Do Dogs Feel Guilty?
We all know the look of absolute guilt on a dog’s face when you come home to shredded mail or a chewed up slipper. We are told by experts that dogs don’t feel complex human emotions, but it is hard to believe when you have experienced the look of shame. Therefore, the question Do Dogs Feel Guilty? arises time and time again.
Actually, what is happening is that the dog is picking up on their owner’s mood. The act of his owner pointing, shouting, saying ‘Who did this?‘ makes the dog feel sad, hence the shameful look.
Still, don’t believe it?
Try this experiment. Walk into a room, sigh heavily and point to an imaginary puddle on the carpet. Now say ‘Who did this?’ in an angry voice. Chances are your dog will have that guilty look, even though he has done nothing wrong!
Some people with more than one dog also believe that they can always tell which one is the culprit. Experts say that it will always be the most timid that has the look of ‘guilt’ and is actually feeling anxiety. The shrinking body, lack of eye contact, backing away even shaking is actually fear not guilt. If both dogs are anxious, both will display ‘guilty’ behaviour.
It is true that dogs feel Primary Emotions like happiness or fear but they do not feel Secondary Emotions, which are more complex, like guilt or shame.
A dog does not have the brain functionality to feel these Secondary Emotions.
He is just displaying submission because he knows you are angry.
The dog is exhibiting puppy dog eyes because he wants to placate you.
The only way to correct bad behaviour is to catch the dog in the act, therefore he knows that a certain behaviour is not acceptable. By telling the dog off for something that he may have done an hour ago you are simply confusing him.
We have all seen hilarious social media pictures of dogs sitting next to a chewed slipper or a sofa with the stuffing removed. It looks overwhelmingly like guilt but in fact, the dog is just sad that you are unhappy.
Have you ever felt that your dog has been spiteful?
The same thing applies here again, he may have been bored or trying to attract your attention when he destroyed your favourite armchair but he doesn’t have the necessary brain cells to feel spiteful.
Over time the relationship between man and dog has evolved significantly. It is certain that dogs understand some words and hand gestures, so with time, some experts believe that the dog will begin to display Secondary Emotions to a small degree.
A domesticated dog understands more than a wild wolf so why can’ t emotional communication keep evolving?
However, if this is true, it would also rely on humans being able to interpret the emotional signals correctly.
One researcher who has studied the subject is Dr Alexandra Horowitz. She teaches canine cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University where she runs the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab.
Her website can be found here and book ‘Inside of a Dog, What Dogs See, Smell and Know’ is a highly recommended best seller.
Seventy percent of dog owners believe that their pet shows signs of guilt.