Keep consequences close when dog misbehaves
I have read that dogs cannot remember what they did even a few minutes in the past. This means that all consequences have to follow the dog’s behaviour immediately. How soon after a behaviour do you need to act before they forget what they were doing?
Dogs don’t have amnesia. They can clearly remember things. For example, many dogs run into the house and look for a bone they were chewing an hour previously, exactly where they left it.
However, when it comes to efficient dog training, consequences should happen immediately after the behaviour. This is a grammar issue.
Dogs can learn that words and phrases predict outcomes. While there are some exceptions, consequences usually happen right after an event or sequence of events. Pets learn that “car ride” means an outing. The event usually follows the phrase. We wouldn’t expect a dog to work out the connection if we said “car ride” hours before the trip. The closer the consequence is to the behaviour, the easier it is for dogs to put two and two together. We have no way of using past tense to explain that what a pet did hours ago is making us happy or upset right now.
Some people are convinced that dogs look guilty when chastised. When people point to damaged objects, the dog appears to slink or look remorseful.
In an old but clever study, Alexandra Horowitz put the guilty look to the test. Dogs were told to leave food alone while the owner was out of the room. When the owners returned, the dogs were observed. However, some of the people were misled into thinking that their obedient dog had in fact disobeyed. Other dogs were disobedient, but owners were told that the dog had been good.
Obedient dogs, with no reason to be guilty, showed the most pronounced guilty looks when admonished. The researchers concluded that the guilty look was likely more tied to scolding — a reaction to the human. The dog slinked because the human acted angry, not because they felt guilty over some misdeed. It’s important that we do not assume that dogs mentally time travel and connect the deed with scolding. Dogs are able to remember things, but they can’t understand past tense grammar.