We Don't Know if Dogs Feel Guilt So Stop Saying They Don't

Myths about dog behavior abound using beliefs not facts about what we know

Posted May 22, 2016

A good number of people asked me what I thought about a recent essay by Kate Humble titled "What does your dog really think of you?" that's accompanied by a sidebar by Olivia Parker called "They call it puppy love... | Does my dog really love me?" All in all there's some very good material in there and excellent food for thought, and it's also clear we need much more research on these animals. 

We still don't know if dogs feel guilt so let's stop saying they don't until the proper studies are done

Nonetheless, there's a statement in Ms. Humble's piece that needs much more clarification. More to the point, we read, according to Dr. Susan Hazel, a veterinary scientist at the University of Adelaide, "There have been a number of studies, and it’s pretty clear that dogs don’t feel or display guilt. It’s not the way their brains work." I understand that we don't expect popular media to include references, but as far as I can determine, and I've also asked other researchers, there are no studies that show that "dogs don't feel or display guilt." And, surely, there have been no neuroimaging studies that focus on guilt. So, we really don't know if dogs feel guilt. 

As others and I have pointed out, there are persistent and annoying misrepresentations of a study performed by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz called "Disambiguating the 'guilty look': salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour" concerning whether humans are capable of detecting guilt in dogs. Dr. Horowitz discovered that we are not very good at detecting guilt but she did not study whether or not dogs feel or display guilt. In a previous essay called "Do Dogs Really Feel Guilt or Shame? We Really Don't Know" I discussed this and also included a response by Dr. Horowitz about how her study has been misrepresented.

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:

"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."

Myth-busting: Some words about jealousy, dominance, hugging, loving, and tug-of-war

While we know a lot about dog behavior, there's still a lot we don't know. First let's briefly consider jealousy. While some maintain, absent any data, that dogs don't feel jealousy, a study on this topic showed they do (please see "Dogs Know When They've Been Dissed, and Don't Like It a Bit"). 

"Our results suggest that dominance remains a robust component of domestic dog behaviour ..." (Rebecca Trisko and Barbara Smuts 2015)

Let's also consider social dominance in some detail. "Being dominant" does not mean beating up another individual or tormenting them. While some people claim that dogs don't display dominance, dogs, like numerous other animals, do indeed display dominance. There's major confusion and mistakes among many “dog people” about what "being dominant" really means, and claims that dogs don't display dominance are based on misunderstandings of how dogs (and other animals) display dominance (please see "Social Dominance Is Not a Myth: Wolves, Dogs" and "Dominance and Pseudoscience: Making Sense of Nonsense,"  and primate expert Dr. Dario Maestripieri's essay "Social Dominance Explained Part I)." And, while recent research across diverse species is clearly showing that positive social behaviors are more prevalent than aggressive or competitive actions, every single researcher I know who actually studies social behavior recognizes that cooperation and competition are both important in structuring social groups, as did Charles Darwin.

Concerning dogs, on whom this essay focuses, in a recent paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Behaviour by Rebecca Trisko and Barbara Smuts called "Dominance relationships in a group of domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiars) we read, "Our results suggest that dominance remains a robust component of domestic dog behaviour even when humans significantly reduce the potential for resource competition. The possible proximate benefits of dominance relationships for dogs are discussed."  It's essential to pay close attention to what we know and claims that dogs do not display dominance are wrong and misleading. And, one can ask, why would dogs be different from other mammals, including their close wild relatives, for whom dominance has evolved? 

What about hugging a dog and tug-of-war? While some dogs don't like being hugged it's incorrect to say that all dogs don't like being hugged (please see "Hugging a Dog Is Just Fine When Done With Great Care" in which I note that hugging must be done with great care and on the dog's terms). And, when dogs play tug-of-war they are not always competing (please see "What's Happening When Dogs Play Tug-of-War? Dog Park Chatter"). 

