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Ask A Vet: How Do I Tell My Dog I'm Sorry?

Welcome to our weekly 'Ask a Vet from the SF SPCA' feature on 7x7.com. Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB is a board certified veterinary behaviorist who counsels guardians whose pets’ issues are beyond the scope of training. Think of her as a pet shrink…at your service. Ask your own questions in the comments!

Q: I never hit or swat or even yell at my dog. But as a clumsy person who is often carrying a leash, handbag, gym bag, keys, coffee and wearing heels, on the rare occasion I step on my dog’s toe. She sleeps under my desk, so I’ve unwittingly bopped her in the nose with the wheel of my office chair. She’s never actually injured, but little accidents like that break my heart. How do I express to her that I am sorry?

A: Accidents can happen, and they don’t ruin a good relationship. When this happens to one of my animals, and believe me, with four dogs and four cats it does happen, I just say “Oops, I’m sorry,” pet my dog, and move on with something happy.

Luckily, dogs do not hold grudges – if you feel there is a change in behavior, it is more likely that you simply scared or accidentally hurt your dog. If your dog felt threatened by what happened, it could lead to a dog that is now afraid of you. This form of learning is called classical conditioning, or Pavlovian conditioning. This is where associations are being made between two closely related events. Let’s say, for example, you stepped on your dog’s paw and it hurt; the brain might associate the foot with the pain. The foot predicts pain, similarly to the bell predicting food in Pavlov’s example. Therefore, the bell will then lead to drooling in anticipation of food, just as the presence of your foot will lead to avoidance because impeding pain is anticipated.

Although there is such a thing called “one trial learning,” it is rare, and usually only happens if the trauma was very dramatic and not just an accidental bump.

Dogs are pretty good at reading intent–meaning, if your intent is to punish, your entire body language is threatening and you have the intent to tell (or worse show) your dog that he did something wrong. When you accidentally bump into your dog, they can most likely tell that it was not directed at them.  Should this happen frequently, he will get more careful when you move around and try to get out of your way sooner, but chances are, he will “forgive” you.