Do Dogs Hold Grudges?

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Once upon a time, a Russian physiologist by the name of Ivan Pavlov discovered that dogs were receptive to associating the occurrence of one event with the anticipation of another. His experiments showed that when a pooch was rewarded with a tasty treat after the sound of a bell, he would begin to salivate each time he heard a bell ring. He was associating the sound with the reward.

Where am I going with this? Clearly, we now know that dogs can connect the dots when it comes to action and reaction, which makes one wonder whether our best buddies recall those moments when we wronged them and if they are capable of holding a grudge. You’ve never done wrong by your pet? What about the time you’ve accidentally nudged his lead as you reached for your coat and he thought it was time for walkies – but it wasn’t? Or you opened that treat jar, only to discover you had run out – just as he ran around the corner to the kitchen. Sound familiar?

The thing is, our pooches continue to respond with exuberance to any hint that something really good is coming their way… so they must have forgotten all those past transgressions, right? Not necessarily so.

According to Psychology Today, one first has to define what a “grudge” means. Does it mean your pet wishes you ill will or plans to settle the score later on? Hmmm… probably not. Does it mean that he won’t forget what you just did (or didn’t do) to him? Quite possibly. You see, while some would argue that dogs have very short-term memories and are likely to have already forgotten that you just let them down, it flies in the face of why we take the time to train our pets on the basic commands. If they have absolutely no sense of recall, we’d never see results.

So, we’ve established that dogs do form expectations based on certain actions and that they do have the ability to remember your behaviors. But is your best buddy capable of actually holding a grudge?

The big “however” that needs to be factored into this equation is that your pet’s sense of recollect can better be described as an associative memory. In other words, his reaction is brought on by a trigger – typically people, places, or an experience. He growls at that nasty pooch at the dog park because he remembers that he stole his ball the last time he was there. Not because he’s been mulling the incident over in his mind since you were last at the park, trying to figure out how to get even. The trigger of seeing that same dog at the park is what brought on his reaction. Not a grudge he was holding onto.

And while we’ve all seen our pets exhibit human emotions such as jealousy, greed, disappointment, and happiness, it’s unlikely that these instances were conjured up based on a past random memory. It’s simply an “in the moment” reaction to a trigger such as you picking up his lead, operating the can opener, or reaching for his favorite treats.