Dogs feel guilt: True or false?

Separating dog facts from pupular myth may not seem important, but it matters to your dog. Misunderstandings based on myth have the potential to make a pup’s life miserable. When we mistake a dog’s motivation or assign them human emotions they don’t feel, this can lead to a misplaced punishment which does more harm than good.

Can you sort these popular myths from dog facts?  

#1: True or False: A cold wet nose is a sign a dog is healthy

TRUE…and FALSE

Yes, a cool wet nose is normal for dogs, but this doesn’t mean a warm, dry nose means a sick dog. Moreover, a cold nose can also be an indication of a significant issue such as anemia, low body temperature, or shock, and a dripping nose may be caused by infection. Which goes to show you should always interpret the nose in the light of the bigger picture.

The temperature and moistness of that leathery button on the end of the muzzle is not just ruled by what goes on inside the dog’s body. Factors such as the temperature of the room and humidity also have a part to play.

A dry, warm nose may simply mean it’s a hot dry day. Think of how itchy your eyes get in a warm dry environment, such as on a long haul air flight… it’s the same sort of thing.

What can be said with certainty is an owner should take note if their dog changes from the norm (and it’s not a hot day). If you’re normally woken by a cool wet nose in your ear, and today that nose is hot and dry, then monitor the dog. Be mindful of their appetite (is it normal?) and look for clues to ill health such as sickness or diarrhea.

#2: True or False: Dog lick has healing properties

FALSE (and a teeny-tiny bit true)

A question frequently asked of vets is “Is it OK if Bonzo licks the wound?”

Answer: No!

A dog’s mouth is not a sterile place. Even a clean mouth contains a population of bacteria. How clean are your dog’s teeth? If their bad breath makes you take a step back, then the answer is “Not very”. Dirty teeth are a breeding ground for bacteria, so a lick is a quick way to colonize a wound with infection. Plus, the abrasive action of the tongue, can lick away the delicate new tissue that's vital for wound repair, and make things worse.

However, one interesting fact about dogs is that research shows dog saliva has mild antibacterial properties against E.coli and Streptococcus canis. Both of these are common causes of septicemia in newborn puppies. Thus, when a new-mother licks her pups clean, she is in fact protecting them against these two important bacteria.

But that’s where the benefits end. The risk of opening the wound and causing infection by other bugs far outweighs this marginal benefit, so the rule still stands…dog fact: no licking wounds. The take-home message is don’t let the dog lick a wound. [$]

#3: True or False: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

FALSE

Oh yes you can! [%]

Researchers at Dartmouth College used MRI scans to map the effect of learning on the human brain. Their exciting results showed the brain isn’t necessarily a static organ that degenerates with age. Indeed, they describe it as ‘plastic’ with the ability to adapt and transform white matter and recruit it to learning.

So yes, an old dog may be slower to catch on than a pup, but on the other paw they’re less likely to be distracted. Stick with it. Just like an athlete training their muscles, so a dog’s brain (even an old one) can shape up with regular exercise.

Of course, when training an older dog, remember their hips may be stiff. Work with your dog, and teach commands they can comfortably obey, such as a “Stay” in a standing position, rather than sitting or lying.

#4: True or False: A waggy tail means a happy dog

FALSE

Dogs use their tails to communicate. Yes, a flagpole tail whirring like a rotor-blade means a dog is excited, but not all wags are the same. [&]

Fun facts about dogs: Let’s take the happy tail wag. Researchers have found that dogs have a bias to wag to the right, or wag to the left. The right-bias wag meant the dog was unashamedly happy, such as when seeing their owner. The left-bias wag meant they were happy but a little bit uncertain, such as when greeting a stranger.

Already you see the complexity of tail wagging. Another example is the height of the tail., in fact it’s a sort of mood barometer, for example, the wagging tail at half-mast indicates hesitancy. Also, the speed of the wag has meaning. A tail that’s a blur is indeed a happy chap, whilst a slow wag indicates inner conflict or indecision.

Most significant of all is the low tail carriage with a slow ticking wag. This is commonly a sign of inner tension and can herald an intention to snap or lunge. The wise person is never lulled into a false sense of security by a slow, low wag and instead takes a step back and keeps their distance.

#5: True or False: Indoor dogs don’t need to be dewormed

FALSE

Another common comment from an owner to the vet is, “My dog doesn’t need to be dewormed, they don’t go outside.”

The dog fact is that many dogs are born with a worm burden. These take the form of roundworm eggs and larvae that are encysted in muscles or the wall of the intestine. These eggs pass from the mother to her puppies in the womb, and also in her milk when the pups suckle. [*] Over the first six months of the pup’s life, these eggs hatch out rapidly – hence the need for regular deworming in young pups.

Moreover, dogs can be infected with worms throughout their lifetime, even if they never go outside. Worm eggs get into houses inside the soil of flowerpots or the mud on people's shoes. Hence, the need for ongoing worming, regardless of of the four-legger's lifestyle.

#6: True or False: Dogs feel guilt

FALSE

That ‘guilty look’ when a dog chews your favorite designer shoe, is down to anxiety not guilt. [@]

Of course we all know that guilty look: Ears lowered, head averted, whites of the eyes showing, cowering body language… But it’s we humans who are misinterpreting what are actually signals of anxiety.

Dog fact: They don’t have a concept of guilt. Watch a dog via a remote video as they chew that shoe and they don’t look remotely guilty. It’s only when the door opens and Mom comes home that the ears go back. This is because the dog links the owner’s return to irrational anger. The dog remembers a time when Mom came home and smacked their bottom. The dog therefore displays anxiety, until their owner’s body language tells them there’s nothing to worry about.

This distinction matters because it’s pointless punishing a dog after the damage is done. They won’t link the punishment to the crime, but to you. And no-one wants their best buddy being fearful of them.

#7: True or False: Dogs see in black and white

FALSE…but neither do they have full spectrum color vision.

For a long time it was thought dogs couldn’t see in color, but in shades of gray. We now know that dogs do have the cones, which are the light sensitive cells at the back of the eye which are necessary to see color. However, dogs have fewer of them than in people. Thus, fun facts about dogs include  they see a limited color palate. [#]

For example, people see a color spectrum of red, yellow, and blue; whereas dogs are most sensitive to yellow and blue. So that bright red ball, to a dog looks like a muddy khaki color.

Dog fact: Place a red ball against green grass and it becomes difficult to see. Indeed, if you want an object to stand out for a dog, then pure yellow or blue are best.

How did you do sorting myths for dog fact?

Resources and References

[$]Physiol Behav. 1990 Sep;48(3):383-6.Antibacterial properties of saliva: role in maternal periparturient grooming and in licking wounds. Hart BL, Powell K

[%]White Matter, Old Dogs, and New Tricks at Dartmouth

[&] What a wagging tail really means. Psychology Today

[*] Roundworms in Small Animals. Merck Veterinary Manual

[@] That guilty look your dog is giving you isn’t actually guilt. IFL Science

[#] What’s in the Eyes of a Dog?  Psychonomic Society