It's essential to get things right

One of the main purposes of this short essay is to call attention not only to what we know, but also to what we don't know about dog behavior (please also see "Butts and Noses: Secrets and Lessons from Dog Parks"). It's essential to get things right and pay careful attention to what's known and what's not known and carefully delineate beliefs from facts. However, most unfortunately, this is not the case. A very disturbing trend is that some authors continue to put forth beliefs and stories rather than facts about what we know, and this results in a misrepresentation of who dogs are and what they know, feel, and want and need (please see, for example, "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?" in which I also include a list of excellent books on dog behavior, "On Comparisons Between Dogs and Wolves: What We Really Know," "Should Female Dogs Be Used as Puppy Mill Breeding Machines?", and Mark Derr's "What a Dog Is Not").

It's essential not to let the science or lack thereof get lost in the shuffle, including academic and other media coverage concerned with who dogs (and other animals) truly are. Some authors write with authoritarian arrogance -- one of my colleagues calls it "iconoclastic arrogance" -- as if they're "the authorities" on this and that topic, that others (including researchers who have been studying dogs for years on end and have actually published detailed data) don't know what they're talking about, and they're going "to tell you how it is" and you better believe them although they have no data to back up their claims. The major problems are that they aren't "the authorities" and they don't "tell you how it is," but rather, they tell you what they want you to think are facts. Beliefs don't substitute for facts and two recent books -- How Dogs Work and What Is a Dog? -- are laden with misleading information and spurious claims and readers must beware. In What Is a Dog? the authors also advocate allowing females to breed as much as possible as if they're puppy mill dogs and to kill non-standard pups (p. 158). For more on these and other widely shared concerns please see the above four essays, "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?," "On Comparisons Between Dogs and Wolves: What We Really Know," "Should Female Dogs Be Used as Puppy Mill Breeding Machines?", "What a Dog Is Not," and links therein. In Melissa Fay Greene's book The Underdogs: Children, Dogs, and the Power of Unconditional Love we learn that Dr. Coppinger claims it's possible that dogs are not capable of thinking (p. 80). 

Paying attention to individual differences and facts are critical for understanding, appreciating, and training/teaching dogs: Variability is the name of the game

My purpose here simply is to ask for caution when reading statements that suggest or emphatically state that dogs (or other animals) always do this or that as if they're robotic automatons. It seems that after most of my frequent trips to dog parks, I leave with new information and am reminded to be very wary of hard-and-fast rules about dog behavior because there are so many individual differences among the dogs themselves and their relationships with other dogs and with different humans. 

The bottom line is that while there are some obvious "rules of thumb," such as don't stick your hand in the middle of a dog fight, don't run up to a dog and stick your face in their face, and don't assume all dogs are unconditional lovers or that they want to be hugged or patted on their head, there also is a good deal of variability among individuals. And, it's this variability that is very exciting and is helping us to make progress as we learn, for example, that play bows may have different functions for different dogs in different contexts and that peeing is not always scent-marking (please see for example research by Dr. Anneke Lidberg, "Scent‐Marking Behaviour in a Pack of Free‐Ranging Domestic Dogs," "Scent-marking by free-ranging domestic dogs,” Biology of Behaviour, 4, 123–139,1979, and "Scent Marking in Dogs"). 

For those people who make their living teaching dogs to live peacefully and harmoniously with humans, it's essential that they know what we know about these fascinating beings -- of course many do -- and that they recognize that there are marked individual differences even among litter mates. It's difficult to imagine that there are any people who don't want to give their companions the very best lives possible, and paying attention both to the facts and to the lack of facts is crucial for giving the very best care to these amazing beings. 

There's absolutely no reason to embellish dogs or other animals, and researchers and others are responsible for presenting data accurately and for being very clear when they're representing beliefs rather than facts. And, of course, as research continues, it's highly likely that yesterday's facts will have to be fine-tuned because dogs and other animals are such highly variable individuals. But, isn't this why science is so exciting? Isn't this why we love to learn about dogs? Just when we think we know it all ...

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)

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