Will Your Dog Forgive You For Hitting Them?

We tend to anthropomorphize canine behavior, mistakenly ascribing human motives, values, attitudes, and emotions to our dogs. We flatter them by thinking they are like us. Dogs remember and feel, but they function a bit differently than humans. You might want to believe your dog forgives you for hitting them, but a dog probably cannot even conceptualize what forgiveness is.

A farmer had an old blue-tick hound he always yelled at and kicked out of his way now and then. The farmer never untied the dog. It stayed on the back porch with a rope around its neck year-round. Here’s the incredible part. That dog never failed to greet the farmer with an excited bark and a wagging tail. I used to think that dog was a saint.

Do Dogs Remember When You Hurt Them?

Dogs don’t remember each time you hit them, but they will respond in a way that seems like they remember repeated abuse. How true that may be is a matter of debate that considers time.

Claudia Fugazza says her study for the Family Dog Project at  Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest proves dogs have memories that can recall episodes from their lives. That is, they can remember actions a person has taken towards them.

However, that memory doesn’t last long, not any more than an hour or so. So, at most, if a dog remembers when you hurt it, and if your dog will need to forgive you for hitting it, that will not last any longer than about an hour.

From Pavlov’s study of stimulus-response, we also know that dogs have associative memories more than episodic memories. That means a dog associates a stimulus (a ringing bell) with a reward (being fed). The association is so strong that the response (salivating) will occur whenever the bell rings, whether or not the anticipated reward (food) is present.   

The stimulus (being hit by you) has to be repeated over a significant period for this to happen. Even so, the dog will probably not remember you hit it. It will associate something that always coincides with the hitting, such as a tone in your voice or you picking up a rolled-up newspaper. It associates the stimulus with a response of fear or aggression (the fight/flight mode).

Do Dogs Understand When You Apologize?

Don’t you wish you could get in the mind of a dog to figure out answers to question such as this? We barely understand the intricate workings of the human brain. How much can we know about how a dog’s brain works?

One of my dogs is a roughneck. He gets carried away when we play, and he often nips me just a bit too hard. He is so cute when I yell, “Hey!” He stops, lays down, puts his head down on his paws, and makes this utterly pathetic whimpering sound. It looks like he is apologizing to me! Right?

 Now, say I have a terrible temper. When my dog jumps on me, I slap it. Sometimes, I hit it too hard. “Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry,” I say with an utterly pathetic sweetness. I scratch its ears, rub its tummy, and tell it how I am never, ever going to do that again. My dog wags its tail, licks my hand, and acts like it accepts my apology. Right?

The attractive and common conclusion is wrong in both instances. My dog learns rewards (my attention and continued play) depending on its response. The stimulus, when I yell, “Hey!” is associated with the rewards, and the stimulus-response (whimpering) occurs even if the nipping doesn’t happen. Yes, I can yell, “Hey!” for no reason, and it will lay down and whimper. Being sorry has nothing to do with anything.

Hitting a dog seems a traumatic experience to us, but it goes in one ear and out the other for the dog. The dog behaves the way it does, not because it accepts my apology but as a response to my attention and tone of my voice. It’s getting what it wanted by jumping on me  – my attention. Secondly, the soft calm of my voice is reassuring for my dog.

Can A Dog Forgive You For Hitting It?

You are probably beginning to understand that what we like to think about our dogs and what is going on with them are two different things. Their memories work differently, and their behavior is not what it appears to be at times.

Forgiveness means I have to acknowledge you have harmed me. If you haven’t hurt me, why would I need to forgive you? To be hurt, I need to remember the episode or episodes in my life when the harm occurred. “You didn’t say hello to me last week and hurt my feelings,” I remember. You say, “I’m sorry.” I forgive you or hold a grudge.

Evidence shows a dog can’t remember harm for more than an hour. You could argue a dog possesses the prerequisites to exercise forgiveness for an hour, but it isn’t going to come back in a week and think, “I’m just going to forgive you for hitting me last week.” It has no idea what forgiveness is and no reason to grant it.

How Can I Make A Dog Forgive Me?

If everything I’ve discussed until now is true, you can’t make a dog forgive you. You can’t make it do something it has no reason to do and for which it has no conceptual basis.

Then, someone comes up and presents a challenge. A man throws rocks at a dog every day for a year. The dog snarls and barks every time it sees the man. After a year, the man stops throwing rocks, but the dog continues to snarl and bark every time it sees the man.

A neighbor comments, “That dog just isn’t ever going to forgive him for throwing those rocks.” Is that the case? Another year goes by, and the dog stops snarling and barking at the man. The neighbor says, “Well, I was wrong. I guess he forgave him, after all.” What is going on here?

