Do Dogs Feel Guilty?
Updated: Apr 18
Do dogs feel guilty?
What do you think? I can almost hear you saying a firm yes, of course they do. But do they really?
Well it's important that we find out the truth. Why? I could not put it any better than Jean Donaldson...
“As soon as you bestow intelligence and morality, you bestow the responsibility that goes along with them. In other words, if the dog knows it’s wrong to destroy furniture yet deliberately and maliciously does it, remembers the wrong he did and feels guilt, it feels like he merits a punishment, doesn’t it?” (Jean Donaldson 1996 The Culture Clash.)
To put it simply, if dogs do truly feel guilt then they must deserve punishment because they understood that what they did was wrong but they did it anyway. But what if they don't feel guilty? Are you punishing your dog unfairly?
We know more about the Canine brain than ever before and more scientific developments are occurring all the time. Years ago it was believed dogs were just emotionless machines but thankfully due to scientific progress, we now know dogs are capable of many emotions. In fact dogs have all the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans. They also have the same chemical changes and hormones that humans do during emotional states, such as oxytocin and cortisol. I know what you are thinking. Surely, this proves my dog feels guilty? Well let's consider the science behind canine emotions.
Now it's currently believed by scientists, that dogs have the same emotional intelligence as a 2-2 1/2-year-old child, so what emotions do humans have at this stage in their development? Let's look at this chart to help find the answer. (Modern Dog Magazine)
So this chart shows that a 2 - 2 1/2-year-old child is capable of feeling excitement/arousal, distress, contentment, disgust, fear, anger, joy, suspicion/shyness and affection/love. I'm sure if you are a parent, you have recognised all these emotions in your own children at this stage of development.
These basic emotions are clearly recognised in dogs also, however, notice guilt, shame, pride and contempt do not develop until much later in a child's development. These are known as complex emotions or secondary emotions. Now notice where the dog's development stops. It's way before these complex emotions even develop.
When human infants are born, they are capable of feeling excited/aroused and this ranges from calm to a loud frenzy. In the next few weeks the arousal ranges from positive to negative and so contentment and distress can be observed through facial expressions. In the next few months of life, the baby will develop anger, fear and disgust. Joy does not appear until the baby is 6 months of age and this is then usually followed by shyness/suspiciousness. At 9-10 months, a human baby begins showing affection/love but the other complex emotions take much longer to develop. Pride and shame take nearly 3 years to develop and a child is nearly 4 years old when they are capable of feeling guilt and contempt.
Dogs progress through the developmental stages far quicker than a human child can. So much so, they develop every emotion they will ever experience by the time they reach 6 months of age. However, the range of emotions a dog feels cannot exceed what a human child experiences at 2-2 1/2 years of age.
Guilt is a complex emotion because it requires the person to understand right from wrong and how personal actions impact others. This is why a human child takes so long to develop this emotion and when we truly consider it, it takes many years for children to fully comprehend how their actions impact others emotionally and physically and the difference between right and wrong. Dogs do not know the difference between what is right or wrong. They know what is rewarding and what is unrewarding.
Thus, research reveals that dogs are not capable of feeling guilty because they cannot experience complex emotions. Now you are likely shaking your head because you have witnessed evidence of your dog’s guilt. Let me guess. You've returned home to find a huge mess. What is your dog doing? He's likely skulking away, with a low head and tail, showing what appears to be sad imploring eyes. Your dog may even appear to be smiling, with his ears held back and his belly exposed. He does that every time he's been naughty. Surely that proves he is feeling guilty right? In fact he looks like he also feels shame for such a heinous act!
But what happens next? What happens each time you enter a room and find a mess? Your heart rate speeds up and your body language changes as you fully process the destruction your dog has caused. Now you may argue that any changes in body language are very subtle however, did you know dogs have left gaze bias? While this is a topic all on its own, dogs have evolved to observe the right side of our face because that's where emotion is recognised. Most humans don't even know about this and yet our dogs have learned it all on their own. So they can accurately read human emotion both externally and internally to an amazing degree.
We also know that they can sense changes in our emotions and they learn through association, so if your dog is punished often when you return home, your dog will more than likely associate your returning home with punishment, thereby triggering guilty looking behaviour, regardless of if there is anything to be guilty for. So is your dog showing signs of guilt or are they behaving in a certain way to try to avoid punishment?
This scientific study will help shed more light on the subject. Professor of Psychology, Alexandra Horowitz conducted a study on this very question at the New York City's Barnard College. The experiment involved scolding dogs, regardless of whether they did anything wrong and compared the dog’s reactions. Both groups of dogs displayed the same behaviour, even though one group hadn't done anything wrong. This is evidence that the supposedly guilty look, is a learned response to human emotion and body language.
Another similar experiment was conducted by Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, which appeared in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. This experiment examined if so called guilty dogs would greet their owners any differently to dogs who had not been destructive and if owners could accurately determine if their dog had misbehaved based on their body language. The experiment revealed that owners could not tell if their dog had misbehaved and that both groups of dogs acted “guilty” in response to their owner’s emotional state, regardless of whether they had done anything wrong.
These 2 experiments prove that guilty looks are not because your dog feels truly guilty but because he knows you are angry and is trying to placate you to avoid conflict. In Canine body language, this is known as appeasement signals. Dogs often use these amazing communication skills to diffuse a tense situation and avoid conflict at all costs, in order to survive. If owners are particularly aggressive towards their dog, you may also witness signs of fear, such as hiding and cowering.
Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and say that dogs are capable of feeling guilty. In order for dogs to communicate that guilty feeling, they would have to behave in a particular way that unequivocally indicated that feeling to their owners before the owners are aware that the dog had done something to feel guilty about. (John Bradshaw 2010 In Defence of Dogs)
Although it could be argued that dogs could have learned to develop this emotion during their evolution, how would the emotion really serve them? Can you imagine a wolf cub approaching his father and confessing he had done something wrong behind his back? Would this have benefited the cub?
What if dogs have developed the cognitive ability to feel guilty, as a result of their domestication? Well what did we say happened after a dog looks supposedly guilty? He likely gets punished by his owner. Would a dog really learn this social skill if it only results in punishment? Surely the punishment would impede the signal, not encourage it. Thus, learning to feel guilty would not benefit a dog through either evolution or domestication, therefore its not logical for them to have developed this emotive ability.
So, thus far scientific research indicates that dogs are not capable of feeling guilty and that the body language we are seeing in our own dogs and dogs on social media videos, is a learned behavioural response to appease us and avoid punishment. Although it's natural to attribute human emotions to dogs, in order to bond with them and try and understand them better, we should remember that it can be a hindrance.
Because believing a dog feels guilty, bestows responsibility for purposefully misbehaving and makes the dog appear deserving of punishment.
Therefore, this leaves us with the question is it okay to punish my dog?
The next blog post will address this question.