The universal, worst-thing-ever, is that moment when you accidentally step on your dog’s toes, they let out that heart-shattering squeal, and they don’t understand that you never meant to hurt them.
Or do they?
And is there anything we can do that best conveys, in doggy language, when we are truly sorry?
While there isn’t really any data to draw from at this point, I have a few insights that lead me to believe that yes, dogs understand that when we accidentally hurt them, we don’t really mean it – and that they can even forgive our mistakes.
Accidental vs Intentional Actions in Dogs
Between Matilda and Cow, they’ve had plenty of interactions where Cow accidentally sat or stepped on Matilda. They’ve also had fights in which they really, really wanted to hurt one another.
Matilda, as a tiny Chihuahua mix, is always the one getting sat or stepped on.
Like most small dogs, she can have a big attitude – which is a must, because it can really hurt if a bigger animal steps on her.
So if Cow hurts her, even by accident, she’ll get in her face and snarl, but only for a second.
Cow backs off, and before I can even intervene, they’re back to normal. With a few infrequent scoldings from Matilda, Cow tries her best not to step on her sister.
Naturally, Cow can’t tell Matilda she’s sorry, but she stops what she’s doing. Matilda seems to understand that the injury was not intentional, even if she’s upset and possibly in pain.
During real fights, in which Matilda and Cow have on occasion fought over a piece of food, so much more was being said. Hackles were up, both dogs were snarling, and would not let up until they were physically separated. Then there’d be an obvious tension between the dogs for the rest of the day.
So, while dogs can’t tell each other “oops, that was an accident,” they have plenty of ways to say, “this is no accident, I have a problem with you and today I choose violence.”
And to that note, even resource guarding isn’t a truly personal beef.
When it comes to a piece of food that one dog doesn’t really want, they’ll peacefully step aside to let their sister swoop in and take it. And when it’s something truly delicious, it’s not personal, it’s just how dogs are wired.
When We Accidentally Hurt Our Dogs
It’s well known that dogs are sensitive to the body language, the odor of hormones in our sweat, facial expressions, and the tone of our voice. Numerous studies suggest that dogs pick up on all of these things, and they will avoid humans that may pose a threat.
They really do know when we’re angry at them, even if they don’t always understand why.
So in that moment when you’re going about your life, and your dog runs underfoot, and you accidentally step on their toes – and they let out that blood-curdling scream – there’s no reason for your dog to think you’ve meant to harm them.
You’re not making an angry face, you don’t have an angry posture, and there’s no other cues like growling, staring, or anything that can indicate that you’re on the attack.
That means it’s very, very unlikely that your dog thinks that you intentionally stepped on them.
How To Apologize To Your Dog
There’s really no word for “I’m sorry” in dog because between loved ones, it’s just not needed.
They may lick their face to comfort them and to diffuse the tension, so we can similarly say, in our own words, “I’m so sorry!” and comfort them with a pet or scratch.
But your dog doesn’t wonder if you meant to hurt them because they trust that you wouldn’t. They know so much about you from watching your every move and just being there with you.
They may cower, yelp, and even avoid you for a little while if they’re in pain, but it’s nothing personal. Your dog will instinctively try to avoid any source of pain, but like most, they’ll probably be underfoot again in no time.
The thing is, dogs risk being stepped on for any opportunity to be close to us.
And that’s a very annoying, very beautiful thing.