Do Dogs Feel Guilt?
We’ve all been there, returning to our home to find torn up garbage bags, a chewed up sofa, stolen food… We have all seen these things happen with our dogs, and reacted a certain way to it, that made our dogs look guilty. There is our dog, head town, tail wagging, and what we perceive to be a guilty look all over their face. For most dog owners, there is no doubt that the dog feels bad for the destruction they create while left on their own.
The question is, can dogs really feel this kind of remorse for their actions?
What Does the Research Tell Us?
Various studies have proven that in order for a dog to feel guilt, they would need to be aware while doing something wrong. This would require a great deal of self awareness and also the ability to link the present action to past and future.
We need to understand the terms Primary and Secondary Emotion.
Primary emotions refer to our basic emotions in response to our present environment. They are our first response and tend to be strong. These include joy, sadness, anger, fear, trust, distrust, surprise, and anticipation.
Secondary emotions are more complex as they tend to stem from the primary emotions. These include, but are not limited to, guilt, pity, envy, shame, pride, etc… The secondary emotions are not typically observed in animals.
A study conducted by Dr. Susan Hazel of the University of Adelaide, on the possibility of dogs experiencing guilt, questioned dog owners on whether or not they believe their dogs experience the emotion. More than half of the people studied admit that if they scold their dog, the dog typically shows guilty type behaviour. More than half of interviewed dog owners admit that if their dog shows guilt like behaviour that they will scold their dog less. This could lead to the assumption that a guilty look is an acquired behaviour. (Animal Welfare, Volume 16, Supplement 1, May 2007, pp. 149-154(6)).
Another study by Dr. Hazel allowed 3 dogs to steal cookies. It was always the most timid dog who displayed the guilty look when the owner raised their voice, even if that specific dog didn’t take a cookie! Another test showed that a group of dogs that stole food would act completely normal towards their owners when not scolded, being greeted like nothing has happened. If the owners, on the other hand, raised their voices and acted upset, all dogs equally showed the guilty look. It seems that the guilty look is a response to our human emotion and not necessarily towards wrong-doing that has happened in the past.
Dogs Read our Emotions
As excellent readers of human emotion, dogs are aware when their owner is angry or upset. We may raise our voice, or use hand gestures that cause our dogs to respond, which is present moment reaction, rather than to the earlier (unconnected) action.
For example, if your dog rips the garbage apart and you come home two hours later and shout at them, they will look guilty because your dog is reading your angry emotion, not because they tore the garbage apart. This action was long forgotten by the dog.
Fear of punishment may arise in a dog and they may lower their head, looking up at the owner, fold their ears back, or even lay on their back. These are submissive signs to calm the human down. Dogs can assume that an angry owner could apply a punishment, even though they have no way of knowing why. They then display a submissive look in self defense, which is often misunderstood by humans.
How to Deal with “The Guilty Look”
Once we are aware of the fact that there is no guilt, we need to remember that dogs live in the moment. If you don’t catch your dog in the act of doing something unwanted, it’s best to forget about it, let it go, and don’t attempt to correct the dog. Your dog will not know why they are getting punished.
If you catch the dog in the act, a firm “NO” or a hissing sound is all that is needed to correct it.
How to Prevent Mis-Haps
Always set up your house or yard for your dog to succeed. Put the garbage out of reach, cover the new sofa, and put any food items away safely.
Always make sure your dog gets their daily exercise, so they can spend their excess energy.
If your dog likes to play, offer them a variety of toys to chew on.
I hope these simple steps help prevent future mis-haps, and the earlier explanation of a dog’s thought process can prevent unnecessary confusion and punishment for our dogs. Remember, dogs live in the moment, they will not connect what they did in the past. We cannot punish them for their actions after the fact. Keep in mind to train with no pain, that’s always the goal!