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remorse & forgivness

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This is sort of tangential to the "Do Dogs Think" thread, which I think is winding down. But that discussion has brought a lot of other, related things to mind that I'm interested in the thoughts of other on this too. If it's not in the right section please move it.


I can think of several instances where a dog’s or cat’s actions suggested that they not only could feel remorse, but they could understand the concept of a human feeling remorseful toward them.


One instance occurred several years ago with a Shetland Sheepdog puppy and me. I was standing up looking out a window when my puppy, Bobby, came up beside me. Bobby was about ten weeks old and fairly small for a Shetland Sheepdog. I didn’t hear him approach, and as I shifted my weight from one foot to the other I stepped on Bobby’s forepaw. Bobby yelped very loudly and bit my foot, which made me yelp very loudly too. I picked Bobby up and examined his paw to see if it was seriously injured. It was tender, but there seemed to be no broken bones. Bobby licked my face and seemed very contrite, which I just chalked up to a puppy showing me submissive behavior, which is what you would expect. I apologized repeatedly to Bobby for stepping on him, and he listened very carefully to what I said to him. But Bobby seemed very concerned about my foot too. He had bitten me hard enough to break the skin, and he checked the wound carefully. He cleaned up the blood and then laid his head on my foot and looked into my eyes for a long time with a very serious and sad expression.

Certainly this incident proves nothing, but I think that it could be interpreted as an instance of mutual remorse and “apology” for an unintended action.


Sometimes I smack my dog or cat when they do something that I am certain they know they’re not supposed to do. I don’t hit them hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to let them know I’m annoyed with them. I know I shouldn’t, but it’s old programming and reflexive.

When I do this, both the dog and the cat stop whatever they are doing. They also become quiet, focused, and depending on how annoyed my voice sounds when I smack them, they seem to be careful not bend the rules for a while. They watch me – monitoring me for information about if I’ve forgiven them. At that point I will usually feel like the jerk that I’m being and initiate a more positive interaction.

By contrast, if I accidentally do something to the animal and apologize, their response is completely different. If I’m grooming them, adjusting a collar or giving them a pill and I accidentally pinch, poke or otherwise hurt them, or if I’m not paying attention to where they are and step on them, or inadvertently bump them with something I’m carrying I always apologize. Depending on how much I imagine the unintended blow hurts, I apologize with greater or lesser fervor. Sometimes the apology is delivered in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice. For instance if I am grooming the dog and accidentally pinch or pull her hair hard enough to make her flinch, I just say, “Oh sorry, Sugarfoot,” in a sort of flat tone of voice. If I’m sitting in my computer chair and roll one of the wheels over a dog or cat’s tail, the apology has more emotion in it. “Jeeze! I’m so sorry Mugen/ Sugarfoot!” Or if I am shaking a rug out and clip one of them with the fringe, which could really sting, my apology is more heartfelt.

The point is, I can inadvertently do something quite painful to them – more painful than a chastising swat - but they hear the apology for what it is. They show no expectation of further harm, and go about their business as if nothing happened. Sometimes the dog will wag her tail once or twice as if to say, “It's OK. No problem.” Or she might give me a quick nuzzle. These don’t seem to be submissive displays designed to convey an entreaty for clemency. Those displays (for the dog) would probably include a lowered head and tail, flattened ears, and in more extreme cases, a compressed body posture and lips pulled back. The display the dog makes after receiving an apology from me on the other hand has the dog’s head and ears up and forward, with a relaxed set of facial features and tail posture.

The cat's response is a little different. If he's in a good mood, he'll put his tail up and make a friendly little burble of a meow. If he is in a bad mood he will stalk away, sit down, glare at me and lick his shoulder once or twice in a huffy fashion.

If I don’t apologize for whatever reason, they react to the mistaken hurt as if it were an intentional chastisement and stand there trying to figure out what I’m cranky about.


I suppose there is no conclusive evidence that my animals understand that I’m sorry when I apologize, but then again, there’s no conclusive evidence that they don’t.

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Sinead has definitely shown remorse before. A couple months ago, she was jumping up to grab a stick from my hand. She misjudged and accidentally chomped down on my forearm. She didn't break the skin, but I did get a nice bruise from it. In any case, the second her teeth touched skin, she let go (actually fell in the process) and immediately ran, cowering into my shed. It took me a few minutes to coax her out. Once she realized that she wasn't in any trouble, she turned into massive wiggles and was climbing all over me licking me. I let her lick me, even though I generally keep a "no licking me" policy with my dogs.

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I am inclined, with no evidence but my own anecdotal observations, to believe that dogs understand "an accident." On many occasions I have inadvertently stepped on, sat on the tail of, tripped over or otherwise caused physical pain to one of my dogs in an accidental fashion and almost without fail they did not demonstrate fear or submission but simply "ouch!" and move on.


Maybe its a matter of context, because if I am grooming and I inadvertently pull a snarl or clip a toenail too close I get a different reaction, even though such pain was accidental as well.


Dogs interact with their world and one another and I think they instinctively realize that sometimes we hurt one another without intent.


Forgiveness implies that dogs feel like what they did was wrong, and aside from them wanting to please humans I am not sure they would ever view their actions as wrong...generally they do what dogs do and it us who don't like it.

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Scooter will show remorse. He will also let us know when he's disgruntled and not ready to accept our apology. He was on the bed with DH one night and DH accidentally hit Scooter in the mouth with his elbow. He felt terrible and said he was sorry over and over, but Scooter was having none of it. He growled and came over and sat down next to me. He wouldn't even look at DH for almost 10 minutes. He can be very pouty and will ignore us if he's ticked off about something. :rolleyes:

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In my experience, how strongly my dogs react to something is connected to how strongly I react to it. So if I am very upset at something, then they offer me lots of appeasing behavior. If I'm not very upset about something, and act matter of factly, then they react accordingly.

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Really? You've had cats who have shown remorse? Truly??? :rolleyes:


OK. Can't say with certainty - I'd have to get inside his rock-like little head to know for sure, but how's this?...


Similar to my story about the Shetland Sheepdog puppy. I was standing at my screen door talking to a friend outside the door. My friend had his cat-friendly pit bull, Mattie with him. Mattie was looking in, with her nose pressed against the screen.

I didn't notice it, but my cat Mugen had crept up and was sitting just to my left and a bit behind me. My friend said something funny and I threw up my head and laughed, stepping back at the same time. I stepped squarely on Mugen's tail. Several things happened. My howls of laughter turned to howls of pain as Mugen (Who apparently thought Mattie had somehow attacked him,) screamed and turned into a cuisinart. My leg took the worst hits, while Mattie simply stepped back a pace and looked on with astonishment. I believe I also yelled "G*DAMMIT, MUGEN!"


Fast forward to five minutes later. Mugen no longer resembles a Christmas tree, and I am sitting on the bed with a tube of Neosporin, a tin of band-aids and a box of kleenex. I am trying to staunch the flow of blood from several punctures (which I have just finished scrubbing with Betadine). I take Coumadin for a hereditary clotting disorder, and so once I start bleeding it's hard to make it stop.


Mugen comes quietly up on the bed, all round eyes and twitching nostrils. I told him softly, (softly because I knew his actions were all a mistake) "Look what you did to me, you rotten cat." He examines my bloody leg carefully, looks earnestly into my eyes for several seconds and then gives one tiny peep of a meow and gently presses his forehead against my leg. He remained that way until I finished with my blood-staunching and band-aiding. Then I gathered him up into my arms. He put his forepaws around my neck and his head under my chin. I stroked him for some time and finally he started to purr.


Seemed like "I'm sorry" to me. You be the judge.

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