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Owning a dog can be a rewarding experience for both humans and dogs, though it does sometimes come with pain; in this case, physical pain.
Whether it is your puppy chewing on you during teething, or your big dog excitedly jumping and scratching you, dogs do hurt us sometimes, usually by accident. Dogs often offer behavior that looks like they are expressing guilt after hurting you, so it might be easy to assume your dog knows they have hurt you.
But do dogs know they have hurt you?
If a dog accidentally bites or scratches you, they do not know they have hurt you. If they show remorse or shame, they are only reacting to your angry reaction and emotions. By seeing your body language reacting in pain, they are aware they have done something to upset you.
Most people’s natural reaction to a dog hurting them is to yell, yelp, or become upset. Dogs might react differently to your body cues depending on their personality. Some will lovingly cozy up to you, while others might become scared and hide.
However, their appeasement behavior is because of your scary reaction, not because they know they have hurt you. If your dog is accidentally hurting you, you can use your body cues to change their behavior and teach them to avoid the behavior that causes them to hurt you.
Your Body Language When Your Dog Hurts You
So dogs are not necessarily acting remorseful or scared because they hurt you, but rather are only reacting to you showing signs of physical pain or discomfort. Dogs are excellent at reading our body cues to pick up on emotions. Think about your dog’s reaction to different scenarios. When you are calm they are likely to pick up on that and copy your cues and relax, they are easy to rev up for fun walks, and if you feel threatened they immediately go on alert.
So if your dog hurts you, how do you react? Do you instinctively shove your dog, cry or yell? Dogs interpret our reactions and most will act lovingly and remorseful because of your body language, facial expressions, and exclamation of pain if they have hurt you.
There is evidence that dogs can even smell your emotions, so a dog might not only react to your physical reaction but also smell it!
Dogs are masters at picking up on body language and reading the room. This is why if you show no reaction to your dog hurting you, they will have no idea they hurt you, but when they accidentally bite you and you have a negative reaction, they know that they were not a good dog. It is likely that in the future they will try to avoid that behavior.
Do Dogs Feel Bad When They Hurt You?
It is easy to anthropomorphize our dogs and think they show remorse or guilt after hurting us, but they are just reacting to our emotions. The same is true for many other complex emotions that we attribute to our dogs like spite.
When they accidentally hurt you and you get angry or frustrated, they are acting fearful of your reaction.
This doggy reaction could be interpreted as feeling bad, but not because they hurt you; they are only responding to your body language. And most dogs will want to learn how to avoid that reaction from you in the future.
Think about when your dog gets into the trash when you are gone. They do not know you are mad about the trash, but they look guilty because they understand they have upset you. It is a similar concept when a dog looks guilty after they have hurt you.
How do you know your dog is reading your emotional cues after hurting you? Check their body language; a dog who is showing signs of submissive or appeasement behavior is trying to make themselves appear small and non-threatening. If you react angrily or yell in pain, a dog who can read that reaction well will offer submissive body language like:
- Tail tucking
- Lowering head
- Averting eye
- Lying down
- Rolling over and exposing their belly
- Moving away or hiding
This guilty looking German Shepherd is showing several appeasement signal, including lip-licking, lowering his head, lying down, and attempts to expose his belly. However, as soon as their owner starts laughing at the end, you might notice the dog also seems excited!
So while your dog does not necessarily know that they hurt you in the moment, if you are in pain and they offer any of the above behaviors, they know their behavior has caused your scary reaction.
If the dog picks up on a certain pattern of reactions (for example, you yell every time they accidentally bite you while playing), they might learn to avoid that behavior in the future.
How Did Your Dog Hurt You And How Should You React?
Before we talk about what to do when your dog hurts you, it is important to identify how and why your dog is hurting you. While there might be some overlapping of training plans, depending on your dog you might customize your reaction.
Excitable jumping and scratching might need a slightly different behavior modification than a dog play biting. Although, a dog biting out of playfulness or excitement is going to require a different solution than a dog biting out of fear or aggression.
However, even if the behavior is different, some training solutions might have some continuity to it. It might even depend on the personality of your dog!
Biting is one of the more common ways a dog might hurt you, and it often brings out the biggest reaction from owners. If you have ever watched dogs play, it is obvious that they naturally bite each other during play. A well-socialized dog knows how to use bite inhibition during playtime with another dog so they do not hurt each other.
Since biting is such a natural part of canine playtime, it is not surprising that dogs need to learn not to bite their human during playtime. In this video, these two dogs are enjoying play-biting with each other, but this kind of play might not be appropriate with humans.
Many dogs, especially puppies who are still trying to figure out how to interact with their world, might play bite at their owner’s hand. As soon as you take your hand away, a game of chase or tug is initiated and your dog might bite harder than you expected.
How you interact and play with your dog is up to you, but if you have a large breed dog with a very strong bite force, you might not want to encourage this kind of play! You will want to let them know they have hurt you.
