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Does My Dog Understand When I Apologize?

I asked three animal behaviorists to confirm that my dog still loves me (even though I yelled at him to stop barking)

Parenting a pet, no matter what kind, can be a frustrating and bewildering experience. Animals can’t tell you what they want and need (directly, at least), so we’re here to help you answer any questions you have about your favorite companion — whether they be furry, slimy, feathered, scaly or anything in between — with insight from the experts. This is “Basic Bitch,” an advice column for pet parents who just want the best for their best friend.

The Very Basic Concern

The other day I was working from home, completely swamped with projects, and I was super stressed out. Meanwhile, my dog had decided it was the perfect time to bark at the front door for five straight hours. The frustration with work and the barking eventually got to me, so I stormed into the front room, shouted at my dog to stop barking and put him in another room for a short time-out.

Naturally, I felt terrible a couple minutes later, especially after hearing him whine to be let out, so I did what any good dog owner would: I let him out, apologized profusely and gave him belly rubs until my arms were sore. Thing is, I figure he has no idea what an apology is, so I have no way of knowing whether he forgives me. 

Basically: Do dogs understand when their owners apologize?

The Expert Advice

Emma Grigg, certified applied animal behaviorist, author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog: Canine Training, Thinking and Behavior and post-doctoral research associate at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine: I think they know that everything’s okay, and that you’re on their side. But do they know that you’re sorry and apologizing? That’s another level.

If we’re looking at non-human animals and emotions in non-human animals, the science has reached a point where everybody agrees that they have the basic emotions, which when you’ve owned a dog or a cat, you’re like, “Well, of course they do.” But for a long time, people didn’t accept that they had any emotions. So now, yes, we accept that they have basic emotions, but what we’re not sure about are the more complex emotions, what they call secondary emotions — guilt is the big one people talk about a lot, and recently there was a look at jealousy, too.

Basically, we don’t know if they have the emotions that require them to do a lot more cognitive processing and to pull abstract concepts together. That isn’t to say they don’t, but we don’t have any evidence that they do.

Setting that aside, though, we do know that dogs in particular are highly social species, and domestic cats are also more social than people think — I mean, if you think about how domestic cats tend to live when they’re not living with humans, they live in colonies, right? But dogs are highly social, and unlike cats, evolved from a very social ancestor, so you’d expect them to have social skills — the ability to read social signals, to some degree at least, and respond appropriately. 

To that end, if you see two dogs — and you’ve probably seen this — get in a spat or a fight, they often will sort of reconcile. One dog will go over, and it looks like they’re more or less apologizing. Essentially, we don’t know if they’re apologizing, but what we can assume with pretty good confidence is that they’re reconnecting and making sure that the bond is still okay. They’re saying, “Yeah, we fought over that rawhide, but you’re still part of my group, and I’m still part of your group. We still have each other’s backs.”

So I’d say the same would be true for humans. When we do something, like step on their tail, or like yesterday, it was super dry at Davis, where I am, and I kept shocking my dog every time I touched them. They looked at me, and I was like, “I’m so sorry!” So I think they understand when you apologize and make a fuss at them. They understand that that’s an affiliative gesture — in animal-behavior speak, you’re connecting with them and expressing that the bond is still there. I’d say that’s true for some cats, too. Both dogs and cats have been found to bond with their owners. There’s a lot of individual variation, more so with cats I think than dogs, but we do know they can build bonds.

Now, we can’t say for sure whether they know that what you’re doing is an apology. But, really, does it matter? The important thing is reconnecting and making sure the dog knows that you’re not angry with them — or especially cats, because they tend to hold grudges for longer, or they certainly behave as though they do. You want to ensure that they know that you’re still supportive and still their human. That’s the important part.

Mary Huntsberry, certified applied animal behaviorist and founder of Helping Pets Behave: The short answer is, no, animals cannot understand the intent of our behavior. Depending on the learning history of the pet, bending down may be associated with something good or bad. Pets who enjoy affection and/or have a habit of going to their owner for comfort are more likely to find the experience positive, while pets who are punished may perceive the owner bending down as more frightening, threatening or even confrontational. 

