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Do Dogs Know When You're Mad at Them? Understanding Canine Emotions - PawSafe

Do Dogs Know When You’re Mad at Them? Understanding Canine Emotions

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

do dogs know when you're mad at them

When you scowl and your voice gets a little sharper, it seems like your dog suddenly becomes the picture of remorse, with those big puppy eyes. It’s almost as if they understand that you’re upset with them, isn’t it? Well, it turns out that you’re onto something. Dogs are quite skilled at picking up on human emotions, and your anger is no exception. They pay close attention to your body language and tone of voice to gauge how you’re feeling, and when you’re mad, they tend to respond in a way that suggests they know they’ve crossed a line.

This fascinating link between human emotions and canine responses isn’t just something dog owners have observed — it’s a topic that experts in animal behavior have studied for years. Scientific evidence, including research by animal cognition scientists like Dr. Corsin A Müller, points to the fact that dogs are much more emotionally intelligent than we’ve given them credit for. They’re not just reacting to the tone of our voice; they might also recognize the change in our mood and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Understanding what’s going on in your dog’s head can help improve the bond you share with your four-legged friend. It highlights the importance of being mindful of how our emotions affect those around us, including our pets. So next time you’re frustrated with your dog’s mischief, remember that they might just be able to sense your mood and could be feeling a little guilty about whatever it is they did.

Dogs, through centuries of domestication and co-evolution with humans, have developed an uncanny ability to understand and react to human emotions. This skill has been crucial for their survival and integration into human societies, allowing them to become one of our most beloved companions. Scientists and animal behaviorists believe that dogs can read a wide array of human emotions by interpreting our body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

Body Language

Dogs are highly observant of human body language. A stiff posture, clenched fists, or an imposing stance can communicate anger or threat to a dog. On the flip side, relaxed shoulders, soft eye contact, and open body posture convey safety and calmness. Dogs often respond to these cues subconsciously, adjusting their behavior based on the perceived emotional state of their human companions.

Facial Expressions

Although dogs may not understand the nuances of human facial expressions as humans do, research suggests they can distinguish between happy, neutral, and angry faces. A study published in the journal “Animal Cognition” found that dogs could reliably differentiate between photos of the same person making happy and angry faces, indicating an innate ability to read human emotions.

Tone of Voice

The tone of voice is another critical factor in how dogs interpret human emotions. Dogs are very sensitive to changes in vocal pitch and volume, which can indicate anger, happiness, or sadness. A harsh, raised voice may signal anger or disapproval, causing anxiety or fear in dogs, while a soft, cheerful tone can have a calming and reassuring effect.

Misinterpretation of the “Guilty” Look

When confronted with an angry owner, dogs often display what humans interpret as a “guilty” look. This expression — characterized by behaviors such as avoiding eye contact, showing the whites of their eyes, pinning their ears back, and lip licking — is actually a display of appeasement. Dogs exhibit these behaviors not because they understand the moral implications of their actions but because they want to alleviate the tension and avoid potential conflict.

These appeasement gestures are deeply ingrained in canine behavior, serving as a communication tool to express submission and pacify those they perceive as a threat. Unfortunately, this means that dogs do not necessarily connect their actions with the owner’s anger. They recognize the emotion of anger but cannot always associate it with a specific cause or understand why their behavior was wrong.

The Stress of Misunderstanding

Living in a state of constant misunderstanding can be highly stressful for dogs. The inability to comprehend why their human companions are upset leads to anxiety, which can manifest in various behavioral problems, such as excessive barking, chewing, or even aggression. Prolonged exposure to stress can also have detrimental effects on a dog’s physical health, including issues related to digestion, immunity, and overall well-being.

It’s also key to remember that not all dogs are stressed when you get angry. Some dogs, often high-intensity breeds like Jack Russell Terriers or The Belgian Malinois, may not care if you are angry. These dogs can have what is called a “high titration level”. This means they can take a lot of pressure without it bothering them. For these dogs, having an angry owner can do little except teach them to ignore you. 

Experts emphasize the importance of recognizing the signs of stress in dogs and taking steps to alleviate their anxiety. Understanding that a dog’s “guilty” look is actually an attempt to appease rather than an acknowledgment of wrongdoing can help owners approach the situation with more empathy and patience.

It’s important to remember that while dogs can sense emotion, the way we discipline them should be effective and kind. Harsh methods can be counterproductive, so it’s recommended to train your dog using positive reinforcement and understanding. If you’re considering how to address your dog’s behavior, it’s better to use techniques that strengthen your bond and encourage good behavior rather than instilling fear or confusion.