As someone who has trained dogs and ran a dog daycare, I know the serious woes of a hot summer day and having to wear long pants instead of shorts. Why can you not wear shorts and work in a busy dog daycare? Because of the jumping and the scratching. Jumping is often the result of excitement, and inevitably you will get a dog scratching your legs.
Obviously, an excited dog jumping on you in happiness does not intend to hurt you or know he can hurt you. They will only know they have hurt you when you react, possibly grimacing in pain, pushing them away, or refusing to interact with them.
Another consequence of a dog jumping is accidentally knocking you down. If you have a big dog, jumping and pulling you down can cause a serious injury. Most dogs will try to check on you after you have fallen, and if you are exclaiming in pain or yelling, they will know they have done something wrong.
Your body language and verbal cues will communicate that plainly to your dog. Some dogs might react in a caring and loving way, while other dogs might be frightened of your reaction. Either way, they will be aware that something is wrong because of the way you reacted to the pain.
How To Let Your Dog Know They Hurt You
Dog gauge information based on your emotional response, and they have the ability and intelligence to understand that their behavior has pleased or disappointed you.
Many dogs will react differently to your emotions. Some might show their belly in a submissive rollover, some might go hide, and some might get physically clingy. Some dogs might redirect your frustration and become reactive or aggressive.
It is important if a dog accidentally hurts you to not make a big deal out of it, and learn from the situation to manage it. Dogs sometimes scratch or even accidentally nick us with a tooth. It is a part of dog ownership. You do not want to get angry over an accident since that will frighten your dog and weaken the trust your dog has in you.
If you are playing with a ball with your dog, and they accidentally nip your hand a few times when trying to grab the toy, try making a small “ouch!” noise and then stop the game. This is will condition many dogs to take the ball gently (this works with treats too)!
Puppies usually learn bite inhibition from playing with other dogs, but they still need to learn to be even more gentle with humans. If you have a dog or puppy who needs help with bite inhibition, a simple emotional response like saying “ouch” and stopping the fun is a good place to start. Do not make a big deal out of it besides the “ouch.”
However, some dogs are too sensitive to that kind of emotion or it might even make them even more excited. Another way to train your dog to not hurt you when you are playing is to stop the playtime. By abruptly stopping the fun, you can condition your dog to learn the right way to engage with you without hurting you.
Dogs do not know they hurt you at the moment, but you can train them to expect a reaction from you to change that behavior. Dog love to be with their humans, and when their owner suddenly starts ignoring them, they will want to change their behavior.
Stopping the fun, turning around, and ignoring your dog is also a good solution to excitable jumping and scratching. When they have all four paws on the ground you can reward them by giving them love, but as soon as they start jumping again go back to ignoring them.
Our body behavior shows our dogs that we will not engage with them until they are not jumping and hurting us, conditioning them to greet us more calmly. You can also give them a treat for more polite behavior, for example offering a sit or down. This Kikopup training video has some great solutions to teaching polite greetings over jumping.
Do You Always Need To Let Your Dog Know They Have Hurt You?
If you do not react to your dog hurting you they will not know they hurt you. Dogs respond to our body language and rely on it for communication. I have a 32-pound border collie with whom I compete in agility. Her favorite trick is to jump in my arms, and she loves to reward herself by leaping into my arms at agility trials.
At home, she is graceful about it, but when she is full of adrenaline at trials, she is a black-and-white missile coming straight at me and she can knock the wind out of me.
In this particular situation, I never show that I am in pain. She is having so much fun and I do not want my negative reactions to put a damper on her joy. Training should be a fun activity and I do not want to show a negative reaction that could make my dog scared or less willing to work with me.
What If Your Dog Keeps Hurting You?
If your dog keeps hurting you and it does not seem like an accident, or their behavior is not changing in response to your body language and cues, it might be time to reach out to a professional trainer. A dog biting out of fear or aggression could have a deeper training or medical issue.
Sometimes biting out of fear is a sign of an under-socialized or reactive dog, but it can also be a sign of pain. A reputable trainer will be able to help find the problem and come up with a solution you can use to change the behavior or recommend a trip to the veterinarian.
Life with dogs is usually a joyous celebration of the unique bond we share with our dogs, but it can certainly take a turn when our dogs hurt us.
While dogs do not necessarily know they have hurt us in the moment, they are intuitive at reading our body language and if we react angrily they might seem frightened or guilty. This is appeasement behavior that they are using to try to make us feel better and less threatened.
Luckily the solution is usually pretty easy to keep our dogs from accidentally hurting us. If they have the habit of play-biting or jumping, usually giving a quick yelp, stopping the game, and ignoring the behavior will condition your dog to find more appropriate ways to get your attention.
We love to play and snuggle with our dogs, and luckily since dogs are so good at reading our body cues, it only takes some simple changes to our body language to condition them to change their over-exuberant behavior.