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Have you ever wondered if your dog holds grudges? Maybe they pick fights with the same dog at the park every weekend, or shy away from a human who has been rude to you in their presence in the past.
It’s tempting to ascribe human emotions to our dogs—and dogs do experience emotions!—but resentment is a particularly complex, human feeling. To explore whether or not dogs hold grudges, it helps to distinguish between the very human act of “holding a grudge” and the way animals form associations.
Read on to learn all about how dogs “hold grudges” (and how to address them).
Think about a time somebody hurt your feelings. You probably remember the moment clearly. You may recall where you were standing, what you were wearing, and the exact words the unkind person said. You’re recalling an episodic memory. Are you starting to feel hurt all over again? Well, you might be holding a grudge!
Your dog, on the other hand, doesn’t have the capacity to recall a specific moment their feelings were hurt. Their short-term, episodic memory is not strong, and they forget specific events soon after they happen.
Now, that doesn’t mean dogs don’t remember negative experiences. But it helps to reframe the discussion in terms of associations.
Dogs have associative memory, which means they react to people, places, and experiences based on associations they have with them. Associations can be positive (“Yay! you’re home! I’m so happy, I’m going to zoom around the house!) or negative (“Oh no, not that neighbor dog again! I’m so frustrated, I’m going to bark as loud as I can!”). Negative associations lead to behavior that you may perceive as a “grudge.”
So, what do negative associations look like? It depends on the source. In many dogs, negative associations manifest as stress. The signs of negative association-induced stress may include:
- Ears pulled back
- Tail between the legs
- Yawning and/or panting
- Trembling or shaking
- Cowering/crouched body posture and/or hiding (source)
Another sign of negative associations is fear-based behavior like growling, barking, or lunging.
Let’s return to that one dog at the park I mentioned up top. Say your dog had a bad experience with them the first time they met, and now growls and lunges every time you see them at the park.
Chances are, something happened the first time they met that formed a strong negative association in your dog’s mind. To them, that other dog = bad news, even if they don’t remember exactly why.
Your dog isn’t actively “holding a grudge” against that other pooch, but they are responding to the negative association that was formed the first time, and strengthened every time since.
Do you ever get the feeling your dog resents your significant other? Maybe they sulk and whine when the two of you are cuddling on the couch, or even worse, engage in destructive behavior.
Dogs can feel jealousy, but they also have those pesky negative associations! In the significant other example, your dog isn’t resentful of the person. Rather, they’ve formed a negative association, possibly based on stress triggers. The household routine has changed; there’s a novel new person around; maybe there are stressful sounds. All of these can form negative associations and resulting unwanted behaviors.
To help your dog get over their “grudge,” you need to change their associations.
Oftentimes, what we perceive as a grudge is merely a conditioned response to stress. The goal, then, is to turn a negative association into a positive. It’s tricky, especially if a negative association has been reinforced over time. But it can be done!
For example, if your dog engages in unwanted behaviors whenever your significant other comes over, it’s time to shake things up. Have your significant other give your dog positive attention and treats. Go for a walk all together, or spend quality time snuggling with the dog before leaving to snuggle with each other.
Over time, your dog will form positive associations, and the “grudge” will go away.
The same works for “grudges” with other dogs. Change the association to change the behavior. You might work on leash training with your dog, or set up a playdate in another location to change their association with the park. For more on how to socialize your dog, click here.