Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Do Dogs Really Feel Shame and Guilt?

Do dogs really feel shame and guilt, or is that "look" something else?

dog canine pet emotion fear guilt shame punishment scold bad
Photo from Creative Commons
People are always drawing my attention to popular sites online which are full of photos of dogs looking guilty and ashamed. These sites, such as dogshaming.com and shameyourpet.com as well as many videos posted on sites like YouTube, frequently have dogs wearing signs which are humorously written "confessions," and the dogs are often surrounded by the remnants of their misbehavior. To the average person there is little doubt that in many of the photos, the dogs look as if they were guilty or ashamed of having eaten something that they shouldn't have or destroyed something or misbehaved in some other manner.

The first dog shaming site was started in August 2012 by Pascale Lemire, a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia. It remains the most popular of such sites and has received more than 58 million page views and more than 65,000 submissions with photos. Lemire also published a book called Dog Shaming which made its way to the New York Times bestseller list. However, she is not convinced that all of the photos actually show shame. She told a reporter, "I don't think dogs actually feel shame. I think they know how to placate us with this sad puppy dog look that makes us think they're ashamed of what they've done. My guess is that their thinking is: `Oh man, my owner is super mad about something, but I don't know what, but he seems to calm down when I give him the sad face, so let's try that again."'

The scientific consensus seems to be that Lemire is right and that dogs do not feel shame. Rather, that sad, guilty look with ears back, head down, eyes droopy, tail between the legs, and lower body posture is actually a sign of fear, not shame or guilt. The dog has learned that when the evidence of their misbehavior is visible, and their owner appears, bad things happen to dogs, such as scolding or punishment. I once demonstrated this for a TV show. The dog in question was a handsome, rough Collie named Marla who had gotten into the habit of knocking over the trash can in the kitchen and rummaging through it to find whatever edibles she could salvage. The family members believed that Marla knew what she was doing was wrong because when they came home and found the evidence of her delinquency she always looked guilty and ashamed. I decided to demonstrate to them that guilt and shame were not the motives behind Marla's behavior, but rather simple fear of punishment which caused that "look." First, I had the family leave the house and then I walked Marla into the kitchen, placed her in a sit stay position, while I knocked over the trashcan and spread its contents across the floor. We then walked back into the living room where I called the family back into the house. The moment that Marla saw them she glanced over her shoulder toward the kitchen and then immediately began to exhibit the behaviors which her owners had always interpreted as shame and guilt even though she had done nothing wrong.

Of course my little test using Marla was just a demonstration and not science. However there is scientific evidence from two studies which confirms my conclusion. The first was by Alexandra Horowitz, a professor of psychology at Barnard College in New York City. The report was published in the journal Behavioural Processes* and involved 14 dogs who were videotaped in the series of trials to see how they reacted when their owner left the room after telling them not to eat a treat. Sometimes the dogs obeyed and sometimes they disobeyed. Sometimes when the owner returned they scolded the dog and other times they simply greeted the dog. Horowitz summarizes her results by saying, "I found that the 'look' appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs, regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed or did something for which they might or should feel guilty. It wasn't 'guilt' but a reaction to the owner that prompted the look."

A more recent study Julie Hechta, Ádám Miklósia, and Márta Gácsia was conducted at Eötvös Loránd University, in Budapest, Hungary, and published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science**. It involved 64 dogs and was somewhat similar in design in that a dog was instructed not to eat a treat, and then when the owner was out of the room, the dog obeyed or disobeyed. Again the issue was how the dog reacted when the owner returned. Once again the results were that the dogs' obedience or disobedience had nothing to do with whether they showed the "guilty look." Furthermore, although 92 percent of the owners claimed that when their dog was showing that "guilty" behavior it was because the dog knows that it has done something the owner disapproves of, when actually confronted with their dog showing that "look," the owners could not reliably determine whether the dog had actually obeyed or disobeyed in that experimental trial.

The obvious conclusion is that dogs are responding with that guilty and ashamed look because they are fearful of what is going to happen next, not because they perceive that they have done something wrong. However, it may be a useful behavior on the part of the dog to look ashamed in much the same way that the founder of dogshaming.com, Pascale Lemire, suggested earlier. In the study by the Hungarian research team, it was found that among the owners who claim that their dog shows guilty behavior, more than half (59 percent) claim that their dogs "guilty" behavior leads them to scold their dogs less. The dog may not know that it has done anything wrong, may not feel any shame or guilt, but it may well have learned that giving that guilty and ashamed look makes things a little bit less bad in the end.

For more about dog emotions click here.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

 Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Data from:

* Alexandra Horowitz (2009). Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour.Behavioural Processes 81, 447–452

** Julie Hechta, Ádám Miklósia, Márta Gácsia (2012). Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 139, 134– 142

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

more...

Subscribe to Canine Corner

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?