How Do Dogs Express Guilt?

Guilt is defined as an emotion that occurs when someone believes they have violated a moral standard. The premise that dogs express guilt rests on the belief that dogs feel guilt in a similar way to humans. The general assumption is that when dogs show certain behaviors, like avoiding eye contact or slinking away when an owner returns home, they are expressing a “guilty conscience” because they know they did something their owner would disapprove of.

However, the notion that dogs experience guilt is debated among experts. While some believe dogs do feel guilt, others argue dogs lack the moral reasoning and complex emotions required to experience guilt. They suggest the “guilty” behaviors in dogs are actually learned responses and the dog is simply reacting to the owner’s cues.

This article will examine the common behaviors associated with guilt in dogs, explore the different theories about whether dogs experience guilt, and summarize scientific research on dog cognition and emotions. The goal is to provide a balanced perspective on the ongoing debate about whether dogs really feel guilt.

Common Guilty Behaviors

When dogs have done something they know they are not supposed to do, like chewing up a shoe or having an accident in the house, they often display what looks like “guilty” behaviors. The most common behaviors that make dogs appear guilty include:

  • Displaying a “guilty look” – Dogs may lower their heads, ears, and tails, avoid eye contact, and have a submissive body posture when their owner returns home.
  • Hiding – Dogs may hide or slink away when their owner returns, especially if they have done something wrong.
  • Acting sheepish – Guilty dogs often act in a timid, meek, or excessively submissive way when confronted by their owner after misbehaving.

Many owners interpret these behaviors as the dog feeling remorse or guilt over their misdeeds. However, canine ethologists and behaviorists believe there may be other explanations for these “guilty” behaviors in dogs.

Theory: Dogs Know They’ve Misbehaved

Many dog owners believe their pets understand right from wrong and feel remorse when they misbehave. There are common behaviors that signal a dog knows it has done something its owner disapproves of.

According to VCA Hospitals, dogs will often act guilty by slinking low to the ground, averting their gaze, hiding, or laying down and covering their face with their paws when their owner returns home to a mess or destroyed item (source). These behaviors suggest the dog understands its actions were unacceptable.

Some argue these “guilty” behaviors show dogs feel remorse over disobeying rules or disappointing their owner. The guilt response indicates the dog knew its actions were wrong in that moment. Dogs may reflect on past experiences to understand the consequence of an action is scolding or punishment from the owner.

Theory: Dogs Read Human Cues

While dog owners may believe their pets feel guilty after misbehaving, research suggests dogs don’t actually experience the complex emotion of guilt. Instead, dogs are very attuned to human body language and respond to human reactions.

According to canine behaviorist Alexandra Horowitz, dogs will exhibit “guilty” behaviors like avoiding eye contact, hiding, or slouching even if the owner is unaware of any misdeed. This indicates the dog is reacting to the owner’s demeanor and tone rather than its own sense of guilt ([https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/do-dogs-feel-guilt/](https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/do-dogs-feel-guilt/)).

A study by Horowitz found that scolded dogs acted “guilty” even if they had not disobeyed, while undisciplined dogs did not act “guilty.” This suggests dogs learn to exhibit certain behaviors to pacify owners rather than feeling remorse.

According to canine researchers, while dog owners may anthropomorphize guilt, dogs likely lack the cognitive complexity for such an abstract emotional state. Instead, dogs have an exceptional ability to read human communication and body language, responding accordingly to owner reactions ([https://www.quora.com/If-people-say-dogs-don-t-feel-emotions-like-humans-why-do-they-display-guilt-when-they-have-done-something-wrong](https://www.quora.com/If-people-say-dogs-don-t-feel-emotions-like-humans-why-do-they-display-guilt-when-they-have-done-something-wrong)).

Dog Cognition Studies

Several studies have examined dog intelligence, emotion, and behavior to better understand if and how dogs experience guilt. A 2015 study published in Behavioural Processes investigated whether owners could accurately identify a “guilty look” in their dogs after the dogs had disobeyed them (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4310318/). The researchers found that dogs were no more likely to display “guilty” behaviors like avoiding eye contact, hiding, or whimpering after misbehaving compared to situations where they had not misbehaved. This suggests the “guilty look” may not reflect remorse but is instead a reaction to owner scolding.

In 2009, psychologist Alexandra Horowitz conducted a study on dog guilt published in Behavioural Processes. She instructed owners to forbid their dogs from eating a treat, then evaluated the dogs’ reactions when owners returned (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/do-dogs-feel-guilty/). Horowitz found dogs were just as likely to exhibit “guilty” behaviors whether or not they had eaten the forbidden treat, suggesting they were responding to owner cues rather than their own feelings.

