Have you ever yelled at your dog for doing something you didn’t like, and soon after, he gives you that sad face? And your heart melts. At least, compared with your kids, he feels remorse and seem apologetic. So, do dogs feel guilty?
Not a chance! Turns out, according to studies done by people who do these kind of studies, dogs do not, in fact, feel guilt or remorse, as we understand it.
Mochi is our year-old Black Labrador. And despite his 65+ lbs, he’s still basically a puppy. And, as puppies go, he can be very, well, “playful” is the word that I would like to use at this time. Although a stronger term comes to mind.
When our son plays with him around the house, or in the backyard, he can easily knock our son down. Or, knock things down in the house. And when he does, my mom would inevitably yell at him and scold him. And just as inevitably, he tucks his tail between his legs, looks down and slowly, sadly (it seems), walks away. Then he looks back with those soulful, sad eyes, as if saying, “I’m sorry, grandma!” Who can remain angry for long when confronted with those eyes? But really, do dogs have emotions like humans?
Owners Vs Scientists
Owners are quick to point out that their pets do respond with guilt whenever they do something wrong. Most insist that their dogs do feel guilt and remorse. I read of one owner who had three dogs who claimed that whenever one of her dogs chews on a shoe or anything else in the house, only one of her dogs would look guilty.
And I can sympathize since my dog reacts the same way. Mochi always looks and acts “guilty” whenever he does something wrong. Every time he’s scolded or yelled at, down goes the head, out comes the sad eyes. Sometimes, for good measure, a whimper.
But that’s exactly the point, scientist and and researchers would counter. The physical manifestations of guilt is a classic exhibition of fear and submission from our dogs! They argue that dogs react this why because they fear what could happen now that they’re being scolded.
And being chastised is something they seem to understand. But while they may understand that they’re being scolded for doing “something wrong,” they do not necessarily know what that is, or why. But they do know that trouble is coming, so they do what comes naturally for dogs. And truly, for most animals. Submit. Ergo, the sad eyes, the tucked tail, the low posture, the whole “vulnerable” look.
The Garbage-Can-In-The-Kitchen Experiment
And researchers have done simple demonstrations to prove this point. Dr. Stanley Coren, a psychologist, writer, professor, and dog enthusiast once conducted a simple demonstration for a family who believes, like most dogs owners do, that their pet exhibits remorse every time she does something wrong in the house.
The dog in question, a Collie named Marla, has a habit of knocking over the garbage container in the kitchen whenever her family is out, and rummaging through its contents for stuff to chew on. And each time they came back and confronted her with her misdeed, she shows them this classic “I’m sorry” look. So one day, Dr. Coren asked the family to leave the house, while he stayed behind with Marla. Once the family had left the house, Dr. Coren takes Marla to the kitchen, where he then proceeds to knock the garbage can over.
He then asks the family to come back in and leads them to the kitchen. Now mind you, Marla was not the one who knocked the can over. But as soon as her family walks into the kitchen and sees the mess, Marla immediately goes into her guilty posture, as if she was the one at fault!
And versions of this experiment have been duplicated many times, in different places, by different research groups, with much the same results. The dogs who did not do anything wrong still assume the “guilty look.” Why is that? Well, again, they explain that this is your dog warding off anything untoward that might happen to them. They already anticipate a scolding, because of your negative reaction to whatever it is that they may have done. So, as an admission of their subservience to you as the top dog, so to speak, they will assume this posture of submission. Which just coincidentally looks like they’re apologizing for something.
But owners will not be deterred.
An online phenomenon now is dog shaming, where owners will post pictures of their pets online staged to look like they’re apologizing for their misdeeds. Often, the dogs are accompanied with signs, and the remnants of what they did wrong – tattered clothes, chewed up sneakers, broken household items, etc. And they are made to look humorous. This has become wildly popular that it has spawned sites like dogshaming.com and shameyourpet.com.
Canadian Pascale Lemire is the first to set up a dog shaming site in 2012. Her site continues to be one of the best known of such sites, with millions of views. She has parlayed her fame into a NY Times best selling book, Dog Shaming. However, even she does not believe that dogs actually feel shame or guilt. She instead thinks that dogs know when they’ve done something wrong. They know because they see their owners’ reactions to them immediately after they’ve misbehaved. And they’ve learned from past experience that giving their owners “that look” often gets them out of trouble, so, they continue to use it to their advantage.
And scientist agree. They suggest that our dogs’ guilty looks are more their reaction to their owners’ outbursts and anger than an actual manifestation of remorse or grief.
Which Side Of The Fence Are You On?
So now that you’ve read the pros and cons about whether dogs feel guilt or not, what do you think? What argument resonates more with you? Especially if you’re a dog owner, has the scientific argument swayed you to believe that your dogs are not special, after all?
I’m actually on the fence on this. Cognitive ethologist Dr. Marc Bekoff, in an op-ed for Live Science in 2014, suggests that dogs share the same neural bases as many mammals. This at least opens up the possibility that dogs could feel something!
I guess, like most owners, I’ll pass on the science and just go with my emotions on this one!
Please leave a comment below, or if you have any questions, please leave those, as well. I will get back with an answer for you moving forward.
Thank you and have a great day with your pets!