Sometimes, scientific findings are a lot different than what people typically think. For example, many owners are sure that their dog “feels guilty as she has stolen food from the table” or that “he is jealous because I pet the neighbors’ dog” (Morris et al 2008). Indeed, our dogs’ behavior often looks to us as if they feel guilty or jealous—but research suggests these feelings are over- or misinterpreted.
Perhaps you have experienced the typical “guilty dog” situation with your own furry friend. You arrive home to find that your dog has rummaged through the garbage or left you a present on the living room floor. Naturally, you get angry and your dog looks guilty.
Experimental studies have mimicked these situations. For example, one study left a dog in a room with a treat that he or she had been commanded not to eat. The dogs were given the opportunity to obey or disobey the command and then observed when their owners reentered the room. Importantly, the experimenters also controlled for what the owners thought the dogs had done while left alone. Thus, in one condition the owner thought that the dog had stolen the food—but he hadn’t! Researchers then analyzed when dogs showed the typical “guilty” look, including behaviors like avoiding looking at the owner, offering the paw, slinking away in submission, pulling their ears back toward the neck, and tucking the tail between the legs.
Surprisingly, dogs did not show more of these “guilty” behaviors when they were actually “guilty”—but they did so when their owners scolded them! Thus, the guilty look is likely simply a response to owner cues, rather than a display of remorse for a misdeed (Horowitz 2009, Hecht et al 2012). When the owners were instructed not to scold their dogs, but simply to guess whether their dog was guilty, they could not guess correctly—the dogs’ greeting behaviors were unaffected by what they had done when the owner was out of the room. (Ostojic et al 2015).
But can a dog be jealous? Jealousy can be defined as a set of negative emotional and behavioral responses when a rival receives something one wants for oneself (Harris and Prouvost 2014). In experimental studies, dog subjects were confronted with a situation in which a rival received something positive. For example, dogs observed their caregivers praising and interacting with a realistic animatronic dog. Indeed, some subjects were agitated and showed aggression toward the fake dog (Harris & Prouvost 2014). In another study, dogs sometimes showed signs of aggression when their caregiver gave food to a fake dog (Cook et al 2018).
But these studies provide no evidence that the fake dogs were perceived as real—and thus, as social rivals. Indeed, it is quite unlikely that dogs—with their social sensitivity and their excellent sense of smell—perceive a fake dog as a real one. Several studies have shown that dogs distinguish between fake (or unnatural) and real situations, for example when someone fakes a heart attack (Macpherson & Roberts 2006).
But a dog perceiving the animatronic as a real conspecific is a necessary prerequisite to determining jealousy. That is why, in another study, pairs of dogs that live together were tested. In the test, owners attended to the companion dog. The dogs being tested monitored that situation carefully, but were not aggressive towards the conspecific. In general, dogs behaved very similarly when one or both of them were ignored (Prato Previde et al 2018).
It is possible that the whole situation might be too complex for dogs to understand. Three individuals are involved in that interaction: the human, the rival, and the subject dog. Of course, dogs can discern whether a human has done something good for them and they prefer that human in subsequent situations—but in a situation of potential jealousy the subject does not have a direct interaction with the human; they just witnesses how the human is treating the rival. It seems dogs might have difficulties with such third-party interactions. A study has shown that dogs cannot evaluate humans based on indirect experience. After observing a "nice" or "indifferent" human interacting with another dog, dogs being tested show no preference for the “nice” human based on this indirect experience (Nitzschner et al 2012).
But still, dog owners often report a typical situation, in which they are engaged with the neighbors’ dog and their own dog runs up to join in. Often their own dog even tries to squeeze in between them and the neighbors’ dog. That must be jealousy, right? It involves a negative emotional and behavioral response when a rival receives something the dog wants for himself!
But again, there is an alternative explanation for that. It is likely that the owner not only pets the neighbors’ dog, but also communicates with him using the special kind of speech and gestures that we use with dogs. It is likely that the owner’s dog approaches reacting simply to these cues. Thus, the dog might perceive the situation as “It's petting time!”
In sum, it is quite unlikely that dogs feel guilty or jealous. What humans often perceive as “guilt” is simply submissive behavior as a reaction to human behavior. Likewise, “jealousy” seems to be a response to what owners do, not how the dog feels. Thus, unless new studies will prove otherwise, this explanation for dog behavior is more likely. Our best friends are often misinterpreted — in particular as their behavior often looks so similar to what we as humans do when we feel guilty or jealous. We as humans should have those alternative explanations in mind and be ready to accept which emotions dogs can have — and which they cannot.
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Cook, P., Prichard, A., Spivak, M., Berns, G. S. (2018) Jealousy in dogs? Evidence from brain imaging. Animal Sentience 22(1).
Harris CR, Prouvost C (2014) Jealousy in Dogs. PLOS ONE 9(7): e94597.
Hecht, J. Miklósi, Á., Gásci, M.(2012) Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dogs Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 139, 134-142.
Horowitz, A. (2009) Disambiguating the guilty look: salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behav. Process., 81, 447-452.
Macpherson, K., & Roberts, W. A. (2006). Do dogs (Canis familiaris) seek help in an emergency? Journal of Comparative Psychology, 120(2), 113–119.
Morris, P. H., Doe, C., Godsell, E. (2008) Secondary emotions in non-primate species? Behavioural reports and subjective claims by animal owners. Cogn. Emotion, 22, 3-20.
Nitzschner, M., Melis, A. P., Kaminski, J., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Dogs (Canis familiaris) Evaluate Humans on the Basis of Direct Experiences Only. PLoS One, 7(10), e46880.
Ostojić, L., Tkalčić, M., Clayton, N.S. (2015) Are owners' reports of their dogs’ ‘guilty look’ influenced by the dogs’ action and evidence of the misdeed? Behav. Proc. 11, 97-100.
Prato-Previde, E., Nicotra, V., Fusar Poli, S. (2018) Do dogs exhibit jealous behaviors when their owner attends to their companion dog? Anim. Cogn. 21, 703–713.