Can dogs really feel guilt?

Do Dogs feel guilt?

All over the world, well-intended owners scold dogs, as they attempt to teach their pooch out of peeing on the carpet, tearing through the trash, or destroying the furniture. As Sam walks through the door after a long day at work, he notices the puddle in the entrance. Convinced that only Bailey, his Jack Russell Terrier could have had the audacity to commit such a pernicious act, he immediately turns to him. Bailey is crouched down, approaching very cautiously, his tail wagging low, his head slightly turned to the side, while making quick upper lip licks. ‘Clearly this dog knows he’s guilty, look at him!’ thinks Sam now justified and almost obligated to scold Bailey. After all, he can’t just allow it to happen!

 Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Dog from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Once again, when it comes to humans interpreting dog behaviors, appearances can be deceiving. No doubt, if my teenage boy greets me at the door with a long face while avoiding my gaze and my favorite vase is in pieces on the floor, I will likely draw a direct correlation between the accident and his expression of guilt. With dogs however, things are hardly ever as obvious.

Jack Russell Terrier Demi

Jack Russell Terrier

As we have discussed previously, dogs excel at reading emotions and intentions of their humans (see blog ‘You can’t lie to your dog’). As we notice the dirty deed, we have a knee-jerk emotional reaction, an internal ‘oh no!’ that the dog will immediately pick up. In order to avoid scolding, Bailey will do what comes natural to him and express appeasement signals. He may look guilty, but what he’s really feeling is fear of being scolded. This is  not an indicator of his ability to draw any correlation with the act he committed. That’s already in the past, what’s here, right now, is an upset owner and a puddle on the floor. After a few repetitions, Bailey may start expressing the same fear signals prior to Sam’s notice of the puddle. Just like us, dogs are designed to notice patterns, so it won’t take long for the dog to learn that puddle on the floor and presence of owner is bad news.

In an informal attempt to illustrate this point, Ann Ronayne and I set up a situation where Heaven, a sweet golden retriever is scolded, as Ann places either trash on the floor or poop collected from the backyard. In either case the dog had nothing to do with the deed, but it only took one time for her to start expressing the body language described above as Ann enters the room (see video below). Let me assure you though, that after the session was over, Heaven was given ample attention and treats to make up for the unpleasant set up.

In a more formal study on the subject, Alexandra Horowitz (2009), from Barnard College in New York, and author of the excellent book ‘Inside of a dog’, demonstrated that, whether or not the dog appears guilty to the owner has nothing to do with what he actually did. In the study, owners were asked to leave the room after having ordered their dog not to touch a treat intentionally left in their reach. As the owner was gone, one group of dogs was fed the treat by the experimenter, the other group was not. When the owners came back, they were either told that the dog had behaved and left the treat alone, or that the dog had disregarded their order and had ingested it. What the owners did not know, is that they were being manipulated and what they were told about how their dog behaved, was not necessarily true. The results of the study revealed that the ‘guilty’ look on the dog had little to do with whether or not he had ingested the forbidden treat. It had everything to do with how the owner reacted when given the news.

Research seems to indicate that our dog’s mind, with all its mental abilities and emotions, is roughly equivalent to that of a 2 ½ year old human child (Stanley Coren, 2013). These findings would suggest that dogs would have similar emotions to human children, yet not as many as human adults. The more complex emotions, such as shame, pride, guilt or contempt appear only between 3 -4 years of age. So according to these studies, our pooches will have all the basic emotions such as joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love, but not the more complex ones such as guilt, pride or shame.

These findings clearly demonstrate one of the many misunderstandings that can occur between humans and their pets. It’s quite natural for us to interpret our dog’s behavior as we would that of another human. However, although close friends, dogs and humans are two different species with two different thought processes. Many more studies are still needed for us to better understand this animal that we’ve lived with for so many years. In the meantime, the best we could do is giving him the benefit of the doubt and stay tuned as science keeps making progress on dog/human relationships.

Jennifer Cattet, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US).
As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs.
Today she’s the owner of Medical Mutts (MedicalMutts.com), a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She’s also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent.
Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (SmartAnimalTraining.com).

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Posted in Dog behavior, Dog training, Educational, News, Positive Animal Training
9 comments on “Can dogs really feel guilt?
  1. Ann Stevenson says:

    If they can’t feel pride, how do you explain a golden prancing, prancingjoyful body language along with extremely excited vocalizations when they are bringing you the biggest stick ever!

  2. Wes Anderson says:

    This YouTube viral video(25 million hits!) while cute did little to dispel the myth of the “guilty look” now there is even a commercial website to sell the products. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8ISzf2pryI

  3. Melissa says:

    What if you catch the dog “in the act” is a scolding for unwanted behavior appropriate at that point? Alternatively, should a “trade” be made instead?

