Can Dogs Experience Guilt, Pride, and Shame: Why Not?
We need more research to really know so right now we should keep the door open
Posted Mar 14, 2013
Dogs are amazing nonhuman animal beings (animals) and anyone who's known a dog knows this. Just today Dr. Stanley Coren published a very interesting essay called "Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience?" and concluded, among other things:
"However, we know that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This means that a dog will have all of the basic emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love. However a dog will not have those more complex emotions like guilt, pride and shame." (After an email exchange with Dr. Coren about my response to his essay, he modified his conclusion to read, "However based on current research it seems likely that your dog will not have those more complex emotions like guilt, pride and shame.")
While this conclusion is extremely interesting, it remains a hypothesis in that the necessary research has not really been done. So, until the detailed research is conducted we don't really know "that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old."
We also don't know if dogs experience guilt, pride, and shame. However, because it's been claimed that other mammals with whom dogs share the same neural bases for emotions do experience guilt, pride, and shame and other complex emotions (see also and and), there's no reason why dogs cannot. And, there's solid biological/evolutionary reasons to assume dogs can and do. Recall Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity in which the differences among species are seen to be variations in degree rather than kind - "If we have or experience something, 'they' (other animals) do too."
Do dogs feel guilt?
One more point needs to be made concerning doggy guilt. Consider the research conducted by Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog and Psychology Today writer. As I noted in a previous essay called "The Genius of Dogs and The Hidden Life of Wolves", Dr. Horowitz's research is often misinterpreted. For example, in their book titled The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods consider Dr. Horowitz's research on doggy guilt (pp. 183ff). They write that Horowitz "conducted an experiment to see whether dogs can feel guilty" but they misinterpreted just what Dr. Horowitz was actually trying to do. Her research did indeed show that people were not all that good at reading guilt in their dog, however her data do not show that dogs cannot feel guilt. I frequently hear people say that Dr. Horowitz's project showed dogs cannot feel guilt and this is not so (please see Dr. Horowitz's comment about this error).
Let's keep the door open about the emotional lives of dogs and other animals and also extend a hearty thanks to Dr. Coren for once again writing a very interesting and stimulating essay.
Note: One can also question the value of comparing young humans with other animals. I don't find these comparisons to be especially compelling and other researchers have agreed that they are fraught with difficulties as are many cross-species comparisons concerning the cognitive and emotional capacities of individuals of different species. In a previous essay I wrote, "Animals do what they need to do to be card-carrying members of their species and we need to remember that numerous nonhuman animals outperform us in many different ways." Of course we are exceptional in various arenas as are other animals. Perhaps we should replace the notion of human exceptionalism with species or individual exceptionalism, a move that will force us to appreciate other animals for who they are, not who or what we want them to be.