Do Dogs Understand When We Apologize?

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To dog owners, there are few things as instantly heart-crushing as accidentally stepping on their pup's paw or tail. A yelp and an immediate look of hurt and betrayal from your dog can make you feel like you've committed a terrible crime. It's only natural to rush to say "I'm so sorry" to your dog in an attempt to comfort them, but do dogs actually understand us when we apologize to them?


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Dogs' emotions

Anyone who has shared their home with a dog can tell you that dogs have rich emotional lives, and research has confirmed that dogs are capable of feeling and expressing a wide range of emotions. Dog brains contain many of the same structures and systems devoted to processing the emotional content of vocal tones as human brains do. In a 2014 study, researchers trained 11 dogs to lie still inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, which measures the changes in blood flow that occur with brain activity. They then played over 200 sounds to the dogs, as well as to a human control group, that contained sounds of both humans and dogs expressing different emotions. In the human brains, voice-processing regions responded most strongly to human sounds, while corresponding brain regions in the dogs responded most strongly to dog sounds. Activity within these regions of the dog brains was also found to change in response to the emotional tone of the sound they were hearing.


Dogs also have many of the same hormones associated with certain emotional states as humans do: cortisol (produced in response to stress) and oxytocin (responsible for feelings of love and closeness) are produced by both species.

In general terms, dogs are thought to have emotional capabilities similar to that of a two-year-old child. They can experience happiness, excitement, contentment, fear, stress, and likely others.


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Can dogs understand human emotions?

Dogs are highly intuitive, and recent studies have found that they are able to pick up on behavioral and physiological cues from humans in order to differentiate between - and even mirror - human emotions. Their keen sense of smell aids in a dog's ability to pick up on chemical signals emitted by humans during certain emotional states, and research has shown that dogs will react differently to a "fear smell" than they do to a "happy smell."


Dogs are also adept at understanding human facial expressions. A 2015 study examined dogs' responses towards happy, angry, and neutral human facial expressions. The study suggested that dogs can differentiate between a happy or angry emotional state based on facial expression alone, and many of the dogs did better at recognizing emotions than their human counterparts.


When it comes to human speech, dogs do understand some individual words, but nowhere near as many as us. However, dogs pick up on your tone of voice quite well - so even if they don't understand the words you're using, they can tell if you're feeling happy, sad, or angry.


How do I apologize to my dog?

If you want to apologize to your dog, you can do so in a way they will understand. First, assess the situation and look for emotional cues from your dog. Did you drop a pot in the kitchen, and your dog bolted out of the room at the sound? They likely just got startled, and talking to them in a calm, soothing voice while giving praise and/or pets will help reassure them. Did you become frustrated with your dog after they got into the trash, and you raised your voice at them? (We've all been there and felt bad afterwards!) Dogs who have a history of abuse may be especially sensitive to raised voices or perceived aggression and some may hide and refuse to come out. If your dog appears frightened but is trying to hide or get away from you, respect their need for space and give them time to calm down. Talk to them in a soft, calm voice without trying to lure or physically move them from their hiding spot.


While it's tempting to give your dog a treat when apologizing to them, hold off on doing this. Treats are great for teaching your dog which behaviors merit tasty rewards, but giving treats after you inadvertently caused them fear can be confusing. Instead, focus on giving them positive and gentle attention in the way that they need - whether it's belly rubs or some time alone.


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In summary

Dogs are able to understand human emotions quite well, and they do so by picking up on chemical signals, vocal tones, and body language. "I'm sorry" might not mean anything to them, but you can use calm body language and tone of voice to give your dog an apology that they understand as loving and soothing.