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Even though you love your dog, there have likely been times when you’ve wondered if your dog is acting out of spite. Maybe you’ve come home to a puddle of pee on the floor, or you’ve gone out to get the mail only to come back and discover your dog has chewed up your favorite pair of shoes.
It’s incredibly frustrating when your dog is destructive. Not only do you have to spend additional time cleaning up, but you likely need to spend extra money to replace the destroyed items.
Sometimes in these moments, it feels like our dogs are being spiteful. You’ve fed them and made sure they’ve gone to the house bathroom before you left, but they still destroy your things. Humans often think – why else would our dog do that unless it was out of spite?
So, the question is – can dogs be spiteful?
While it may feel like your dog is being destructive out of spite, dogs are, in fact, not spiteful animals. When a dog has poor behavior and becomes destructive, there is a deeper underlying cause, not spite. While we all know dogs do experience emotions, they don’t have the capacity to be spiteful or vindictive.
Unpacking the emotional lives of dogs is a complex topic, so let’s go ahead and dive into it!
Dogs Do Have Basic Emotions
When asking ourselves if dogs can be spiteful, it’s important that we understand the definition of spite is to hurt, annoy, or offend deliberately. This means that being spiteful would include active thinking of how specific actions would intentionally hurt someone.
Thanks to modern science, we know that dogs and humans share many of the same brain structures. It’s now widely accepted and understood that a dog’s mind is roughly equivalent to a 2-2.5-year-old toddler. With that in mind, we know that while dogs do have emotions, they have a much more limited range of emotions that they can experience.
To sum it up as simply as possible, dogs experience the same basic emotions a toddler would. These emotions include joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love. However, based on the current research on dogs, they don’t have the emotional or mental capacity to experience complex emotions like guilt, pride, or shame.
The video below does a great job of explaining these concepts in greater detail.
Behavior in Dogs that Appears Spiteful
Since dogs aren’t verbal like us, they use their body language to communicate. Dogs use their body language posture to communicate their underlying emotional state. These changes in their body language can range from subtle cues like a tongue flick to obvious signs like full-out barking and lunging.
Since we’ve established that dogs do indeed have basic emotions but not complex emotions like spite, let’s discuss some of the body language a dog may display that may lead you to think they are feeling spiteful.
One common scenario that pet parents often think their dog is being spiteful is when they leave their dog home alone and come back to either a chewed-up mess or a large puddle of pee on the floor. Pet parents may be further convinced that their dog was spiteful because the dog may appear guilty once they return home.
Let’s unpack this scenario and describe what’s really happening.
Destructive Behaviors Caused by Separation Anxiety
When you enter the house and see that your dog has either been destructive while you’ve been gone or has left you a puddle to clean up, you can rest assured that your dog isn’t being spiteful. A dog experiencing separation anxiety may do either of these things when left home alone. We love our dogs, and our dogs indeed love us too. They don’t like being separated from us.
Dogs with separation anxiety become triggered and upset when they’re separated from their people. Separation anxiety is actually quite common in dogs and affects 20-40% of dogs presented to veterinary behaviorists.
When dogs with separation anxiety are left home alone, they become distressed. In an attempt to get rid of their anxious energy, they often chew things up or pee where they shouldn’t. When the door opens and their family returns, owners often mistake the dog’s body language for guilt.
Owners may think their dog is spiteful when they’ve left them home alone and come back to a chewed-up mess or a puddle on the floor, but the dog didn’t do these things out of spite. The dog did those things due to the underlying separation anxiety.
The Myth of Guilty Body Language
Often times when owners open the door and notice a mess on the floor, they find their dog crouching, wagging their tail, looking away, or even raising a paw. Many owners will misinterpret this body language and mistake it for the dog to feel guilty.
In reality, dogs are displaying what’s known as appeasement signals. In these scenarios of an owner coming home to a mess, the dog has likely learned that people can become angry and yell. Since dogs are intelligent creatures, they will begin to display submissive and appeasing body language to avoid further conflict.
While dogs can be taught many things, they don’t have an inherent understanding of right and wrong. Because the emotions they feel are similar to a toddler, they don’t have the capacity to feel guilty.
Is Your Dog Being Spiteful?
The short answer is no. Your dog isn’t being spiteful. As we’ve discussed, dogs are only capable of experiencing simple emotions and not complex ones like spite. What owners perceive to be their dog being spiteful is most often a dog dealing with anxiety and having his appeasing body language misinterpreted for guilt.
Attributing these complex and serious emotions, like spite, to dogs is actually called anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to an animal. In layman’s terms, this is when we compare an animal’s behavior to human behavior. If there is some level of similarity, we will interpret the animals’ behavior the same, as if they were a human.
Anthropomorphism can actually be dangerous. While dogs are smart creatures, it’s important to not misinterpret their behavior. This can lead to an inaccurate understanding of their actions.
It’s essential to understand and recognize the differences in behavior and emotions in dogs and people so that we can look at our dogs in the right light to get a good understanding of their behavior to ensure
Training Dogs to Avoid Behavior that Appears Spiteful
As we’ve established, your dog is not being spiteful. Instead, your dog is displaying a behavior due to underlying emotional conditions, like separation anxiety. These behaviors of chewing things up or creating a mess on the floor are behaviors that you will want to avoid as much as possible.
Now that you understand your dog is simply an emotional animal, you can work on ways to prevent your dog from feeling so upset.
If you suspect your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, here are some tips to get you started:
Tip 1: Establish a predictable routine.
Dogs thrive on consistency. If you establish a predictable routine, your dog will get used to it and understand when you’re leaving and when you’ll get back. This can help your dog feel calmer and less anxious.
Tip 2: Remain calm and quiet when leaving and arriving.
It’s important to leave your home calmly and quietly and return home that way. When you make your departure and arrival a big deal by saying goodbye over and over or yelling when you get home, that can actually cause your dog to have anxiety.
When you make something a big deal, your dog picks up on your energy. Staying calm and quiet will help your dog feel more relaxed and secure.
Tip 3: Ensure your dog has plenty of enrichment.
As much as we love our dogs and take care of them, if we don’t actively provide them with physical exercise and mental enrichment, their lives can be quite boring.
It’s important to ensure they’re getting plenty of exercise and opportunities to use their brain by solving puzzle toys or doing some training activities. Not only will this release some of their energy, but it will make them feel more fulfilled and calm.
Tip 4: Develop a calm and relaxing environment for your dog.
For some dogs with separation anxiety, it can be vital to establish a particular area where your dog can relax while you’re gone. Every dog is different and has their own preferences.
Some dogs may do best being confined to a room with a gate. Other dogs may do best inside a crate. Some dogs may also do best with a radio or TV left on to drown out any noises from outside.
Tip 5: Contact a professional for help.
Some dogs have severe separation anxiety, and in those cases, they can actually be a danger to themselves. Some dogs will scratch or chew walls until they bleed or are sick. If your dog has severe separation anxiety, consider working with a professional dog trainer or a veterinary behaviorist.
While dogs are smart, they don’t have the ability to feel complex emotions like spite or guilt. If you think your dog is being spiteful due to destructive behaviors, those behaviors stem from an underlying emotional issue. It’s essential to train your dog to be more comfortable, relaxed, and calm so that they can feel more emotionally secure.