Adapted from The Business of Dog Walking book by Veronica Boutelle

Like any organism—humans included—dogs are motivated to do what works for them, and to avoid what doesn’t. (This is operant conditioning, or learning by cause and effect.) Also like humans, dogs are motivated to do things that feel safe, and to avoid things that don’t. (This is classical conditioning, or learning by association.)

do dogs know right from wrongUnlike humans, dogs don’t—indeed can’t—understand right from wrong. Right versus wrong is a human construct that even human children don’t grasp before a certain developmental stage. Animals don’t share an ethical world view with us. They don’t choose to do things because those things right, or avoid behaviors because they’re wrong. Dogs simply do what works and what’s safe. Dogs bark when barking gets them what they want. They jump when jumping works. They don’t engage in behavior with any agenda to annoy or get back at humans, or out of stubbornness.

Yeah, but…
You may be experiencing some “Yeah, but…” thoughts about now. When I taught dog training classes many years ago, I never got through this portion of the orientation talk without a “Yeah, but…” moment. The most common was: “Yeah, but what about when my dog has had an accident in the house? He acts super guilty when I get home, so I know he knows he wasn’t supposed to go in the house. I know he knows it was wrong.”

Let me tell you an alternate version of this story:

A dog is adopted and moves into his new home. His people go to work every day, leaving him home to his own devices. He needs to go to the bathroom. The thick rug seems like as good a place as any; in fact, it’s quite absorbent. He goes. He feels relieved. He takes a nap. A few hours later he feels the need again, so he goes again. He feels relieved again. Peeing on the rug works, and it’s safe.

But on the weekend his people catch him in the act of peeing on the rug, and he gets punished—yelled at, possibly swatted on the behind, sent outside. His people think they’re teaching him that he’s only to go outside. But he doesn’t learn the inside/outside rule from this experience. He learns that it’s safe to pee on the rug when his people aren’t around, but not when they are. So the housetraining problems continue. (If he’s a smart dog, he’ll probably start peeing on the rug behind the couch, to make sure he’s not caught in the act again!)

His people continue to come home each day to find an accident in the house and to punish the dog, who has no idea why he’s being punished. He relieved himself hours ago, after all, and for a dog, cause and effect must be immediate to be understand. (While dogs understand cause and effect, they do not make these connections over time the way humans do.) The dog’s people believe they’re communicating, “Hey, I thought I told you not to go in the house!” but the poor dog has no idea what message he’s missing.

Shift forward a few days. The dog’s people come home to him looking very “guilty.” They realize the dog must have had another accident. They go looking for it and, sure enough, there it is. They assume the guilty looks are the dog admitting that he does, yes, understand that he wasn’t supposed to go in the house, so they feel justified in punishing him again—perhaps even more harshly now that he clearly “gets it.” Problem is, the dog isn’t feeling guilty. The things his people are reading as guilt—rolling over, looking anxious, tucking his tail between his legs, slinking around or getting low to the ground, licking his lips—these are all appeasement or cut-off signals. These are body language signals dogs use with each other to stop aggression. He’s throwing cut-off signals because he’s come to learn that his people coming home means it’s time to be punished. He’s noticed the pattern. He doesn’t know why he’s being aggressed upon, but he’s hoping to stop it by sending all the right signals—signals that his people misread as an admission of guilt.

What we have here is a tragic interspecies miscommunication.

We assume that because we feel guilt, other animals do, too. We assume that because we know right from wrong, other animals do, too. We assume that because we understand each other when we talk, that dogs get it, too. We know on an intellectual level that dogs don’t understand English, but we still seem flummoxed when they don’t understand us.

This insistence on reading and treating dogs as though they were four-legged humans sends us down a lot of unproductive paths.

What letting the right vs. wrong myth go does for dog walkers
Part of becoming a dog professional is unlearning the common conventional “wisdom” that pervades our culture and undermines our understanding of dogs—and thus undermines our ability to more easily and humanely shape their behavior. Letting go of this particular myth makes the work of walking dogs easier, and makes us better at it, too. Here’s how:

No more need for confrontation. To begin with, dropping the right versus wrong myth makes working with dogs less confrontational. For example: If we believe a dog is being stubborn pulling on leash when we’ve made it clear we want them to stop, we set up a struggle of wills that most likely results punishing the dog. But once we understand the science of how dogs actually learn and make decisions, we can see that we simply haven’t trained him well enough not to pull, and then get on with the business of fixing that.

Dogs don’t pull to annoy their dog walkers. They pull because they want to reach something interesting—a place, a smell, another dog. If pulling works, they’ll keep doing it. Simple as that. If you want them to stop pulling, you have to use training methods that teach them it no longer works—like stopping each time they pull, or even turning to go in the opposite direction.

No more frustration. When we believe that dogs understand right and wrong, it’s easy to get frustrated by their behavior, to find ourselves thinking thoughts like, “Argh! I’ve told him not to pull on leash a thousand times! Why is he being so stubborn/ naughty/ willful?!” But once we understand the science of how dogs actually learn and make decisions, it’s easier to think in terms of problem solving: “He’s doing X. I want him to do Y. What’s my training plan for getting him there?” This way of thinking—a positive trainer’s way of thinking—means better, faster results with less frustration, and a more enjoyable relationship with the dogs you walk.

In short, letting go of the right versus wrong myth makes us better dog walkers. It forces us to move away reliance on conventional wisdom to learn the science of how dogs’ minds really work, and to develop the professional skill sets to use that knowledge to get the best behavior from them. We owe our dogs and our clients that commitment to professionalism. And we owe it to ourselves, too.


Would you like to receive dog behavior insights like this in your inbox every other month? Get a free subscription to Two Feet Forward, the definitive e-newsletter for the modern dog walker.