8 Ways To Tell If Your Dog Knows They’ve Hurt You


Once in a while your dog might get a bit too rambunctious when playing and can accidentally hurt you. They may bite a little too hard, accidentally grab your hand instead of the toy, or paw a little too hard and scratch you. Something almost every person wonders after this happens is, does your dog know they’re hurt you?

Dog’s aren’t able to comprehend that they’ve hurt you. Being able to feel guilt for doing something unintentional is a complex emotion that researchers have found dog’s aren’t able to feel. What dog’s can notice is a sudden change in your mood which they react to.

In this post we’re going to do a deep dive around the answer to whether or not a dog knows they’ve hurt you. We’ll look at what they can understand, why dog’s aren’t able to feel guilt, the top 8 ways dogs can show they know something has happened and much more!

Dogs are in-tune enough with their humans to recognize emotional changes. But do they specifically know why the mood changed in the room?

Let’s dive in.

Do Dogs Understand When They Hurt You?

Various studies have been done with dogs’ emotional capacity and their understanding of complex emotional situations, and they have not been found to specifically understand when they accidentally hurt you. They do, however, recognize when your mood has changed suddenly. 

You and your dog could be happily playing one minute, then your dog bites a little too hard and you react with pain and maybe a little anger. Dogs can definitely pick up on this rapid change of emotion, but will most likely not make the direct connection that it was due to something they did.

There are so many complex emotions to consider in these situations. And studies are still being done today by various research institutions and universities to determine just how many emotions dogs and other non-human animals can experience. 

Do Dogs Feel Guilty When They Hurt You?

There is no question that dogs can feel normal emotions such as happiness and fear. But, very few studies have been done to determine how dogs experience more complex secondary emotions such as guilt and shame.

In 2009, a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and dog cognition scientist Dr. Alexandra Horowitz performed a study that examined the expressions of several dogs under different sets of circumstances. 

This was done in an attempt to determine whether or not dogs could experience guilt after doing something wrong. The conclusion of the study was that dogs displayed body language that was more linked to fear than it was to guilt.

Some signs of fear dogs in the study showed were:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Tail between legs
  • Cowering behind objects

All of these actions can seem like signs of guilt or shame when we compare them to our own feelings and how we may act when experiencing it. 

Your facial expressions, body language and tone of voice are all very distinct cues your dog can easily pick up on. When you’re accidentally hurt by an overly playful dog, your first emotion might be anger as a reaction to the pain. 

Dogs can absolutely recognize anger in their humans by the way your voice and body language changes. 

Your anger may lead to fear in your dog, as they remember scoldings that have happened in the past when you have been angry about something such as a chewed slipper or an accident on the floor.

Guilt can be a very complex emotion even for humans, so it is not yet fully understood if dogs are capable of feeling guilt in the same or a similar way we do. 

Many examples of “guilty dogs” have been shown in videos online, but animal behaviorists almost unanimously agree it’s a fear response after previously being punished by their owners. 

Those that still argue against the claim to fear and insist that dogs can experience guilt are still working to determine how dogs process those emotions. 

Many more cognitive studies will need to be done and larger samples of dogs will need to be used in order to definitively say one way or another whether dogs can experience complex emotions.

8 Ways To Tell If Your Dog Knows They’ve Hurt You

  1. They stop playing. You went from playing and laughing, to instantly stopping and changing your voice, facial expression and body language. This might make your dog stop and try to figure out why things so quickly changed.
  2. They look puzzled at you. Your dog looks to you for facial cues just as their ancestors did in their wild packs. Dogs can very intently make eye contact with you in an attempt to find out what happened and what the next action should be.
  3. They attempt to kiss it better by licking you. Just like a mom would kiss a boo-boo to make it better on a child, your dog may try to lick you. Your body language and tone of voice changed, so your dog’s only intention now is to make you happy again.
  4. They bring you a toy. Toys bring happiness and comfort to dogs, and they may bring you their favorite toy in an attempt to make you smile. They may also bring you a toy so you focus on them and stop focusing on whatever else made you unhappy.
  5. Their tail goes between their legs. Your dog may tuck their tail from confusion or being uncomfortable in the current situation. They know something is wrong, but don’t know what it is just yet and are trying to show submission.
  6. They go hide behind furniture. The connection between accidentally hurting you, and you getting angry about it may not be a direct connection that dogs can make. They do, however, realize that it is better to hide when you are acting angry.
  7. They hide behind someone in your family. Similar to hiding behind furniture, a dog may hide behind another member of your family in an attempt to find comfort. Another person may help by diffusing the uncomfortable situation your dog is in.
  8. They roll on their back to become submissive. In a final attempt to switch the overall feeling of the room around, a dog may roll onto its back to show submission. If something they did was wrong, they are showing you they are sorry by doing this.

3 Tips To Stop Your Dog From Accidently Hurting You

  1. Stop roughhousing with them. Playing with your dog is perfectly fine and highly encouraged, but maybe play in a more subdued manner. Getting your dog riled up can lead to accidental bites or scratching when they get caught up in the moment.
  2. Don’t make a scene. If your dog takes playing too far and you get hurt, try not to make a big scene out of it. Lowering your tone of voice and ending play is enough to tell your dog something they did was wrong.
  3. Train them. If you let your dog get away with rambunctious play while they are puppies, it can become an issue when they are adults. Teach your puppy to play gently, not bite your fingers, and that there are limits to how wild a play session can be.

Final Thoughts

Dogs are highly intelligent animals many of us share our lives with. While most animal behaviorists agree that dogs are unable to feel and understand complex thoughts such as guilt and remorse in the same way humans do, there is no doubt that they can still understand many different tones of voice and body actions.

In their own unique way, they can pick up on different cues to see that you are hurt or unhappy with something. They may not directly make the connection that it was due to something they did, but they do have the mental capacity to realize you need cheering up and they’ll do their best to make you smile.

Other posts you might find interesting:

Top 3 Ways Dogs Know You Hurt Them By Accident + Tips

Top 6 Reasons Dogs Like Leashes + 4 Reasons They Don’t

29 Ways To Tell If Your Dog Respects You (#14 Is Odd)

Citations:

A man’s best friend: study shows dogs can recognise human emotions

Your Dog Knows When You’re Upset, and Wants to Help

Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs

Do Dogs Feel Guilt? The Jury Is Still Out

What Really Prompts The Dog’s ‘Guilty Look’

Alec Littlejohn

Founder and Reviewer at Pawscessories. He is a lifelong canine enthusiast and adores dogs of all shapes and sizes! He grew up in a family of vets and to this day he helps out around the family clinic and shares his learnings on Pawscessories. Learn more about Alec's story here

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