel genuine resentment, and vengeful behaviour has no use for dogs.
If this is the case, why do dogs sometimes behave indifferently after certain situations? While we are careful not to anthropomorphise dogs, examining how human infants develop can help to give us some insight into why dogs may respond to certain situations. For example, studies show that toddlers can develop self-regulation skills in infancy and approach or avoid situations, depending on their emotional influence. From one year of age, babies begin to understand how specific emotions are linked to certain situations. From age two, they can develop strategies to avoid or create distance from something that distresses them.
This helps to understand why our dogs try to avoid situations when they observe our behavioural patterns, which they associate with distressing situations. For instance, your dog may learn that getting the bath towel and shampoo out of the cupboard means you intend to bathe him. Observing you just picking up the shampoo bottle can be enough to trigger that stress response, and so your dog learns to avoid the bathroom or towel cupboard at all costs. So dogs learn to avoid certain situations that they do not find rewarding; nevertheless, many still insist their dog feels resentment and is often directed at other dogs. I am sure you would agree that every dog has that one neighbourhood dog they seem to hate, following a bad experience. Could resentment be at play?
To find more answers, we need to consider our dog’s memory. Lo, K. H., & Roberts, W. A. (2019) conducted a study in the Journal of Comparative Psychology to determine if dogs have episodic memory. Episodic memory is a type of long-term memory involving conscious recollection of past events and their context. In this study, the dogs were presented with four odours inside different boxes at different times. Tasks were then set, requiring the dogs to recall and encode their memories to determine the odour's location and times. During the study, two of the four boxes were tested and then returned to their original location. The dogs were then required to choose a box by knocking off the lid, and if they chose the box they were previously presented with, they earned a food reward. Generally, the dogs performed well with this and selected the correct box. When the dogs were expected to distinguish between the first box they visited and another different box, they reliably chose the first box they visited, demonstrating that they could remember and use that memory to complete the tasks.
Dogs also have an associative memory, which allows them to associate sounds, smells and sights with particular emotions. Negative associations can trigger fearful behaviours that may be misinterpreted as the dog holding a grudge. For example, you may believe the dog resents the vet, which is why he misbehaves every visit. However, your dog has likely recalled the emotions he felt the first time he saw the vet and these emotions are felt every time. Your dog has developed a conditioned response to something they perceive as a stressful situation, and something as simple as the odour of the vets could trigger these emotions due to associative memory. Although your dog can recall how he felt that first time he went to the vet, it is unknown if dogs can remember every detail of the first experience. Instead, the dog remembers how the event made him feel, so the same feelings are felt each time. The same can be said for the supposedly hated neighbourhood dog. Your dog doesn’t dwell on his hatred for this dog or replay that first experience in his mind, but he may remember how that dog made him feel, and so he relives those emotions each time he spots him on his walks.
So if your dog has a reliable memory but doesn’t have the cognitive abilities to feel resentment, why does he sometimes avoid you? Well, dogs can sense our emotions to a remarkable degree. So much so that your dog may know you better than anyone else. They can feel the tiniest change in mood, which may be why your dog avoids you in different situations. We have all sensed our boss being tense or annoyed, and our response is usually to give them a wide birth. Our dogs can do the very same thing. They may sense we are tense or stressed and so keep a distance to avoid conflict. We may believe this response is based on being upset with us when it is simply self-preservation in reality. Dogs can also feel upset or stressed about a situation, so if you have done something you know they dislike, they may be quiet because they need to recover from feeling stressed, rather than them purposefully avoiding you out of resentment.
Thus, it is very likely that what we interpret as resentment is just a conditioned response to a stressful situation. Therefore, we need to change the dog's negative association into a positive one. While it's important to acknowledge the emotions dogs are capable of, we have to be careful not to attribute human traits to our dogs. When we misinterpret their intentions, we misunderstand how to address their behaviour, which can be detrimental.