Written by Ella White
Ever felt like your dog is in a bad mood with you? Or that they always avoid the same dogs at the dog park, and bark at the same neighbors? It’s easy to apply human emotions to the way our pets behave, which is why many dog owners have probably wondered if their pet holds a grudge.
While in many cases human emotions are not applicable to the thought processes of animals, there are some feelings – like fear and happiness – that we know our pets can feel. But holding a grudge has a very complex, personal association to it which is why, in this blog, we will explore whether dogs can hold grudges, and if so, why?
In its most simple form, a grudge is a feeling of resentment or bad-feeling held against someone or something, usually as a result of past negative experiences. If someone ever said something mean to you or hurt you somehow, you might feel that you still dislike that person in some way, even years later. In that case, you’d be holding a grudge against them.
To recall this experience and maintain negative emotions around it requires long-term, associative memory. And while dogs cannot recall specific moments and how it made them feel, they are able to make associations and form some memories around negative experiences.
It’s common for dogs to dislike the vacuum cleaner or lawn mower - if this sounds like your dog, you’ll know you don’t even have to turn these devices on to see your pet react.
Dogs don’t have a good short-term memory around specific events. However, dogs can remember people, places, and other experiences – like going to the vets – and form associations around how those people, places, and experiences make them feel. When they display negative emotions based on these associations, to us humans it might look as though our dog is “holding a grudge.”
Studies have shown that dogs do have the cognitive capacity and emotional depth to hold a grudge against people or events that have led them to form negative associations. One study into coyotes shows that young animals would avoid other coyotes who didn’t ‘play fair’ with them – in human terms, holding a grudge against them.
Similarly, dogs might ‘hold a grudge’ against a person who has treated them unfairly, hurt them, invaded their territory, or otherwise ‘wronged’ them. The main difference between human and animal grudges, however, is that animals will not spend time thinking about their grudges and replaying the original incident like humans do. They will simply ‘enable’ their grudge once the person, place, or experience which sparks their negative association is presented in front of them.
If you think your dog has formed negative associations around someone or something, there will be signs to let you know. It’s important to understand the situations that make your dog feel these negative emotions, so you can help them to overcome or avoid it.
Most common signs of stress include:
Like the study on coyotes that showed they can hold grudges against one another, our pet dogs can also form negative associations against other animals. For example, if your dog has a bad experience with another dog at the park, they might avoid them or become aggressive towards them in future meetings.
In time, these negative associations can fade – particularly if they’re consistently followed up with more positive experiences – but at first, when your dog sees the other dog that ‘wronged’ them, the negative link will be strong. And your dog will act on it.
To us, this looks like the doggy equivalent of humans holding a grudge against another person who hurt their feelings. But in reality, the dog is simply responding to the negative association that flared on sight of the other dog.
In the same way that dogs form negative associations and act out their ‘grudges’ against other dogs as mentioned above, they can behave in this same way towards humans. But as well as forming negative associations around the way they themselves are treated by a human, our dogs can also hold grudges against people that they perceive to have acted badly towards their owners.
It’s true – dogs aren’t just our physical guardians, but our emotional guardians too. A study carried out at Kyoto University found that dogs were less likely to accept food from people who had acted negatively towards their owners. In the experiment, 50 dog owners asked another human for help opening a box. The dog was then more likely to accept treats from people who had responded neutrally or affirmatively towards their owner than those who had refused to help.
Dogs can also feel jealousy and will form negative associations around stress triggers, which might not be directly linked to how a person has treated them. So for example, dog owners bringing home a new partner might notice that their dog avoids them, cries and sulks, or even acts out when they are around despite them having never been anything but loving towards your furry friend.
In these instances, the dog has become stressed by the arrival of a new person and routine and everything that brings, and have formed negative associations between the new person and the stress that the change has made them feel.
The most effective way to prevent your dog from acting on its negative associations is to change those associations. Once you’ve noticed the specific events that cause your dog to act out, you’ll need to start forming positive associations so that they change their behavior.
This can be easy, if you’re acting on the negative association within the first couple of times of it occurring. Or it can be very tricky, if the association has been prolonged and reinforced many times. So if you want your dog to act nicely around other dogs at the park, help form positive introductions and play times (with plenty of treats) to help them understand that other dogs are no threat.
Or, if you want your dog to be nicer to your new partner, try giving your dog plenty of cuddles and treats while your partner is around, go for walks together, and make sure your dog doesn’t feel left out and abandoned whenever your significant other comes over.
One of the best ways to train dogs using positive reinforcement is with treats. Front of the Pack’s freeze-dried treats are made with pure animal protein, so they’re not just a tasty, high-value reinforcement for positive association training – they’re also a healthy addition to their diet. Since treats should make up not more than 10% of a dog’s daily calorie intake, it’s important to choose a healthy option that will still be an effective method during training periods when their treat intake will be higher than usual.
And, if you’re struggling to help your dog get over the negative associations, a professional trainer will be able to help.