So to answer the question: dogs do have an awareness of your emotions, including anger. They react to your general demeanor and presence, which reflects how you’re feeling. This sensitivity to human emotion is one of the many traits that make dogs such compatible companions to humans.

The Emotional World of Dogs

Border Collie dog sitting with ripped up paper looking up at angry owner

Dogs are capable of experiencing a range of emotions, and their behaviors often reflect their internal emotional state. The connection you share with your dog allows for a deeper understanding of these emotions, especially when you’re feeling strong emotions like anger.

Canine Emotions and Expressions

Your dog’s ability to sense emotions such as happiness and anger is evident in their reactions to your behavior. Studies indicate that dogs can distinguish between positive and negative emotions. For instance, research has shown that dogs are more likely to choose an object associated with a happy expression over one associated with disgust or neutral behavior. This suggests that dogs can identify which emotion is more positive and may act accordingly, like fetching what the owner prefers during play.

Understanding Dogs Through Body Language

Dogs communicate their emotions through various forms of body language, including facial expressions, eye contact, and submissive behavior such as whimpering, tail tucking, rolling over, shaking, or even urine sprinkling. When dogs sense that you’re upset or angry, they might exhibit behaviors like avoiding direct eye contact or displaying submissive postures. It’s important to recognize these signs, as they are your dog’s ways of responding to the emotions they perceive.

Scientific Studies on Canine Emotion Recognition

Scientific research has been instrumental in understanding how dogs recognize and respond to human emotions. A credible study in the field of canine emotion recognition demonstrated that dogs have the ability to recognize human emotions such as disgust and happiness, leading to specific behaviors that align with their owner’s emotional state. By acknowledging the importance of science in the study of canine behavior, we can gain insight into how our emotions impact our furry companions.

Signs Your Dog Knows You’re Mad

Dog looking sad in park while owner is sad

When you’re mad, your dog often knows it. From your facial expressions to the tone of your voice, they pick up on cues that indicate your mood.

Facial Recognition of Emotions

Your dog can read the facial expressions you make when you’re angry. If you’re frowning or glaring, your dog might understand that you’re not in the best of spirits. Studies suggest that dogs can differentiate between happy and angry faces, so if your face looks upset, your dog may respond accordingly.

Physical Responses to Owner’s Anger

A dog’s body language can change in response to your anger. You might notice signs like tail tucking, rolling over, or shaking — behaviors that indicate your dog is feeling stressed. Some dogs may even show submissive actions such as urine sprinkling when they sense you’re upset, which is their way of trying to appease you.

Vocalizations and Avoidance Behaviors

When you’re mad, your dog’s vocalizations might change. A dog who senses anger might start growling softly as a defense mechanism, or whimpering if they’re feeling anxious about your mood. Additionally, your dog may engage in avoiding behaviors, keeping a distance from you, or leaving the room altogether to escape a tense situation.

In many cases, a dog may just avoid you when you are angry and ignore commands such as not coming when you call. This is a common way for a dog to avoid an angry owner

Impact of Human Emotions on Dogs

angry hand pointing at dogs who peed on floor

Your emotions can deeply impact your furry companion, often manifesting as stress or health issues in your dog.

Stress and Anxiety in Dogs

When you’re upset, your dog can become stressed. This isn’t just about sadness or anger; any high-energy emotion can lead to signs of anxiety in dogs. Behaviors like excessive barking, chewing, or even attempted escapes can be your dog signaling their distress. Training methods that involve reinforcement and punishment can modify your dog’s instinctive behavior, which may help reduce their stress responses.

Dog Health and Owner’s Emotional State

A steady stream of negative emotions from you might not just cause anxiety; it can potentially lead to a decline in your dog’s health. Issues ranging from poor obedience to more severe conditions like urinary tract infections can be exacerbated by the stress they sense from you. It’s important to maintain a calm and consistent demeanor, as inconsistency in your behavior can further compound these health effects on your dog. Regularly engaging in positive activities with your dog can also foster a healthier emotional environment for them.

Methods for Managing Reactions

When you’re upset, your dog picks up on it, but managing how they react can build a more understanding relationship between you both.

