Understand right and wrong?
"Don't anthropomorphize dogs.
They hate that."
Loved that signature, can't remember who I swiped it from. However, it is a good intro to what I wanted to discuss…..
Do dogs understand right and wrong? Well, like human children, if raised in a structured environment they certainly understand what gets them praise and what gets them punishment......in other words, the "rules" of the house. Exactly how they process the information seems less important to me than what they do with it, and in most cases they do just fine. Like children, they are quick to learn what is unacceptable. Whether they avoid doing the unacceptable will depend on a number of factors, not the least of which is opportunity. Some people have little problem with their dogs and kids not because of superior training, but because of superior supervision.
I don't believe dogs agonize over having broken the rules, although some appear to stress over the owner's reaction. Sensitive breeds give the appearance of "guilt" because they find their owner's disapproval emotionally stressful. (These dogs would not, by and large, be Basenjis!) Others fear physical retribution (positive or negative punishment, e.g. a "spanking" or isolation in a crate) or emotional disengagement from the owner. (being ignored). All of these aversives can be damaging to the owner/dog relationship, but IMHO the most damaging is isolating the animal. Most critters understand anger and retaliation, because it happens in their own social order. Isolation, on the other hand, is a death sentence in the wild. Staying with the pack or herd means safety. If you observe animals you will find most disputes are sharp, short, and over......it's our species that holds a grudge. (Yes, there are lots of cases of two dogs that "hate" each other, but is that a grudge, or fear of another encounter?)
My own feeling is that if an animal understands the rules and steps over the line, a correction is entirely appropriate. However, a correction can vary in weight between a sharp word or glance, all the way up to physical discipline, which does not have to be harsh. It should "fit the crime". What I don't like is any sort of drawn out removal of the dog from the social life of the house. Make your point, ask for a behaviour you know you can get, and use the opportunity to reward the dog and restore confidence in each other.
I'd like to make one point about our understanding of "punishment". It is entirely possible that when we administer what appears in our eyes to be positive punishment, it is in reality positive reinforcement. You will know which by the result. If the behaviour diminishes or extinguishes, then it was positive punishment. If the behaviour increases, your action may well have acted as positive reinforcement. This is the "any attention is better than no attention" syndrome, and one of the reasons people like to say positive punishment doesn't work. It works very well, when applied with the proper timing, and when it is not being undermined by ongoing negative punishment. If your animal (or child) is so desperate for your attention that it deliberately provokes a physical correction because that is preferable to being ignored, I'd say you need to reassess how much time you are spending with the animal.
To get back to my original premise, I think dogs do indeed understand a version of right or wrong, in the context of obeying the rules. Like an FAS kid or a sociopath, they may not have a conscience about doing the wrong thing, but they demonstrably know what it is. A dog that refrains from swiping food from the coffee table when you are in the room (but might be happy to do so when you aren't) isn't a lot different from the human who keeps to the speed limit when he can see a cop in the rear view mirror. And like the dog who is caught exiting the living room with loot in his jaws, most of us aren't very happy when the unmarked cruiser flashes the dome light.