The other day I raised my foot to stick it on the couch pillow only to find one of my dogs was laying there, squished down into the cushion pile, and I’d just kicked him in the face. It wasn’t a hard kick, but he had been so comfortable. I definitely felt bad for waking him up. I patted him on the head and apologized, but afterwards I wondered if that apology meant anything to him, or if he just thought I whacked him in the face and then talked to him in a funny tone for reasons he’d never understand. Do dogs have enough of a handle on human behavior to actually comprehend the meaning of an apology? Or do they lack the emotional depth to understand feelings of regret and remorse? Here’s what the research says.
Dogs understand facial expressions
Dogs are the oldest domesticated species. They’ve been with us for up to forty thousand years, and in that time, they’ve developed an intense understanding of our behavior and feelings and how they’re expressed in our faces. Dogs also bond with us through eye contact in a way that few other species do, giving them a powerful ability to comprehend and communicate with their owners.
Even in my own house, my dogs can tell by the look on my face whether I’m happy or not. If I’m crying, they try to comfort me. If I’m looking at them and suddenly smile, they wag their tails. If I’m displeased with something I’m reading on my phone (as we all are in 2020), they can tell it to the point they start to think I’m mad at them, even if I haven’t made a peep.
All this means dogs can indeed understand your facial expressions up to a certain limit — and they seem to know the meaning behind some of our most basic and obvious expressions. So if you do something to your dog you regret, a smile could go a long way to letting them know everything is still okay.
Dogs understand vocal tones
Just like dogs can read your face, they can read your tone as well. All I have to do is say my dogs’ names with a certain inflection, and they can tell instantly if I’m happy, mad, sad, or just meh. I have different tones for the words “hey guys” that can mean anything from a meal to a walk to a car ride to a bath — and they react accordingly.
Just like with facial expressions, dogs have evolved this symbiotic talent over thousands of generations. The dogs that figured out how to best understand our ancient ancestors got the most attention, the most food, the most shelter, and thus the most opportunity to successfully pass on their genes. Combine that with our intentional selective breeding of dogs for attractive behavioral traits, and you’ve got a species that is particularly fine-tuned to our specific vocal inflections.
Dogs understand words
You cannot tell me dogs can’t understand at least some of what we’re saying. My spouse and I have done fun little experiments with our dogs in our own house where we say the same words in the same tone of voice as they’re used to hearing in English, only we use Spanish or Arabic. And the other language elicits a vastly different response than the English. I can ask my dogs if they’re hungry in Spanish a hundred times and get nothing but confused stares. Ask it in English, and I can’t even finish the words before they all come running. They associate that specific string of sounds with the action of being fed, and after all, isn’t that all learning a word really is? A certain string of sounds equals a thing or action?
Of course, little anecdotes like this are meaningless in the world of science, but in this case, the science backs up my silly at-home experiments. Dogs can have a vocabulary of several dozen to a couple hundred words. Of course, more complex words that illustrate abstract concepts or higher-order emotions are out. Your dog is never going to learn what a coefficient or an adverb is. However, any word that results in a concrete action or describes a concrete thing is fair game. If I tell my dog not to bring a stick in the house, she can pick up both what the stick is and that the action of her carrying it into the house is something that will result in me being unhappy.
Since dogs can learn hundreds of tricks and develop vocabularies that include dozens of different nouns and verbs, the question of whether they understand words isn’t really up for debate. What is up for debate is how they understand words and where their comprehension reaches its limit.
Do dogs have emotions?
Anyone who’s ever owned a dog knows the answer to this question is yes. The real question is do they have the depth of cognition to understand more complex emotions than baser feelings like fear, anger, sadness, and happiness? The remorse necessary for a sincere apology is a higher-order emotion that requires a basic understanding of one’s culture’s definitions of morality, the ability to comprehend that other orders of time exist outside of the present (i.e. the past), and that one has done a moral wrong in the past. This is a much more complicated string of cognitions and emotions than stereotypical canine feelings like “thunder = scared” or “walk = happy” or “squirrel in yard = mad.”
Unfortunately, this seems to be where dogs’ ability to understand apologies reaches its limit. Being able to offer or accept an apology requires an understanding of the emotions of guilt and shame that dogs just don’t seem to have. My dog cannot understand that I feel guilty for putting my foot in his face or ashamed that I didn’t know he was there because his brain isn’t evolved enough to process emotions intrinsically tied to morality and a deep sense of the self.
Of course, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t apologize to your dog if you step on his foot or trip over her in the dark. You absolutely should, both because it helps you keep yourself accountable for the inevitable mishaps that happen in a house with animals and because, even if your dogs can’t understand remorse, they can certainly understand a kind tone of voice and amicable facial expressions. Who knows? This might be enough to let them know you didn’t mean it.