The stimulus-response paradigm applies to the initial two years. The man is the stimulus, the barking is the response, and the reward is negative, or a consequence  – being hit by a rock. The stimulus-response continues even when the consequence no longer exists. I don’t believe forgiveness, or a lack thereof, has anything to do with it. It’s easy enough so far.

However, there is that time after two years when the dog quiets down. It is tempting to say the dog forgave the man in time. The reality is the associative memory of the man being hit by rocks, and an aggressively defensive response has dulled over time. The dog hasn’t forgiven anything; it has merely forgotten the association.

Still, I am sentimental. Perhaps, it is a loss of memory and a lack of any association. Maybe it isn’t. I want to think it is better to say that “time heals all wounds.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What Happens When a Dog Is Physically Punished?

A: A dog cannot make any connection between past behavior and current experience unless the behavior is almost simultaneous with the punishment. If you scream at a dog for pooping on the carpet an hour ago, it doesn’t make the connection. It will understand you are upset, but your upset will have absolutely no corrective effect on the dog’s misbehavior.

Q: Can a dog hold a grudge?

A: A dog may be able to hold a grudge for as long as an episode stays in its memory, but that time is very short. If a dog appears to have a grudge, there is an associative memory in play somehow. Appearances are deceiving, and your dog just doesn’t think that way.

Q: I have a rescue dog, but it is violent for no reason at times. I know it has to do with previous owners abusing the dog. What can I do to help it?

A: That is a tricky question. It would be best to determine the line between helping the dog and jeopardizing your safety. Part of that is knowing what kind of a dog it is. A mastiff will be a lot more dangerous if it gets uncontrollably violent than a teacup Yorkie.

Also, do you have children? A two-year-old will stand no more of a chance with a violent teacup Yorkie than a 30-year-old will have with a mastiff.

If you can manage to cope with somewhat of a psychopathic dog, your love and care may make a difference. Remember, time has a way of healing wounds.

Q: I have a beagle that howls and gets on every last nerve. I threw my shoe at it and hit it right in the head, making it yelp and run away. Now, I can’t even look at it without it looking like it hates me. How can I get it to love me again?

A: You need to understand the breed for a start. Beagles love to howl. I hate to break it to you, but you would have more luck preventing a bird from flying than stopping a beagle from howling.

Next, beagles are gentle, loving, and smart. When the world was created, one of the animals made without hate was the beagle. If I am wrong and dogs can hold a grudge, as a rule, beagles would be the breed that breaks the rule.

So, what I think may be going on here is guilt. You feel wrong about you for what you did, and you think your dog feels that way too. Try taking it easy on yourself—your beagle howls. You throw shoes. It’s all in the nature of things. Seriously, forgive yourself, and I bet it looks like your beagle forgives you, too.

Q: My poodle bit my 6-year-old nephew. He grabbed one of its legs and pulled on it. It left a mark but didn’t break the skin. It was just protecting itself. It scared my nephew, though. He’s afraid of the dog and cries when it comes close, but the dog is still excited and glad to see him. How can I create understanding and forgiveness for the two of them?

A: You need to understand that he and the dog were both lucky. If the bite had broken the skin, the situation would be much different.

Start by telling your nephew what you just told me. Don’t accuse him of “being wrong,” just try to explain why the dog acted the way it did and scared him. Tell him the poodle loves him and still wants to be his friend, and ask him if he wants to be a friend with the poodle, too.

Then, reintroduce the two of them. I doubt there is any problem with the dog, but if your nephew gets jumpy or nervous, let that be the cue to separate the two of them. I have faith this will all work out. Again, please give it a bit of time.

Q: I yelled at my puppy. Will it make it feel better if I buy it a new chew toy?

A: I’ll bet your puppy is teething, so I’m sure a new chew toy is going to make it feel better. However, it isn’t going to do a thing to make it feel better about you yelling at it. It has already forgotten all about it.

Buying your puppy a new chew toy will make you feel better about yelling at the little one. Give yourself a break, say you are sorry with a new toy, shower it with all the love you can give it, and I promise those yells will all be history.

Q: If my dog can’t feel forgiveness, is she able to feel love or anything else?

A: Just because forgiveness is something beyond a dog, it doesn’t mean your girl doesn’t feel at all. Forgiveness is a reasonably complex emotion. Other emotions are not so complicated. There is fear and anger. Dogs can experience those things. Excitement or agitation is something a dog can feel. Anyone who has ever given a dog a belly rub knows it can feel pleasure and satisfaction.

I believe dogs can be happy or unhappy. I also think dogs are more than capable of feeling love. They know when they are being loved, and they are intrinsically designed to express love unconditionally.