Do dogs feel guilty?

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?

Guilty dog

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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