"Yesterday, at my local dog park, I said that my dog, Tommy, holds grudges, but other people told me I'm wrong, that it's all about me and my reading into the situations, rather than about Tommy, and that dogs don't hold grudges."
This email from Peter made me think about the general question, "Do dogs hold grudges?" There's no shortage of opinions on this question, with some people claiming something like, "No they don't or can't because of cognitive limitations." While others state, "Yes they do." People in the different camps offer interesting and useful stories, but as of now, it's difficult to answer the question with any certainty. Of course, a lot hangs on how one defines the word "grudge" or the phrase "Holding a grudge." Some definitions hold that when someone carries a grudge they're feeling resentment or ill will toward another individual and want bad things to happen to that person, and these feelings may result in some type of retaliation or score-settling. Others note that holding a grudge simply means that another individual is resented or can't be trusted because of something done in the past, and they're avoided until the human (or nonhuman) who was wronged offers forgiveness and the other individual agrees to reconciliation or apologizes.
What would a grudge look like, dog style?
Dogs aren't "unconditional love muffins who accept anything that happens to them and go on as if nothing had happened." (In conversation with Marie)
"A few days ago Henry had a tussle with Irving. Irving stole Henry's tennis ball and when Henry tried to get it back Irving growled at him and made it clear the ball was now his. The very next day, Henry got to the dog park first and when Irving showed and was on the other side of the swinging fence door, Henry made it clear that Irving wasn't welcome. He followed Irving as he paced back and forth, as if he was blocking him from coming in. I have no idea what Henry was thinking, but it seemed as if he held a grudge against Irving and didn't want him to be there and join in the fun." (In conversation with Eric)
Here, I want to revisit the question "Do dogs hold grudges?" and offer some new insights and ideas. Given what we know, it's impossible to answer the question with a firm "yes" or "no." To gain some information about how "dog people" would answer this question, I asked 20 people, and they were evenly split—10 yes and 10 maybe or no. Each of their stories was compelling and I began to think of how one might gain insight into whether or not dogs hold grudges, what they might look like, and what sorts of behavior could help us answer the question with some clarity.
I want to stress that dogs aren't "unconditional love muffins," as Marie said to me, and as I often note. They surely don't love everybody—human, dog, or other animals—and it's essential to recognize this because this myth can harm dogs as well as the relationships they form with other dogs and their human companions. (See "Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?," Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, and references therein.) While some dogs might forgive and forget, others do not, because they remember what others have done to them or perhaps haven't done for them in the past.
I also don't know of any data that show that any nonhumans want bad things to happen to other individuals, including those they clearly don't like. However, dogs have rich and deep emotional lives and excellent memories for past events—they don't live in a Zen-like present—and there's no reason to think they don't hold grudges or resent other animals, including dogs and humans, who wronged them.
Along these lines, I was very surprised to read in an essay about dogs and grudges. The essay reads: "Your dog, on the other hand, doesn’t have the capacity to recall a specific moment their feelings were hurt. Their short-term, episodic memory is not strong, and they forget specific events soon after they happen." (My emphasis) This simply is not so. The writer then states, "Now, that doesn’t mean dogs don’t remember negative experiences." There's surely a mixed message here, and they then go on to cite an essay in which it's claimed, "Dogs specifically will forget an experience in about two minutes." This is ludicrous, and it's clear the author isn't really sure about what they wrote. They conclude: "...scientists don’t think it is right to completely rule out the possibility that dogs can remember past experiences, it just needs to be researched further."
One doesn't have to be laboratory-bound to learn about dogs' memories. We can learn quite a lot outside of controlled experiments. (See "Why It's Important (and Fun) to Study Free-Running Dogs.") There's a good deal of evidence that dogs have very good long-term specific memories. Anyone who's rescued or who has had contact with an abused dog knows they clearly do not "forget specific events soon after they happen." Of course, the same goes for dogs who have had very positive experiences in different situations, such as romping around with friends at a dog park or other location. (See "Dogs Live in the Present and Other Harmful Myths.") And if dogs didn't have very good memories for specific events, why would someone go to a trainer or teacher to put an end to various undesired behavior patterns? Surely, memory is part of the training, teaching paradigm, and there's ample research showing that dogs have very good memories for things past. Research also shows dogs don't like being dissed and remember when they were. (See "Dogs Know When They've Been Dissed, and Don't Like It a Bit.")
When fair play breaks down, do individuals hold grudges?
Because of my decades-long interest in social play in dogs and other animals, my thinking about how to go about studying whether dogs and other animals can hold grudges led me to consider some data my students and I collected on play by young wild coyotes and also observations of play in free-running dogs. Although play is fun, it's also serious business: When animals play, they're constantly working to understand and follow the rules and communicate their intentions to play fairly. They fine-tune their behavior on the run, carefully monitoring the behavior of their play partners and paying close attention to infractions of the agreed-upon rules. Four basic aspects of fair play in animals are: Ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit you're wrong. When the rules are violated, and fairness breaks down, so does play. (See "Dogs at Play: Fun-Filled Zoomies Exercising Senses and Bodies," "The Power of Play: Dogs Just Want to Have Fun," and "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?")
