Do Dogs Really Feel Guilt or Shame? We Really Don't Know

While humans aren't good at reading guilt it doesn't mean dogs don't feel it.

Posted Mar 23, 2014

Do dogs really feel guilt or shame? We really don't know

I just learned about an essay called "Do Dogs Really Feel Guilt?", once again summarizing the excellent studies conducted by renowned dog researcher Barnard College's Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, also editor of the recent book, Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior ("What Do Dogs Know, Think, and Feel? A New Book Tells It All").

In the essay asking if dogs really feel guilt, there's a quote from Pascale Lemire, creator of the website dogshaming, in which she says, “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", taken from an earlier essay called "Behaviorists: Dogs feel no shame despite the look" published in USA Today. I've emphasized the word "think" because that is all these claims are -- mere thoughts.

So, what do we really know? Existing data do not tell us that dogs do not feel guilt or shame. To wit, Dr. Horowitz wrote this comment to an earlier essay of mine called "The Genius of Dogs and The Hidden Life of Wolves" because she was also misquoted in a book on the behavior of dogs. Dr. Horowitz wrote:

"Spot on, on 'guilt.' Thanks so much for alerting me to and correcting the ubiquitous error about my study, some years back, which found that dogs showed more 'guilty look' when a person scolded or was about to scold them, not when the dog actually disobeyed the person's request not to eat a treat. Clearly what the results indicated was that the 'guilty look' did not most often arise when a dog was actually 'guilty.'

"My study was decidedly NOT about whether dogs 'feel guilt' or not. (Indeed, I'd love to know...but this behavior didn't turn out to indicate yay or nay.) I would feel dreadful if people then thought the case was closed on dogs (not) feeling guilt, which is definitely not the case. Many secondary sources got this right, but it must require reading the study to appreciate exactly what I did."

There are solid biological reasons to assume dogs do experience guilt and shame

In an essay called "Can Dogs Experience Guilt, Pride, and Shame: Why Not?" I wrote, "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."

It's extremely important to get things right, and it's essential to pay attention to what Dr. Horowitz and other researchers actually study and discover in their research. It's also important to pay attention to what's called "citizen science" about the emotional lives of dogs and other phenomena absent convincing data from "scientific science" to the contrary. If we discover dogs do not feel guilt or shame, well and good. But to claim we know this already closes the door on much needed and very exciting research.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014.