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Guilt

Do Dogs Really Feel Guilt? An Informal Demonstration

What we most likely interpret as guilt in dogs is actually fear of punishment.

Key points

  • The same body language signals that we interpret as guilt—ears flattened, head lowered, tail between the legs—are actually signs of fear in dogs.
  • A dog may be fearful because it has learned that when evidence of their misbehavior is visible and their owner appears, the dog gets scolded.
  • Since dogs have the same level of cognition as a human 2 ½-year-old, it is unlikely that they have higher-level emotions, such as guilt or shame.
 "Eviscerated" by Sheila Sund/Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Source: "Eviscerated" by Sheila Sund/Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

I was teaching a master's level course on canine cognition at Bergin University of Canine Studies and was discussing the emotions that dogs apparently feel. One of my students objected to my assertion that there was no scientific evidence that dogs feel guilt or shame.

She pointed out that there were a number of internet sites, such as dogshaming.com and shameyourpet.com that present photographs of dogs who were "clearly showing their guilt and shame." I'm sure that most of you are familiar with these kinds of pictures, which often feature dogs wearing signs containing humorously written "confessions," and the dogs are frequently surrounded by the evidence of their misbehavior. To the average person, the dogs certainly look as though they were feeling guilty.

I pointed out to the student that the real expressions demonstrated by the dogs were more likely to be signs of fear or submission. Typically, we are looking at dogs with their ears flattened back and down, head lowered, eyes half-closed and avoiding direct eye contact, tail between the legs, lower, cringing body posture and so forth. These are all signs of fearfulness. It is likely that the reason that the dog is now frightened is because it has learned that when the evidence of their misbehavior is visible, and their owner appears and is visible at the same time, bad things are likely to happen to dogs — such as scolding or punishment.

Demonstrating the Difference Between Guilt and Fear

I was once called upon to see if I could demonstrate that this response represented fear, rather than guilt, for a TV show. The dog in question was a handsome, rough Collie named Marla. She 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 when her family was out of the house. They were rather exasperated by the situation and would scold Marla when they got home and saw the mess that she had caused.

Marla's owners believed that the dog knew that what she was doing was wrong. They explained to me that when they came home and found the evidence of her delinquency, she always looked guilty and ashamed. To prove that they were wrong about which emotion was triggering Marla's behavior, I set up a demonstration. The idea was to show them that guilt and shame were not the motives behind Marla's actions, but it was simple fear of punishment that caused that "guilty look."

To begin with, I had the family leave the house. Next, I walked Marla into the kitchen, placed her in a sit-stay position. While she watched, I knocked over the trashcan and spread its contents across the floor. Since she had seen me making the mess on the floor she should have nothing to feel guilty or ashamed of.

After I set this scene, 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 (tucking in her tail and slinking around and cowering etc.) which her owners had always interpreted as shame and guilt. This happened even though she had done nothing wrong and had nothing to feel guilty about. This seems to demonstrate that it was the anticipation of punishment given the sight of her family combined with the simultaneous sight of the trash-strewn kitchen floor that was the basis of what they were interpreting as her "guilty look."

Can Dogs Learn to Feel Guilty?

Can we train a dog to know right from wrong in such a way that they will ultimately come to show guilt and shame? A woman told me of an example of an attempt to do that.

"My husband, Ivan, and I had just gotten a Sheltie [Shetland sheepdog] that we named Bella. We were living in a basement apartment in Vancouver, which turned out to be nice since it opened out to a fenced backyard which Bella could use to play in or to do her 'business.'

"Bella was around 6 or 7 months of age, but would still have some 'accidents,' which I suppose might be expected, since both my husband and I worked and were out of the house most of the day.

"Ivan, was getting quite aggravated at Bella. He claimed that it was simply that our dog did not know right from wrong and she had to learn this. That way, in order to avoid feelings of guilt and shame, she would keep from messing on the kitchen floor. I had just read your book Do Dogs Dream? where you point out that dogs have the mind of a human 2 to 2 ½-year-old. You concluded that because of that, dogs have only the basic emotions, like fear and anger, but not the higher-level emotions, like guilt and shame. These don't show up in kids until they are around 4 years of age.

"Ivan said that that was nonsense. He would teach Bella what was right and wrong, and then to avoid feelings of guilt she would stop having any further 'accidents.' So he reached down, grabbed Bella by her collar, dragged her over to the puddle on the floor, then scolded her and finally picked her up and threw her out of the kitchen window. Since we were at ground level she ended up in the yard. [As the apartment was level with the yard and it was grass covered no actual harm was done to Bella.]

"This scene repeated itself several days in a row, where we would come home and find a wet spot on the floor. Ivan would then grab Bella, scold her, and toss her out the kitchen window.

"After nearly a week of this 'training,' we arrived home from work one day, and there was no puddle on the kitchen floor. 'You see,' Ivan said, 'she has learned and is now feeling too guilty to make a mess anymore!' At that very moment Bella came into the kitchen. She stopped in front of my husband, then squatted down and urinated. After which she glanced up at Ivan and then jumped out of the kitchen window!"

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

References

Coren, S. (2012). Do Dogs Dream? Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know. New York: W.W. Norton & Company (pp. i – xiv, 1 – 290).

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