    • Melissa, that’s a great question. Many people believe in the ‘catching in the act’ technique, so let’s put a little more thought to the method.

      What if your dog squats in front of you and pees on the carpet. Rushing to him and scolding him is very likely to stop him and with a few repetitions, he’ll associate peeing on the carpet and the unpleasant reactions that it triggers in you. Many dogs learn to not pee on the carpet that way, so no doubt, it works. In this case, the message is clear, peeing on the carpet with you in the room is bad news.

      However, what happens when you’re no longer present? Let’s say you’re now at work and the dog needs to go and because there’s already a smell of urine on the carpet, he sees the carpet as the best place to relieve himself. Now without you in the room, the consequence for peeing on the carpet is relief of the pressure. It feels good.

      As I have mentioned in the blog, scientific studies suggest that dogs do not put together the act committed in the past and the scolding he’s getting when his owner comes home. So, what has the dog really learned: when you’re in the room, peeing on the carpet leads to unpleasant consequences, when you’re not in the room, peeing on the carpet leads to pleasant consequences. You now have a dog that will no longer pee when you’re around but is likely to pee when you’re not there or in another room and it becomes much harder to treat the problem. This doesn’t mean that this is always the case, for all dogs. You are simply increasing the chances of this happening.

      The other thing that the dog has learned in the process, is that you can be source of unpleasant consequences. You can yell, scream an scare your dog, which, let’s face it, unless the dog is scared (even mildly), it won’t stop what he’s doing. So we’re also increasing the dog’s stress level, thus increasing the possibilities of more behavior problems due to stress (like barking, chewing, excessive licking, …).

      You’ve mentioned trading and if you’re referring to the dog chewing on undesired objects, then yes, absolutely, trading is a better option. Here again, if you simply punish the behavior, you’ll run into the same problem as described above. Trading one object for anther while staying calm will avoid also teaching him that the following behaviors work: take off running, chew on objects when you’re not around, and resource guarding.

      These are behaviors that most owners are faced with, so I’ll be addressing these issues in more details in a future blog.

      Jennifer Cattet

  4. Marcella Curtis says:

    I feel that was as very cruel act doing what the dog did and then scolding him or her, it achieves nothing but mistrust for the dog to the owner. My method always worked and it starts from birth, just as the pups mothers do naturally. Training is consistent and repetitive, because like babies their attention span is short, and every member of the family must all adopt the same method. The pup will learn very quick where the toilet is. As for rubbish pups are naturally inquisitive, to them it’s all play, for an adult dog or pup do not leave rubbish lying around within reach. And if you are out all day at work do not expect the dog to hold on with a full bladder or bowel and can’t get outside.
    Again if out all day and furniture is chewed or somthing ripped to shreds, the dog is bored and may be suffering from separation anxiety, they are pack animals they need company and to them you are a dog and their leader, they need you. So if your life is career orientated do not have a dog.

    Marcella
    Western Australia

    • Wes Anderson says:

      The person who did the video intended it as a lesson of what NOT to do. She loves her dog and would not recommend what was seen in the video.

  5. Marcella Curtis says:

    I did forget to mention my method of toilet training, as with pups, is caught in the act, no words spoken just picked the dog up or taken on a leash straight outside, and then praise immediately, they respond so much to praise than scolding which only installs fear. If they have had an accident i ignore the dog mop it up and say nothing they soon realize they do not get any praise for this action, but will in the appropriate place.
    This method works with every dog I have had.

    Marcella
    Western Australia.

  6. Me as a pet owner if they’ve done something that is not good, I talk to them and tell them bad stuff that should’t be happen again because they are like humans also.

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "Can dogs really feel guilt?"
  1. […] mentioned in one of my previous blogs (‘Can Dogs Really Feel Guilt?’), studies have shown that in the presence of pee or feces on the floor, or a chewed up pillow […]

  2. […] previous posts (‘Can dogs really feel guilt?’ & ‘Dog Psychology trumps intuition and myth”), we showed that, despite popular belief, a […]

  3. […] One article that I read explained that it turns out that dogs actually do not feel guilt, but instead respond to a change in demeanor in their owner. The dog can detect that the owner is upset so it will display signs of appeasement. However, the experiments and researched mentioned in the article that I linked all measured if a single dog is capable of feeling guilt. In the video that I linked, there are two dogs, one with the guilty expression and one without it. If both dogs knew that the owner was upset and supposedly are only capable of reacting to a change in demeanor, why was the genuinely guilty dog the only one to display the appeasement signs? Also, why do dogs display appeasement at all? Other animals generally do not detect changes in human moods and then respond to them accordingly. In fact, cats are often characterized by their indifferent personalities. […]

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