While these studies indicate dogs may not experience guilt, research on dog cognition and emotion continues. Some experts theorize dogs may have a basic moral sense or capacity for regret. However, the extent and complexity of canine emotion is still debated.

Owner Surveys

Research conducted by Hecht et al. (2012) found that the majority of dog owners perceive certain behaviors as signs of “guilt” in their dogs. Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dogs. In a survey of 86 dog owners, 74% reported that their dogs exhibited guilty behaviors when greeting them after the dog had broken a rule, such as getting into the trash. Common guilty behaviors included averting gaze, lying down, slouching, and lowering body posture. Many owners believed their dog “knew” it had misbehaved from their guilty reaction when the owner returned home.

Canine Ethology Research

Ethology is the scientific study of animal behavior, and canine ethologists have conducted controlled experiments to better understand whether dogs actually experience feelings of guilt.

In one study published in Behavioral Processes [1], researchers set up conditions where a dog’s owner forbade the dog from eating a desirable treat, and then left the room. The dogs were divided into conditions where either the dog ate the forbidden treat or not. When the owner returned, their behaviors were observed. The dogs who ate the forbidden treat were no more likely to display “guilty” behaviors like avoiding eye contact or cowering.

Another study [2] found that a dog’s guilty look was not related to whether they had actually completed a forbidden action when their owner was gone. Dogs who had been scolded by their owners for eating treats acted just as “guilty” when their owners scolded them for doing nothing at all.

The researchers concluded that dogs’ “guilty” behaviors are actually just responses to owner scolding, not reflections of any internal state relating to misdeeds. The evidence suggests dogs may not feel emotional guilt, but simply react to human cues.

Potential Explanations

While a dog’s “guilty” behavior may appear to indicate that they know they have done something their owner disapproves of, research suggests there are alternative explanations. Dogs lack a sense of morality and do not feel complex emotions like guilt and shame. Instead, a dog’s “guilty look” is likely due to fear of punishment or an attempt to appease and calm their owner.

According to canine ethologist Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, dogs do not feel guilt, but rather project this emotion in response to their owners’ behavior and body language. If an owner displays anger or frustration, a dog may exhibit a “guilty look” by cowering or rolling over to defuse tension, even if they do not understand why.

Research by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz found that scolded dogs looked “guilty” even when they did not commit a perceived transgression. This suggests dogs associate certain cues with impending punishment and react instinctively without true comprehension of their “misdeeds.”

Training Tips

When responding to guilty behaviors in dogs, it’s important not to scold or punish them. Dogs don’t have a moral understanding of right and wrong, so yelling at them will only confuse them more. Instead:

  • Redirect their attention positively. For example, call them to you cheerfully, ask them to sit, and give them a treat.
  • Clean up any mess calmly without getting angry. Dogs live in the moment and won’t connect your anger to something they did hours earlier.
  • If you catch them in the act, interrupt it with a firm “no” then redirect them to a toy or another room. Don’t yell.
  • Reward good behaviors often with praise and treats so they know what to do instead of the unwanted behavior.
  • Be patient and consistent. Guilty looks often come from fear of punishment rather than true remorse.

With time and positive reinforcement, you can shape their behavior without scolding. Consistency is key – don’t sometimes scold and sometimes ignore the same behavior. Be patient, as changing behavior takes time.

Conclusion

The evidence on whether dogs actually experience guilt is mixed. Some studies have found that dogs exhibit appeasing behaviors like averting their gaze, lowering their head or body, and sulking when confronted by an owner after doing something wrong (American Kennel Club, 2021). However, other research suggests these behaviors may simply be reactions to human cues and do not necessarily reflect an internal state of guilt in dogs (Ostojić et al., 2015).

There is an ongoing debate among canine experts about whether dogs have the cognitive capacity to feel complex emotions like guilt. Some argue that dogs lack the level of self-awareness required, while others believe dogs are capable of feeling guilt even if they express it differently than humans. More research is needed using controlled experiments to conclusively determine if dogs experience guilt.

In conclusion, while many owners believe their dogs act guilty after misbehaving, the scientific evidence remains inconclusive. There are plausible alternative explanations for dogs’ so-called “guilty look.” Carefully controlled studies separating internal guilt from behavioral reactions are required before we can definitively state whether dogs experience this complex emotion.

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