Do Dogs Forgive and If So, Why?

New research suggests that dogs forgive to reduce uncertainty.

Posted Jun 27, 2020

Kristie Miller
Annie, with ball
Source: Kristie Miller

Philosophers and psychologists working with humans talk a lot about forgiveness. By contrast, researchers working with other animals typically talk about reconciliation rather than apology and forgiveness. Reconciliation is that suite of behaviours that occur between a victim and an aggressor after a conflict between the two. Some researchers are happy to say that reconciliation behaviour in non-human animals can be thought of, roughly, as the combination of apology/repentance and forgiveness, in much the same way that we think of those behaviours in humans. 

Regardless of what we call it, why is it that non-human animals engage in that behaviour?

A recent study this year took up the question of why dogs engage in reconciliation behaviour. There are three broad hypotheses about non-human animals and reconciliation. According to one hypothesis, the purpose of reconciliation is to mend fences. Your pack or tribe are important sources of food, support, and general well-being. So when hostilities break out, the thinking goes, you need some way to restore the balance and get people (or in this case dogs) to restore earlier, beneficial, relationships. This is called the good relationship hypothesis. 

According to the second hypothesis, the purpose of reconciliation is to maintain hierarchies. So the animal who is higher in the hierarchy will allow the animal lower in the hierarchy to reconcile, so long as the latter shows appropriate deference to the hierarchy. This is the hierarchy hypothesis.

According to the third hypothesis—the uncertainty reduction hypothesis—the purpose of reconciliation is to minimise the uncertainty that arises after hostilities, regarding whether or not there will be future acts of aggression. Uncertainty creates stress, and reconciliation is a way to reduce that stress by reducing the uncertainty.

A recent study aimed to determine the conditions under which dogs engage in reconciliation behaviour, and so to work out what motivates that behaviour. 

The study looked at reconciliation behaviour amongst dogs, post-conflict, in a public park. They observed 177 dogs over a period of 72 one-hour sessions. They observed 28 possible conflicts involving 37 dogs, and of these 14 were unambiguously conflicts.  They focussed on just these 14 interactions, following the victim and aggressor after the conflict. In all cases, reconciliation occurred immediately after the conflict. (It’s worth noting that these conflicts were a very small minority of interactions, and that there were no injuries). 

Interestingly, they found that the dogs involved in the conflict were more inclined to spend time together after the conflict than before it. That, in conjunction with the fact that they failed to find more reconciliation behaviour between dogs who had an existing relationship, tended to undermine the good relationship hypothesis. Since they also found this behaviour amongst dogs who had no existing hierarchy, it also tended to undermine the hierarchy hypothesis. The researchers concluded that at least in this kind of setting, the data supported the uncertainty hypothesis. Dogs spent more time with one another after conflict than before it because they wanted to reduce the stress associated with uncertainty about future conflict, by interacting in a way that would minimise future conflict. 

So do dogs forgive (and apologise)? I think it’s reasonable to think that the pattern of reconciliation behaviours is sufficiently like those in humans that we can think of these behaviours as constituting doggy apology and forgiveness.

I’d like to see follow up studies on reconciliation behaviours between humans and dogs. What’s going on when I accidentally tread on Annie’s foot, apologise to her, and she responds by jumping up to tell me how very much she still likes me? Is that a redeployment of a kind of reconciliation behaviour, or is that something different? Is she forgiving me, even though she surely must know that this was not an act of aggression, and that it ought to create no uncertainty regarding future interactions? I like to think she is not so much forgiving me as confirming that she knows it was an accident, and that we "all good." But come on researchers, let's do some investigating!

References

Walters, K.A.F., King, C., Scolaro, C. L.C., Shyan-Norwalt, M. R. (2020). “Reconciliation in domestic dogs (canis familiaris): Evidence for the uncertainty reduction hypothesis.” Applied Animal Behaviour Sciencehttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2020.104987