Whether dogs act out of spite is something many dog owners may be wondering about. The answer to this query is that this is a tricky question.
While it's true that dogs lack the necessary hardware to mimic the vast array of human emotions, this doesn't mean they have no morals!
So the next question is: do dogs have a sense of justice or a moral code that can trigger them to decide whether or not to act out spite?
Until dogs can talk, we can only make some assumptions, but research can help provide some answers so that we can make more educated assumptions.
The Emotion of Spite
The key to understanding dog behavior is having a deep understanding of the motivations behind your dog's actions.
Before discovering more about whether dogs act on spite, it therefore helps gaining a deeper understanding of what spite it, how it feels, and whether some sophisticated cognitive abilities are necessary to feel this emotion.
While the word "spite" has many different meanings, the most commonly used definition of this emotion is "to intentional engagement in a behavior for the purpose of hurting another person. "
Did you know? If you think your dog is actually acting guilty when you come home, you are in good company: according to Scientific American, 74 percent of dog owners have a strong belief that their dogs experience guilt!
Do Dogs Act Out of Spite?
So you come home from work only to find a mess in your home. Your dog has managed to chew on your favorite pillows leaving mounds of stuffing everywhere!
You stare at the mess with an angered look on your face and then look at your dog. His face and body language seem to be flashing the word "guilty" all over the place!
The slinking away, tucking the tail, keeping the ears back make it look as if your dog has been just caught red-handed and is feeling ashamed for his wrong-doing, but is this truly what is happening?
"Dogs do not eliminate on the floor or destroy items out of spite. The most likely cause of the behavior is anxiety or lack of appropriate exercise and stimulation (or incomplete housetraining," explains board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Valerie V. Tynes.
If Not Spite, Then Why Do Dogs Act Guilty?
We have all seen images of "guilty dogs'' plastered every where on social media. Pictures with captions of dogs showing deep remorse after doing something extra naughty. But is Rover really manifesting guilt from acting out of spite?
That guilty look your dog gives you when you come home from work and find that he has pooped all over the floor, is unlikely to be triggered by a real sense remorse, but it's simply your dog's way of reacting to your deep disappointment, suggests a study published in the journal Behavioural Processes in 2009.
In the study, dogs were asked to not eat a forbidden treat, and then afterwards, they were accused of a misdeed whether they actually ate the treat or not.
The research revealed that when dog owners confronted dogs who were innocent, and therefore, who didn't eat the forbidden treat, they were exhibiting guilty body language regardless.
Chances are therefore good, that, after thousands of years of living along with humans, dogs must have learned to give out appeasement gestures when their owners happened to express anger, frustration or just displayed a sullen look on their face.
What About Dogs Acting Guilty "Before" the Owner Discovers?
There have been reports of dog owners claiming that their dogs have exhibited behaviors that seem to suggest they have disobeyed a rule while their owners were absent, but the behavior occurred prior to the owner discovering any evidence.
This may suggest that dogs may be showing guilty body language not in response to their owner's anger, but from a pure awareness of wrongdoing. A study was further carried out in 2015 therefore to garner further information.
Yet, once again, the study failed to provide any connection between the guilty look and the dog's own action or evidence of the misdeed.
Is My Dog "Revenge Pooping?"
Revenge pooping is a term that has been used often to describe a dog who appears to purposely poop in the home when he's upset about something and believed to be acting "out of spite."
More than acting out of spite or revenge though, your dog's motives are likely more down to earth.
Most likely, your dog poops when left alone for the simple fact he hasn't learned to keep it long enough (incomplete house training) or he is suffering from some form of anxiety.
Incomplete House Training
Incomplete house training simply means that your dog hasn't been fully potty trained. In other words, your dog cannot be entrusted with having the full run of the house when left alone until he is better potty trained.
If you leave a dog with incomplete house training home alone, expect to find piles of poop and pee puddles around the house, especially if you have been away for some time.
You can't blame him though: it's not his fault if he has never learned how to completely hold it, especially if you haven't given him the opportunity to empty his bladder before being left alone!
A Form of Anxiety
As mentioned, anxiety is another culprit for "revenge pooping" in dogs. Suspect anxiety if your dog can hold it all day long when you're home, but then, once you are out, he messes inside the home.
Among all types of anxiety, a main cause of dogs pooping when left alone in the house is separation anxiety.
Affected dogs basically develop a dysfunctional attachment towards a family member, and consequently, become anxious when that person leaves the house.
When left alone, they will show signs of anxiety under the form of pacing, restlessness, whining, barking, engaging in destructive behaviors (often targeted towards windows and doors) and having pee and poop accidents in the home.
Dogs Don't Seek Revenge!
It's a human habit to want to ascribe human-like attributes to dogs, but dogs aren't people wearing furry coats.
A dog won't intentionally wreck your home out of revenge or spite. Dogs don't plan their actions ahead of time as they engage mostly "in the moment" thinking.
While the human version of revenge may require careful planning and forethought, a dog's actions are more based on the spur-of-the-moment.
Even if your dog chews through all your pillows, they're not doing it as an act of revenge. Rather, this behavior is usually driven by boredom or anxiety.
Dogs Don't Understand Value
Finally, something important to point out is that dogs don't perceive value in tangible things like we do. Your dog doesn't know that you paid hundreds of dollars on the rug he just peed on or that you strongly value your stiletto shoes he just chewed on.
Getting angry at a dog who chews your pillows is like getting angry at a toddler for opening your cabinets that store your expensive jewelry. It's your job to prevent access to your valuables by preventing access to them.
If you have valuable items therefore keep them out of Rover's reach or keep Rover confined in a safe, separated area when you're not around to supervise.
Horowitz et al. Disambiguating the 'guilty look';: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural Processes, 2009
Ostojić, L., Tkalčić, M., & Clayton, N. S. (2015). Are owners' reports of their dogs' 'guilty look' influenced by the dogs' action and evidence of the misdeed?. Behavioural processes, 111, 97–100.