Training Dogs to Read Emotional Cues

Your dog has an innate ability to read your emotions. By consistently training your dog, you can hone this skill. Start by deliberately showing your dog a happy face; reward them with a treat when they approach you in a calm manner. For times when you show a sad face, train them to gently lay their head in your lap. Use a positive tone to ensure they associate this behavior with comfort. Training should be done on a regular schedule to reinforce the behavior.

Reinforcement and Rewards System

Once your dog begins to read your emotional cues, it’s important to maintain a rewards system. Use a variety of reinforcements such as praise, treats, and toys to encourage desired behaviors. If you’re upset and your dog responds by giving you space, immediately recognize this with a kind word or a gentle pat. Consistency is key — it helps your dog understand the connection between their behavior and your reaction. Remember to keep sessions short and sweet, so your dog stays engaged and doesn’t become overwhelmed.

Building a Stronger Bond

Your bond with your dog is a big deal. It’s like a two-way street, where what you do affects your pup, and how your dog acts can change how you feel. To make this bond stronger, it helps to know the right moves to make and to keep your furry buddy healthy. Let’s check out some pro tips and health advice.

Expert Tips for Enhancing Owner-Dog Relationship

Building a strong bond with your dog is all about trust and communication. To get that feeling of friendship on track, here’s what you should do:

  • Learn to Read Your Dog: Dogs talk with their tails, ears, and barks. If your dog is wagging its tail and seems relaxed, it’s likely feeling happy.
  • Quality Time Matters: Spend time together doing stuff you both enjoy, like walking or playing fetch.
  • Consistent Training: When you teach your dog new tricks, you’re not just training; you’re bonding. Be patient and give treats for good behavior.
  • Focus on Positive Reinforcement: Yelling doesn’t help. If you’re mad, take a deep breath, and remember that rewarding good behavior works better.

Regular Health Check-ups with the Veterinarian

Keeping your dog healthy is a key part of your bond. Sick dogs can’t tell you what’s wrong, so regular check-ups with the veterinarian keep them in top shape. Here’s what you need to keep in mind:

  • Schedule Annual Visits: Just like you, your dog needs a yearly check-up to catch any health issues early.
  • Keep Up with Vaccinations: Vaccines keep dangerous illnesses away. Make sure your dog’s shots are up to date.
  • Discuss Behavior: If your dog acts out or seems upset, talk to your vet. Sometimes health issues can change behavior.

Remember to always be kind and think about your dog’s needs, and you’ll see your bond grow stronger day by day.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Navigating the emotional landscape with your dog can be complex. The following questions address common inquiries about canine perception and behavior related to human emotions.

Can dogs sense when I’m upset with them?

Your tone of voice and body language can give dogs clues about your feelings. Dogs may not grasp the specifics of your emotions, but changes in your behavior can inform them that you’re upset. For insights into dogs’ understanding, consider reading Inside of a dog.

What’s the best way to show my dog they’ve done something wrong?

Consistency and gentle correction work best. Punishment can lead to fear and confusion. Aim to redirect your dog’s behavior with positive reinforcement instead.

How do dogs react when they hear yelling?

Yelling can be alarming to dogs, often causing stress or anxiety. Instead of understanding the reason for the loud voice, they might feel frightened or become more anxious. Letting go of anger may help explain the impact of anger styles on animals.

After scolding my dog, do they understand why?

Dogs can recognize they’ve done something to displease you but may not connect the scolding with the behavior if it’s not immediate. It’s essential to correct your dog during the misbehavior, not after.

Will my dog ignore me if they’re upset with me?

Dogs usually don’t hold grudges, but they might temporarily avoid you if they’re feeling scared or stressed. Restoring your dog’s trust with calm, loving interactions is key.

How can I tell if my dog knows they’re being cared for?

A well-cared-for dog is usually happy and relaxed around their owner. Look for signs of affection like tail wagging, eager greetings, and calm, content behavior as indicators that your dog feels loved. Animals make us human discusses creating the best life for animals, including recognizing their emotional states.

Final Thoughts

When you’re feeling mad, your furry friend might pick up on your emotions more than you realize. Dogs are pretty good at reading body language and vibes. If you’re upset, they may act differently, like coming to cuddle or maybe even hiding. They don’t get madness like we do, but they sense something’s up.

  • Your tone of voice: Yelling might scare them.
  • Your body language: Stomping might signal danger.
  • Your actions: Ignoring them might make them anxious.

Remember, you’re a big part of your dog’s world. They might not understand why you’re mad, but they feel the change. So, try to keep things chill when you can. If you get upset, give them some love once you’ve cooled down — it helps both of you feel better.


Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.