If you own a dog, chances are they are going to hurt you at some point. Most of the time, it’s completely accidental. But do dogs feel remorse? Are they aware of what they’ve done? How do you know if your dog feels bad for hurting you? And how should you respond? Here is everything you’ll want to know.
So, do dogs know when they hurt you? Dogs do not know when they have hurt their owners because dogs don’t understand the concept of something being harmful. Dogs can, however, recognize human emotions. For example, your dog won’t know if he’s hurt you by biting too hard, but he will understand he’s done something wrong from your subsequent reaction to the bite.
In other words, dogs are reactive. If you were to show no clear and visible signs of pain or discomfort; they’d have no idea!
Hence, it’s essential that you respond to your dog appropriately during such times.
We shall look at that shortly – so keep reading for that.
But before then, let us explore why dogs do not necessarily know outright that they can hurt you.
Can Dogs Tell If They Hurt You?
Dogs can’t tell if they hurt you in the moment (e.g., from a bite.) They can only tell if they’ve hurt you by your reaction to what has happened (your emotions, facial expressions, and body language.) They will then express their caring and concern for you.
Dogs Aren’t Introspective
Although dogs do have emotions like us, they don’t have a high degree of introspection, or awareness of self.
Your dog can get embarrassed if he’s done something wrong, but he won’t know his actions are wrong in the moment.
It is only your emotional reaction, or your change in body language, to what he has done that lets a dog know the impact of his actions or behavior.
And because your dog wants to please you, he will adapt his behavior to get what he wants, which is for you to love him (and give him food, of course!)
Even if dogs don’t have high degrees of introspection, they can make decisions based on previous experiences (see below.)
Dogs Take Their Cues From Your Reactions
Your dog will take his cues on how to behave from your reactions to his behavior. A dog doesn’t decide on his own that something is good or bad – it’s his experiences that teach him this.
This is why puppies, in particular, will bite too hard when playing – they don’t know they’re hurting each other.
As pups, their siblings and their mom will train them by whining, turning away, or nipping back if they’ve been too rough.
Even adult dogs will continue to eat things they shouldn’t because they don’t have a concept of things being intrinsically wrong.
He’ll only learn this is wrong – or a bad idea – from your reactions.
Because dogs take their cues from us, it’s all the more essential to be consistent in your training and behavior around your dog.
The more a dog learns what is expected of him – what you see as right and wrong – the happier and more settled he’ll be.
How Do You Know If Your Dog Feels Bad For Hurting You?
You can tell your dog feels bad for hurting you because he will change his behaviour. You can also see he feels bad by his facial expressions and body language.
Dogs Learn From Your Behavior
Your dog will remember if you’ve reacted in a certain way when he’s hurt you.
While dogs don’t feel guilt or shame in the moment of hurting you, they can feel embarrassed or shameful afterward once you’ve reacted.
Dogs will learn from your behavior and remember how you react in given situations: they’ll store this information to use in the future.
One recent study from the University of Lincoln has proven that dogs can remember the characteristics of different people and then decide whom to interact with based on what they’ve perceived.
Here’s how the study went:
- Dogs were presented with two people interacting silently with each other. The people were either demonstrating positive, negative, or neutral emotions.
- Once the dogs had observed all of the various interactions, all of the people then presented themselves to the dogs with neutral expressions.
- The dogs were then allowed to choose which human to ask for food.
- The dogs generally chose those people who had displayed positive emotions in the earlier interactions.
This means that not only are the dogs reacting to various emotions, but they are storing that information to use for later decisions.
Dogs have a high degree of empathy, in this regard.
Your Dog’s Behavior, Facial Expressions, and Body Language
There have been several studies over the years that show that dogs read our facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.
Dogs also have ways of their own to express their feelings based on what they perceive from our reactions to what they’ve done.
Although your dog won’t feel social humiliation, he can feel something similar to shame, embarrassment, or regret.
You can know your dog is feeling bad for hurting you if your dog:
- Acts submissively
- Has a hard time meeting your eyes
- Is acting sheepish or shy
- Tucks in his tail
- Pins his ears down
- Hides or cowers
- Furrows his brows
- Walks in a funny way
How Does My Dog Know I’m Hurt?
