Do Dogs Experience Guilt?

Dog in Time Out

If you have had the opportunity to share your life with a dog, then you are probably familiar with ‘the guilty look’. Dog lovers will instantly recognize this classic expression as the one your pup adopts when you discover that he’s gotten into the trash, chewed up your good shoes, or dug a deep pit in your yard. But is he experiencing feelings of guilt behind those puppy dog eyes?

We certainly seem to think so. Seventy-four percent of dog lovers believe that their pups experience some form of guilt. But is it the same sort of guilt we feel, or is it a complex canine behavior that has been anthropomorphized, and is perhaps triggered by something else entirely?

This question is so hotly debated, canine behavior researchers decided to test the theory, and hopefully provide some answers. Consider two recent, credible studies that explored ‘the guilty look’.

In both, researchers ingeniously set up conditions to discover the origins of guilty behaviors in dogs. Based on their findings, they ascertained that the dog’s reaction is tied to the owner’s scolding, not the previous misdeed. This certainly seems to back up what many of us suspect, that humans have a natural tendency to want to interpret animal behavior in human terms.

There is plenty of evidence for what scientists refer to as primary emotions, such as happiness and fear, in non-human animals. Empirical evidence for secondary emotions like pride and jealousy, however, is extremely rare in animal cognition literature. The argument usually given for this lack of evidence is that such secondary emotions seem to require a higher level of cognitive sophistication, particularly when it comes to self-awareness or self-consciousness, that may not exist in non-human animals.

Put simply, guilt is complicated.

A group of canine cognition researchers from Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, published several studies in Applied Animal Behavior Science investigating ‘the guilty look’. In a 2009 study, pet parents reported that their dogs sometimes display guilty behavior when greeting owners. They claimed to be unaware of their dog doing anything bad, and asserted that it was the dog’s guilty behavior that told them about the dog’s infraction. However, researchers found there was no significant difference between obedient and disobedient dogs in their display of ‘guilty looks’ after having the opportunity to break a rule when the pet parents were absent.

Dog Looking Guilty

But wait, say pet parents. ‘Guilty look’ behaviors are displayed even when dogs aren’t scolded. So, in a 2015 study these same behaviorists investigated whether the dogs' own actions or the evidence of a misdeed might serve as triggering cue for the guilty behavior. If the ‘guilty look’ was based on some sort of ‘guilt’ as often claimed by dog lovers, then the cue triggering this behavior would have to be linked to the dog’s own action, namely whether the dog has or has not done something “bad”. They tested this by manipulating whether or not dogs ate a ‘forbidden’ food item and whether or not the food was visible upon the owners’ return. The findings indicate that the dogs did not show the ‘guilty look’ in the absence of scolding. So, at least in this study, the ‘guilty look’ was not influenced by the dog’s own bad behavior.

So, we have ample anecdotal evidence from pet parents, but little evidence from published studies to support this claim.

What do you think? Can dogs express the complicated emotion of guilt, or is it a series of subordinate behaviors that originate from the social cues given by their pet parents? Leave your comments in the section below!

References

Hecht, J., et al., Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dogs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. (2012), doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2012.02.015
Horowitz A (2009). Disambiguating the "guilty look": salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural processes, 81 (3), 447-52 PMID: 19520245
Ljerka Ostojić, Mladenka Tkalčić, Nicola S. Clayton Are owners' reports of their dogs’ ‘guilty look’ influenced by the dogs’ action and evidence of the misdeed? Behavioural Processess Volume 111, February 2015, Pages 97–100

Comments (7) -

  • Marie

    10/29/2015 12:53:06 PM |

    I think a dog can read their owner body language and know that they are upset about something but I don't think they are capable of feeling guilt.

  • Ruth

    10/30/2015 2:01:56 AM |

    Well, I'm thinking that they look the part, so yes, they feel guilt...  or maybe not?  Smile I just love the expressions of my dogs...  All of them,

  • Dana

    10/30/2015 4:31:09 AM |

    With dogs sensitive noses, I would be curious to know if pet owners emit an odor of disappointment, anger or frustration that dogs are able to sense, even in the absence of a scolding. That would help explain what appears to be guilt. Any research done in this area?

  • Robin

    10/30/2015 5:59:17 AM |

    Without a doubt, all I have to do is look at the guilty one and she's got a guilty look!  

  • Janice

    10/31/2015 11:13:00 AM |

    Once had a German Shepherd who had to go in bathtub when she did something wrong.  Came home to garbage everywhere and she was sitting in bathtub.  I think she was very aware of bad behavior.

  • Megan Smith

    10/31/2015 12:50:03 PM |

    I believe the dog's "guilty" look is only submissive behavior in reaction to an upset or angry owner.  My dogs never act guilty unless I'm upset.  I rarely am, since I've learned to expect certain behaviors.  It's a kind of game, especially in the back yard:  they dig holes, I fill them in; they break the fence, I repair it, they move the firewood, I put it back, etc.  They're just playing, so I don't take it personally.  And, in the house, I figure they've just outsmarted me if they get ahold of something, or chew something up.  I should have been watching them better!

    Megan

  • Tom Anderson

    11/24/2015 2:18:56 PM |

    I know that animals can sense fear in people, and I know they can sense anger as well. When someone is afraid,angry,happy or shows love, we emit a different odor for each emotion, and dogs smell these emotions and react accordingly. A dog wants to please it's stomach first and their master second, in my opinion.

Add comment

Loading