Are dogs the forgiving type? They’re social animals, so it stands to reason that they tend to cooperate and to minimize conflict. But what happens when there’s a small dust-up, or a fight? Do dogs forgive or do dogs hold grudges? How do the dogs go from an altercation to getting along again, and why do they bother? While they’ll sometimes just walk away and leave each other alone, they’ll often go through a process of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a general term for the “making up” behaviors between an aggressor and a victim after a conflict. It has been studied in a lot of species—mostly primates—but the discussion of the reasons behind the resolution of conflict in dogs involves many different possibilities. To learn more about the “why” behind reconciliation behaviors in dogs, researchers observed dogs interacting with one another at a two-acre dog park; over an eight-month period, in 72 one-hour sessions, they observed interactions between 177 dogs.
These dogs did not know each other very well; rather than being long-term friends, they were only slightly familiar, if they knew each other at all. Most of the time, the dogs sniffed and romped and played without any conflict. But occasionally a conflict would break out, which gave the scientists an opportunity to compare their behavior before and after the event.
The scientists were interested in three hypotheses. First, that the purpose of canine reconciliation is to restore the relationship. In social animals, individuals need each other for food, safety, warmth and all of the other benefits of group living; after a conflict, they need to restore the relationship to good terms. Second, that reconciliation functions to restore the social order and clarify each individual’s status. This suggests that lower-status individuals must act deferentially to others in order to reconcile with them. And third, that reconciliation functions to reduce stress and uncertainty around potential future conflict and aggression. By reducing uncertainty, stress levels decline.
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The purpose of the study was to test these three ideas about conflict resolution and the reasons for it. At the end of the study, only one of them matched what they saw in 14 conflicts involving 22 dogs: uncertainty and stress reduction best explained the behavior of the dogs. This is the only hypothesis that was supported by the data, which revealed that both victims and aggressors demonstrated reconciliation behavior toward one another after a conflict.
Both victims and aggressors were more affiliative after conflicts than they were before, and their affiliative behavior was directed toward each other as opposed to other dogs in the area. When aggressors showed more aggression after conflicts, that aggression was directed toward other dogs, not to their victims in the initial conflict.
Kristina Walters is the lead author of the study, which was her senior thesis project. Professor Melissa Shyan-Norwalt, PhD, one of the scientists who conducted this research, served as advisor to then-student Walters. Shyan-Norwalt is interested in studying reconciliation patterns between people and dogs in part because in her private practice, she has seen cases involving dogs who have bitten their people and then acted “apologetic.” (Other behaviorists, including me, have also seen this phenomenon.)
There’s a lot more to learn about reconciliation in dogs, including how different it is for individuals who know each other compared with those who don’t. Shyan-Norwalt has observed dogs in the same family who did not reconcile, but instead dispersed after every conflict. She points out that even when dogs do reconcile, “it’s important to remember that reconciliation reduces the risk of repeat aggression only in that immediate situation. It does not predict future behaviors. It’s not an apology—it’s ‘that situation is over, let’s move on…’”
Researchers continue to debate how closely reconciliation in the animal world approximates forgiveness, apologies and other human conflict-resolution constructs. I’ll leave that discussion to others. As far as I’m concerned, I hope coffee mugs have it right when they say, “To err is human, to forgive is canine.”