Your dog will know you are hurt by your facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. Dogs can read our emotions in various ways and will respond accordingly.
Very young children will look to their parents for cues on how to react to the world around them, and dogs do a similar thing.
If their people are happy and calm, dogs feel safe. Your dog is always watching you for cues as to how things are going, so if you’re hurt, he’ll pick up on that very quickly.
Research shows that dogs experience higher cortisol levels when they hear a baby cry, just like we do. Your dog can even smell your emotions – picking up the scent of released hormones, for example.
Dogs also have what is known as affective empathy: they can understand the feelings of people, especially those who are important to them.
One recent 2020 study described how dogs reacted when people around them laughed or cried.
They gave more attention to the person crying, providing physical as well as visual contact.
Dogs are experts at reading our body cues, too. Dogs can respond to human faces that express:
While the type of response in individual dogs can vary, all dogs will show changes in their heart rate as well as their gaze.
How to Respond To A Dog That Hurt You
If your dog has hurt you, the best way to respond is not with punishment but with love. You want to help them get over their embarrassment and regret, not punish them for doing something they didn’t know was hurtful. Different dogs will require different actions depending on their reactions to your hurt.
Dogs are very much individuals, and the specific actions to take if your dog has hurt you will differ depending on your dog’s personality and temperament.
First Things First For Any Dog
For any dog, the first thing to do is show him love and affection.
Make it clear to him that you still love him even if he’s hurt you. Give him lots of cuddles, if he’ll let you, or find another way to show him you love him.
If Your Dog Is Distressed Or Tends To Hide
If your dog is highly distressed once he knows he’s hurt you, offer him lots of comfort.
Some dogs (and especially puppies) might need to spend some time in their crate or in another safe place.
You’ll want to train your dog to resort to their safe spot until he feels better.
Some dogs may want to hide, in which case you can offer a crate as an alternative.
At least you’ll know where your dog is, and you won’t spend hours worrying about him.
If Your Dog Gets Angry
Sometimes a dog can get angry if he sees he’s hurt you.
He may be angry at himself, but he might want to take it out on you, or on an object, or on another animal in your home.
If your dog tends to get angry, use commands like “stop” and “no.”
You’ll want to show him that being angry out of embarrassment is no excuse for bad behavior.
Get Back To Normal As Soon A Possible
Try to get your lives back to normal as quickly as you can.
If your dog seeks you out for affection and attention, this is not the time to push him away (it never is, if you can help it.)
Take your dog out for a walk, play games with him, and engage in other favorite activities so that your dog knows that you don’t bear a grudge.
If Your Dog Hurts You Again
If your dog hurts you again and you feel there might be underlying problems, don’t hesitate to ask professionals for help.
Your vet can be very helpful in helping you find dog trainers or other professionals who can assist you with behavioral or other issues that might be causing the problem.
Dogs hurt their owners routinely.
It’s just a part and parcel of dog ownership; even if it is painful.
And while some causes may be able to be successfully trained our socialized out of them; some never will – particularly those highly accidental in nature (like stepping on your foot, for instance).
Nevertheless, how you respond is ultimately key to how your dog will view the situation.
So, ensure you respond with love and not with punishment. Even if it is hard, especially in the moment.
But you need to do so.
Besides, dogs store this emotional strain… you don’t want them to become fearful.
Can dogs feel guilt or shame?
Current scientific research has been unable to confirm whether dogs can feel guilt or shame. Although dogs do resemble body language of guilt and shame which is considered an attempt to get an alternative response from their owners.
Can a dog feel regret?
While dogs do experience basic feelings, current scientific evidence has been unable to prove that they feel complex emotions such as remorse.
I am an experienced pet owner with decades of experience owning a number of different pets, from traditional pets like dogs and cats, to the more exotic like reptiles and rodents. I currently own a Cockapoo (pictured) called Bailey. I am also the main writer and chief editor here at Pet Educate; a site dedicated to sharing evidence-based insights and guidance, based on my vast pet ownership knowledge, experience, and extensive research.