Can dogs exhibit politeness?

I come from a science background and in general am very skeptical of anthropomorphic claims that people make about their pets.

I also have considerable experience with training my own dogs and of helping to rehabilitate rescued dogs.

Here's what I have noticed:

My previous dog, a Border Collie, and my present dog, a Papillon both have shown signs of what seems almost like politeness.


A dog who is not thirsty will pass by a drinking bowl and not drink, even if the bowl is indicated by the person.

However if the person offers a bowl by hand, some dogs (including two of mine) who are not thirsty, will take a token sip before turning away. This contrasts with young children who will turn their head or even body away if offered something they don't want.

With my Papillon, she will also accept treats that she doesn't want. She will hold them in her mouth for a short while and then drop them - sometimes after the person has stopped taking notice.

Being a natural skeptic, I find it difficult to admit to myself that this could be some form of politeness or placatory behaviour and yet I can't think of an obvious alternative.


Have others noticed this phenomenon and if so, do you have an explanation?

  • 1
    in general dogs behave like their ancestors (wolfs) who live together in packs. in relation short domestic time plays no role in it. they want to please their leader, so they fulfill the leaders wishes. if they interprete the given drink/food as wish/order from the leader (or as teaching by an adult) they would do it, to not argue against the leader. Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 19:32

2 Answers 2


From a scientific point of view, first we must define what "politeness" means.

Politeness is the practical application of good manners or etiquette so as not to offend others. It is a culturally defined phenomenon, and therefore what is considered polite in one culture can sometimes be quite rude or simply eccentric in another cultural context.

While the goal of politeness is to refrain from behaving in an offensive way so as not to offend others and make all people feel relaxed and comfortable with one another, these culturally defined standards at times may be manipulated.

So in the most simple terms being polite means not offending others. You could also argue that being polite is part of moral behavior, which is a term often used in scientific studies and makes finding results easier.

Dogs were specifically bred for their social skills, be it their guarding behavior or as a companion. Moral behavior was already part of the natural behavior of wolves, but in thousands of generations of domestication, humans expanded the moral behavior of dogs towards themselves. Scientific studies show that dogs read the mimic, gestures and tone of voice of humans and react accordingly, quite the contrary to wolves. They can even judge moral behavior and react to cooperative behavior and a refusal to cooperate.

Since the social cohesion of a group is so important to dogs, being impolite and offending others can lead to frustration and aggression towards the impolite individual. The chances of getting help after you frustrated others is much smaller than after you helped others. This is the principle of reciprocity, one of the 2 core components of morality.

We find comparable moral behaviors in many social animals, like apes, elephants, dolphins, rats and birds. Have a look at examples of moral behavior in several animal species in this Youtube video. At 10:00 minutes it explains altruism in chimpansees, which probably counts as the ultimate "polite" behavior because the altruistic individual does not expect any positive result in return.


I was without a dog for a couple decades. About five years ago my wife and I adopted Mickey as a puppy from a shelter. He will lightly put his paw on me or my wife when asking for something, laying down if it’s for petting, going to the door if he needs outside, or going to where his treats are if he’s hungry. He intentionally will try to involve everyone present in playing ball, not wanting anyone left out. If he plays too hard, he’ll give licks of apology. He is polite and gentle. He also has a large vocabulary. We started spelling out words to avoid him knowing what we were talking about; so now he knows what the spelling of some words mean...

Being able to recognize how another feels, having feelings yourself, are the basis for empathy and leads to the ability to be polite.

It has been shown dogs can recognize human facial expressions to know how others feel. https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/dogs-can-read-your-facial-expressions-claims-springer-study-1870911

Brain imaging has identified the same patterns for emotions in various animals, including dogs.

Brain imaging, both in terms of structure and function, shows enough similarities that it is reasonable to extrapolate varieties of experience across a wide range of animals. With similar brain architecture for the experience of joy, pain, and even social bonds, we can assume that animals experience these things much like we do, albeit without the words for those subjective states. https://qz.com/1476175/whats-it-like-to-be-a-dog-brain-scans-reveal-the-answers/

From both experience and based on what science has discovered, I don’t see it as surprising to find some animals capable of being polite.

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