Do dogs feel guilty?

Guilty dog

Pet owners always swear they can read their babies' minds. The non-dog-people in the world often scoff, but anyone who owns a dog knows they've seen that familiar reaction: head down, eyes staring remorsefully in your direction. But what do scientists say?

What scientists say about dogs' emotions

Is it really guilt?

In 2009, dog expert Alexandra Horowitz led a study on whether dogs are actually experiencing guilt when they do something wrong. She asked the dog owners participating in the trials to command their pups not to partake of a tasty treat, then leave the room. A scientist would then either give the dog the treat or not and ask the owner to return. The scientist would tell the owner whether or not the dog took the treat (sometimes giving false information).

The dogs who (allegedly) took the treats were scolded by their owners. Each time, the dog exhibited signs of guilt — even if they were, in fact, innocent. None of the dogs who (allegedly) didn't eat the treat exhibited signs of guilt, even if they were. This led Horowitz and her team to the conclusion that dogs don't experience true guilt, but instead, simply react in a way we perceive as guilty because they're being scolded by a superior member of their pack.

Guilty dogSo, it's all in our minds?

Not exactly. Horowitz is quick to point out that there's a difference between feeling guilty and understanding forbidden behavior. Guilt is a highly complex emotion that requires an understanding of a moral code. That doesn't mean a dog can't understand forbidden behavior.

A dog may not understand intrinsically that it's wrong to take a toy from someone else. Pet owners teach this behavior by scolding the dog when she's done something wrong. Human children have to be taught these social skills, as well. But as they grow cognitively, they begin to understand the reasons behind the forbidden behavior and incorporate those into their moral code. Dogs just know what you told them they can and can't do.

What it really means

A new study by scientists at the University of Porto in Portugal may show that dogs do feel empathy. They were able to induce yawning in 12 of 29 dogs by playing them tapes of their owners and complete strangers yawning. They yawned five times more frequently when it was their human's yawn they heard than when it was a stranger's.

No one's saying dogs don't feel, they're simply questioning whether dogs actually feel complex emotions like guilt. Your dog knows right from wrong, though. So be careful when scolding them that you know factually they're the guilty party, or they could misinterpret your anger as being related to something else.

In fact, you only have about 1.3 seconds to praise or scold your dog for its behavior to ensure a proper association. If you fly off the handle when you come home to a mess your dog created, he may learn, not that it's bad to make a mess, but that messes are inherently bad. If that's the case, he may look guilty when you come home to a mess, even if it was your teenager making the mess!

Tell us

Do you think that dogs have feelings? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Comments on "Do dogs feel guilty?"

Proper Experiments March 10, 2014 | 6:07 PM

This experiment is illegitimate as it contains no control groups. There are no dogs who didn't eat the treat and received the same confrontation / non-confrontation.

Guy January 12, 2014 | 8:34 AM

When I was in College I lived with two women, my girlfriend Andrea and my dog Cloud. Andrea had very little to do with Cloud. Andrea kept a Raggedy Ann doll on her side of the bed. One night I took Andrea out for dinner and when we returned and walked through the front door we found Cloud finishing up a violent demolition of Andrea's doll. Cloud was obviously jealous and decided to take it out on Andrea's doll. She was actually shaking the last bit of fluff out of the doll when we entered and her reaction was to freeze inher tracks and SMILE at us (with a bit of fluff hanging off her lip) as if to say "Hi!"... She knew she had done something wrong without me having to say a word. My regret was smacking her hard on the butt (she actually growled at me but became very contrite when I got angrier at her for the growl). She was eventually stolen from me by my next door neighbor (not related to this incident) and I never saw her again. My point is that she knew she did something very wrong the second we entered the room.

Siera June 13, 2013 | 7:41 AM

my shih tzu Hershey ABSULUTELY KNOWS when he did something wrong and hes not even one yet!!I can come home from school and look at him and he giv es me the I didnt do it look... well i go to my bathroom and he ripes apart the tiolet paper,he eats my stuff, paper,pencils,and LOTS more!! but whenever he does that... he looks at me like Im sorry,wont happen again and he jumps in my lap and i juts HAVET too forgive him!! so in conclusion... Dogs DO feel guilty when they do something wrong!

Joel August 29, 2012 | 9:26 AM

Very interesting! I especially like the tidbit about having 1.3 seconds to make sure the dog associates the scolding with the correct behavior. I've always thought that pet owners are doing more harm than good when they get mad at their pets for something they are now just discovering but that the pet did minutes or hours ago. This confirms it!

Dog Owner August 23, 2012 | 8:23 AM

my shih tzu know perfectly well hes not supposed to dig in trash, he does not do it when we are around et does it when he is alone when i come home to a mess he hides and then tries to cuddle to make me happy but when no trash is involved he acts normal, i have a toddler that does mess yet doesnt feel giult when she makes the mess, he knows...

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