Detailed research on social play in infant domestic dogs and their wild relatives, coyotes and gray wolves, shows how just how important the rules are. Painstaking analyses of videos of individuals at play reveal that these youngsters carefully negotiate social play and use specific signals and rules so that play doesn't escalate into fighting. When dogs—and other animals—play, they use actions like biting, mounting, and body-slamming one another, which are also used in other contexts, like fighting or mating. Because those actions can be easily misinterpreted, it's important for animals to clearly state what they want and what they expect.
In canids, an action called a "bow" is used to ask others to play. When performing a bow, an animal crouches on his or her forelimbs. He or she will sometimes bark, wag the tail wildly, and have an eager look. So that the invitation to play isn't confusing, bows are highly stereotyped and show little variation. Play bows are honest signals, a sign of trust. Research shows that animals who violate that trust are often ostracized, suggesting that violation of the rules of play is maladaptive and can disrupt the efficient functioning of the group. For example, among dogs, coyotes, and wolves, individuals who don't play fairly find that their invitations to play are ignored or that they're simply avoided by other group members. Data for the coyotes show that those individuals who don't play fairly often leave their pack because they don't form strong social bonds. Such loners suffer higher mortality than those who remain.
Do the coyotes, dogs, or wolves who ignore the play intentions of individuals who didn't previously play fairly or who avoid them hold a grudge against them? After all, they could have been injured if the play escalated into a fight, something that happens among young coyotes. There's no reason to think that they didn't trust the coyotes who played unfairly and there's no reason to think that they didn't hold a grudge. In fact, my students and I used to talk about this when we were going through our daily data. There's also no reason to claim that the coyotes wanted something bad to happen to those who were unfair, but they made it clear they didn't want anything to do with them by ignoring or avoiding them. It's as if they were saying something like, "You didn't play fair, so leave us alone."
Where to from here concerning studies of discerning dogs?
Research clearly shows that dogs have the cognitive and emotional capacities to hold grudges. They remember events from the past and these memories can persist for a long while. While it's possible that dogs don't spend all that much time thinking about their grudges or what sorts of revenge they can take on others who have wronged them in the past, there's no reason to think that they don't hold "dog style grudges" of the sort that other animals might also hold. The data on wild coyotes suggests that those youngsters who were wronged held a grudge against those who didn't play fair, and resolved potential conflicts by ignoring or avoiding them. It's also possible that animals might hold grudges against individuals who don't behave fairly when they don't share food or don't partake in group activities such as acquiring or defending food or territory. These are ripe areas for future research and will shed light on whether dogs and nonhumans hold grudges.
I agree with Peter who said that his dog Tommy held grudges, with Eric's guess about what Henry was feeling toward Irving, and with Marie who noted that dogs aren't "unconditional love muffins." It'll be interesting to see if research on social play and other behavior patterns can help us get a better handle on the question, "Do dogs hold grudges?" and help us learn more about discerning dogs who make good judgments about how others have treated them in the past. There could be very good reasons why they don't want to interact with other dogs or various humans, and we should honor their choices and not force them to do so. They know what works for them.
As Jessica Pierce and I argue in Unleashing Your Dog, to give dogs the best lives possible in an increasingly human-dominated world, we need to understand who they are. Too many prevailing myths harm them and the relationships we form with them. There likely are good reasons why a dog doesn't want to do something with another dog or with a human. It might be that they hold a grudge and would prefer not being told something such as, "Oh, it's okay, go play or hang out with them." Or "Don't be silly, everything's fine." But while a human might think or feel this, a dog might not, and it's essential to let them make the choices that satisfy them because they know what works for them and what doesn't.
What makes the field of cognitive ethology—the study of animal minds—so exciting is that there is so much fascinating research to be done. Stay tuned for further discussions about dogs, grudges, and their cognitive and emotional lives. Nothing is lost by assuming that dogs form and hold grudges, just like we do. We also can expect individual differences among dogs, there is no "universal dog." What irked Tommy and Henry might not have any effect on other dogs who forgive and forget or at least don't let what happened to them bother them in the future. To learn about grudge-holding in dogs, we must observe them carefully and become fluent in dog or dog literate. People will have to don an ethologist's hat and pay close attention to what they're doing and why they're doing it. And, there are plenty of opportunities for citizen scientists to contribute to on-going discussions.
There's nothing wrong with dogs who hold grudges or who act as if they hold a grudge. As of now, we really don't know what's happening in their heads or heart after they feel they've been wronged or dissed. This is a challenge for future research on these amazing beings, and how exciting it will be to learn more about what they're thinking and feeling in different situations, including those in which humans would be more than likely to hold grudges.
Facebook image: Sjale/Shutterstock
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2018.
_____ and Pierce, Jessica. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. Novato, California, New World Library, 2019.