Common misconceptions regarding dog behaviour

Discover two common misconceptions about dog behaviour: dominance and guilt

Whippet wearing a winter coat enjoying a rainy walk at Dogs Trust Leeds.

There are two key misconceptions about dog behaviour. One is a mistaken belief that owners need to exert dominance over their dogs to have any control over their behaviour. The other is the idea that dogs feel guilty about doing something wrong. 


Standard definitions of dominance involve exerting power and influence to assume a commanding or elevated position over others.  

This has been erroneously applied to canine behaviour, resulting in an assumption that owners need to exert dominance over their dogs in order to prevent their dogs from fulfilling a (misperceived) natural desire to achieve highest-ranking status within the home.

Where did this theory come from?

The misapplication of the dominance theory arose in the 1960s, through observations of captive groups of unrelated wolves who had unstable social relationships, aggressively competing over the limited resources available to them.

Subsequent observation of wild and free-living wolf and canid groups demonstrate that this type of dominance activity is rare, and that social canid groups naturally tend to form stable, compromising relationships with shared responsibilities.

The scientists who originally observed the captive wolves have therefore now discredited this research.

The consequence: punishment training

An unfortunate consequence of assuming a dog is behaving in a particular way in order to elevate their own status is the belief that punishment training techniques, which involve intimidating or frightening a dog into inhibiting the unwanted behaviour, are acceptable.

From an owner’s perspective, positive punishment works – and quickly too – to stop the undesired behaviour from happening. It can offer the ‘quick fix’ that owners are often seeking when they experience problematic behaviour in their dog.

Therefore, where owners are ignorant of the downfall of punishment, they might continue to use it because it brings about the change they want.

Positive punishment has a potentially dangerous downside

While dogs learn through the cause and effect of their own behaviour, they also learn through association, pairing together things that happen very close together in time.

For example, if a dog jumps up at a person and then that person smacks the dog to stop them from jumping up in future, the dog might learn that jumping up results in a smack, so they won’t want to do it again.

However, they might also pair together the person and the smack, simultaneously learning that people can cause discomfort. This is likely to make them feel differently not only about jumping up, but also about people.

Using punishment to teach a dog will therefore not only teach them the behaviour that their owner would like them to perform (or not to perform) but also to be frightened of their owner and worried about how they might react to any other behaviour.

This can damage the relationship and bond between the dog and the owner. The dog now behaves as instructed because they are frightened of the consequences if they don’t, rather than because they enjoy the outcome of behaving in this way, due to a trusting and rewarding relationship with their owner.

It's better to use rewarding training techniques

Of the two scenarios, it is obvious which dog will be happier and have a better quality of life, enjoy interactions with people and enjoy living and learning with people.

Training a dog by positive reinforcement (rewarding desirable ‘good’ behaviour) results in a confident dog who behaves in a particular way because they enjoy the benefits of doing so, viewing their owner as a stable and reliable source of positive interactions and outcomes.


Owners might report seeing their dogs look ‘guilty’ and that they ‘know they have done wrong’ after the dog has done something the owner believes their dog fully understands was not allowed. For example, taking food from a dinner plate when the owner leaves the room momentarily, even when they have been told not to.

Owners might report the following types of guilty behaviours:

  • opening the eyes wide to reveal the sclera and holding the ears back
  • retreating or hiding
  • avoiding eye contact and turning their head or body away
  • lowering their body with tail tucked underneath or quivering their tail-tip
  • whining
  • trying to climb up towards the owner’s face or engage them in tactile interaction.

But does the dog actually feel guilt and understand that they have done something wrong? Or have they simply taken an available opportunity that worked out well for them at the time (like enjoying that stolen piece of cake) and are now responding to the way their owner is behaving?

'Guilt' is likely to be a dog's response to its owner's behaviour

Studies have shown that dogs’ behavioural responses to owners, during times when owners perceive their dogs to have done something wrong, are learned responses that might help restore their owner to calmness. 

Due to their social ability to interpret their owner’s mood, using cues like the way their owner is holding themselves, or even breathing, some dogs have learned to behave in this way as a means to placate their owner’s behaviour and show appeasement (as discussed in the vet clinic section of an overview of canine behaviour).

It is important to remember that guilt is a very complex feeling and that dogs do not live their lives by a moral compass, as we humans tend to do, and are opportunists who will do what works out well for them in the moment.

A dog can learn to control their behaviour when their owner is present and able to reward them for doing so – for example, if taught to leave a plate of food alone when asked. However, they may well behave differently should their owner leave the room.


  • Mech, L.D. (1999) Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77(8): 1196–1203
  • Horowitz, A. (2009). Disambiguating the guilty look: salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural Processes, 81:1, pp447-452

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Disclaimer notice: The advice given on this website [in these materials] is intended for your general information only and should not be relied upon as specific advice for any veterinary practice or clinic. Each veterinary practice or clinic will be unique in its physical environment and each dog attending the veterinary practice or clinic will have specific needs and requirements, which the veterinary practice or clinic is solely responsible for. Unless prohibited by law, Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Behaviour Association do not accept liability to any person veterinary practice or clinic relating to the use of this information.

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