It’s also interesting that you mentioned belly rubs — there are contexts in which dogs roll over when they’re afraid. They actually use this body posture to signal the need for space from other dogs and people, which often gets misinterpreted by less experienced pet owners as a request for a rub. So depending on context, the same behavior can have two different meanings.

James Ha, certified applied animal behaviorist: There are a couple of levels to this answer. Traditionally, we’d say no, they don’t know what sorry means, they don’t know what guilty means — no, they don’t have any of those sort of higher, more complex emotions. Now, they do have emotions. They have fundamental emotions of joy, happiness, grief, depression, anger and frustration, and those are the sort of deeply-seated, biologically-driven emotions. But when you get into guilt, shame and apologies, they don’t have that.

So traditionally, the thinking has always been, you yelled at them, and one of two things happened: One, it’s aversive. I hate using the term — it’s so loaded these days — but fundamentally in learning theory, it’s a mild punishment. We use them all the time with each other, so I’m not saying anybody’s being abusive or anything like that, but it’s an aversive, as we like to call it. It’s a negative, right? You startled the dog. 

I think of it as the mature dog, older dog or leader of the pack giving a growl. One of the younger dogs does something — maybe bites too hard — and the other dog, the bigger dog, the older dog, the dominant dog, whatever you want to call it, is going to give a big warning growl: “Stop that.” And generally, the other dog says, “Whoops, I did something wrong. That was a negative. I don’t like negatives. They scare me, and they intimidate me. They can be followed by worse negatives. I shouldn’t do that anymore.” That’s how we learn. So what you’re doing is giving a growl, and the other dog is saying, “Uh oh, I did something wrong.”

Then, what you’re doing is going up afterwards and saying, “It wasn’t that bad. It’s okay. I’m not still mad at you.” You’re giving positives. So you’re giving a negative, a punishment, and then a positive reinforcement to reestablish the social bond and so on. That’s traditionally the way we’d look at this.

If you want, there’s also usually a social structure: I’m the boss; you’re not the boss. They’re doing something you don’t like, and you’re the boss, so you give a growl, a “no,” a yell, whatever. The other dog may even be doing a subordinate behavior or appeasement behavior: “I’m sorry I did that. Don’t be mad at me.” Which means, “You don’t need to get any rougher with me. I heard you. I’ve stopped.” In serious issues, the target dog, or the dog that got yelled at, will roll over and pee on the floor. They’re saying, “Yes, you’re the boss. Yes, I heard you. You don’t need to yell at me anymore or get more violent about it. I heard you; I’ve stopped. Be nice to me.”

Very recently, though, there’s been fascinating literature led by a primatologist named Frans de Waal on very complex social behavior in non-human primates — macaques and monkeys and things like that — which is called reconciliation behavior, and reconciliation behavior is a very hot, controversial area in modern animal behavior science. It says there are actually specific behaviors that are used after aggressive altercations, and we’re using the term aggressive in the broadest — and even the mildest — sense. There can be a squabble over access to resources or access to a mate. We can fight, but then there are specific behaviors that are used to make up. Monkeys: You see the one that got yelled at running over and start grooming the aggressor, or winner. But if you’re a young, punk challenger, and you get into a fight with an elder, you might win. And how do you know you’ve won? The other one, the former dominant, comes over and grooms you. That’s a reconciliation behavior.

This is being extended into other species, too. One of the really interesting areas is with dogs: Do dogs show reconciliation behaviors to other dogs? But it’s even more fascinating to study, do dogs show show reconciliation behaviors with humans? That is, I’d say depending on your definition of reconciliation, this kind of coming over and just saying, “Please don’t hit me or yell at me again,” I guess is a form of reconciliation. But what these guys are arguing is that there are specific facial expressions — and specific behaviors — that are used for reconciliation, certainly in the more cognitive, complex primates. 

In dogs? I don’t know. We don’t know yet. Nobody knows.