Over the last couple of months, I’ve been convinced my very old dog, Oliver (who is deaf and blind) has been mad at me.
At his age now, he spends most of his time sleeping. He’s a generally happy dog for the most part. Tail always wagging. He’s always game for a good belly rub or a cuddle.
Lately though, he’s been pretty grumpy. When he gets grumpy, he barks and has a difficult time settling down. He’ll pace or map the room…all the while making growly noises and occasionally howling his disapproval, at what I’m still not totally sure.
So naturally, my knee-jerk reaction to his more frequent vocalizing has been, “he must be mad at me about something.”
As it turns out though, I’ve been asking the wrong question. I wanted to better understand the reasons dogs get upset so I could start to figure out how to change the environment enough to ease him back to his happy place. In my research, I learned a few things about how dogs process their emotions.
I learned that while dogs can indeed get upset by a situation, they don’t get mad at someone in the same way that humans do. Anger is what psychologists refer to as a secondary emotion, which is a human response to primary emotions like fear and sadness.
What does this mean?
Feeling fear and sadness is quite uncomfortable for most people; it makes you feel vulnerable and oftentimes not in control. Because of this, people tend to avoid these feelings in any way they can. One way to do this is by subconsciously shifting into anger mode. In contrast to fear and sadness, anger can provide a surge of energy and make you feel more in charge, rather than feeling vulnerable or helpless. Essentially, anger can be a means of creating a sense of control and power in the face of vulnerability and uncertainty.
Anger is too complex a feeling for dogs to truly experience; however, dogs are capable of experiencing the more basic emotions that humans use anger to hide, such as fear, sadness, loss, and worry.
Dogs also don’t assign blame in the way that humans do. While your dog might make associations between an object or a situation and the feelings they inspire — for example, a puppy might trip down steps and get hurt while carrying a toy and then associate the toy with something harmful — they don’t actually think about it being the object’s fault. It simply doesn’t occur to your pooch to blame you for what’s making them unhappy.
So Oliver is certainly upset about something, and I have some work to do to identify specifically what this is. But it’s pretty doubtful that he’s mad at me. It’s more likely that he is simply trying to convey his feelings and looking to me to stop the source of his distress.
Here are common dog behaviors that are often mistakenly interpreted as anger toward a pet parent.
What it might mean: Rather than an attempt to get revenge, your dog is probably bored and making a desperate attempt at amusement in the absence of company or other entertainment.
What you should do: Make sure to provide your pup with toys when you leave them alone. The best kind of toy is interactive, like a puzzle or treat-dispensing toy. Leaving the radio or TV on can also help your pup feel less lonely. A video or voice recording of yourself is even better.
Growling or Snarling
What it might mean: Growling is usually your dog’s way of letting you know that something is upsetting them, and they want it to stop. Dogs growl for various reasons that have nothing to do with anger, such as resource guarding. You’ll be able to tell if this is the cause if they growl over food or a toy that they fear you or another animal might take from them. Similarly, you might hear a growl if you make them move from a comfortable spot.
What you should do: Don’t punish or yell at your dog for growling. Doing so could make the behavior worse or frighten them into snapping or biting. Instead, stay calm and ignore the behavior. If you need to take something away from a resource-guarding dog, try to distract them with a treat while you remove the object.
Peeing on Your Things
What it might mean: While you may think your dog peed on the pile of laundry you left on the floor out of spite, the truth is there are a number of reasons dogs might pee on your stuff. One reason dogs pee on their pet parents’ things is to mark their territory. It could also mean that you didn’t let them out soon enough when they needed to go to the bathroom.
If this behavior mostly happens when your dog is home alone, it could be a sign of anxiety over being home alone. And if your dog is housebroken but often has accidents on soft places, like piles of clothing, it could signal a health problem such as a urinary tract infection or urinary incontinence.
What you should do: If you think a medical issue or separation anxiety might be causing this behavior, consult your veterinarian. Otherwise, keep in mind that your dog’s bladder doesn’t always operate on your preferred schedule and be sure to pay attention when they let you know that they need to go.
What it might mean: If your pooch is avoiding you, it probably means that they’re stressed out for some reason, and they need time alone to cope. Hiding can also signal that your dog is in pain.
What you should do: First, don’t take it personally. Remember that your dog isn’t actually angry at you. It’s possible your pup is picking up on your own bad mood and it’s causing them stress. It could also be something innocuous, like the smell of your perfume or hair product. In any case, it’s best to give them their space and, in the meantime, check yourself to make sure you’re not giving off an upsetting vibe or that you haven’t pushed your dog too far. Give them the chance to chill out and return to you when they feel ready.
If you notice that your dog is in pain for any reason, it is best to get them to the veterinarian as soon as you can.
Instead of wondering if your dog is mad at you the next time they act out, you’ll know how to respond and help them relax. Knowing how to better read your dog’s behavior will only serve to strengthen your bond.