Dogs have excellent associative memory. They can also dream about the most important person in their lives. They can grow anxious or scared when faced with something unfamiliar. Dogs can also show aggression when another dog encroaches on its territory. They may cry or let out a soft whimper. But there’s one question that science has not provided a definitive answer yet. Do our canine friends feel guilt? Here is everything you need to know.
The “Guilty” Look in Dogs
There’s a reason why many dog owners believe that their pets feel guilt. There are some signs or behaviors in dogs that are more frequent in certain situations than others. For example, when a dog owner “scolds” his pet, such canine behaviors emerge. These can include the following:
- Tucking of the dog’s tail
- Flattening of the ears
- Assuming a cowering posture
- Increased licking of the dog owner
- More visible white of the dog’s eyes
These signs are often interpreted by pet parents as a sign of dog guilt. However, these signs are also evident when a dog is stressed or is fearful. This can make the establishment of “dog guilt” more difficult. People may read it as “guilt” when in fact it is nothing more than a sign of canine “stress”.
Do They Feel Guilt or Is it Just Us?
There is reason to believe that the canine body language often interpreted as “guilt” is more a case of anthropomorphism. This is the tendency of man to attribute human behavior or characteristics to an animal. In other words, we read these signs in the same manner as we read the body language of a person. We ascribe our own behavior to our pets.
This brings us to the question, do dogs feel guilt?
They may or they may not. Nobody knows. Despite science’s best efforts, determining whether a dog feels guilty or not remains debatable. This is because the concept of “guilt” is so complex that there are certain factors that are difficult to quantify.
For starters, guilt is always taken in the context of cause and effect. You did something and now you feel remorse. This occurs within a particular timeframe. The effect here is the feeling of guilt. So something must have caused you to feel the guilt.
The other problem is that dogs don’t talk in a manner that we can understand. When they tuck their tail between their rear legs, it is our brain telling us that they are fearful, anxious, or in this case, “guilty”. They don’t verbalize their true feelings.
There is also the issue of a dog’s memory span. Dogs have good associative memory. However, this only works if the “consequence” occurred immediately after the “action”. When it comes to short-term memory, dogs don’t do well either. Some dogs can have short-term memory for as short as 5 minutes. Some may have 10 minutes, tops. Associating the “deed” with the “consequence” can, thus, be difficult.
Then you have to consider the dog’s ability to discern right from wrong. We have to acknowledge the fact that “guilt” is almost always related to the concept of right and wrong. Here’s the tricky part. Dogs know it is wrong to do something because they don’t receive a treat afterwards or they don’t get their owner’s loving attention. It’s a consequence. But it doesn’t point to the “moral value” of the deed.
As such, when your dog looks “guilty”, it’s only our brains telling them that they feel guilt. For all we know, the behavior that we see in dogs is the animal’s attempt to appease its owner. It is not “guilt” over its actions, per se.
There is literature supporting this assumption, of course. In the journal Behavioral Processes, Barnard College professor Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, described the “guilty” look in dogs as not a sign of canine guilt. The paper posits that the behaviors we see as “dog guilt” are nothing more than a dog’s response to the action of the dog’s owner. These actions can include scolding, yelling, pointing, and other very stressful actions. The study further says that these dog behaviors do not point to the animal’s appreciation or understanding of a misdeed.
In other words, when you yell at or scold your dog, it behaves like any other animal under stress. It cowers and it tucks its tail between its legs. Do not scold it and you will never see these behaviors.
Of course, there are detractors to the findings of the study. But the point remains – determining the existence of “guilt” in dogs is difficult. They may feel guilt or they may not.
Dogs May Not Feel Guilt, But They Know If You’re Upset
While we’re not sure if dogs can feel “guilt” or not, there’s one thing we are certain of – dogs know if their human masters are upset with them. They do not know what is making you upset. That’s for sure.
Dogs have special receptors in their noses that allow them to pick up “messages” in the air. We look at these as pheromones. When you’re upset, your body is sending out these very faint chemical signals in the air. Your dog picks up these signals using the Jacobson’s organ. This is the very same organ that dogs use to communicate with other dogs, whether for social purposes or for sexual aims.
Dogs can also read your body language. The sudden change in the pitch of your voice tells them that you’re angry. Coupling this with your 100% attention or focus on the dog conveys the message that you are not pleased.
Given that dogs are very social animals, they don’t like you to feel this way towards them. What do they do? They will try to appease you. They cower and flatten their ears. Dogs will also lick your hand, your feet, or any other body part that they can reach. Dogs do these things to ask you not to be upset with them.
It is difficult to establish with absolute certainty whether dogs do feel guilt or not. What is certain is that the “guilty” behaviors we see in dogs occur right after our “punitive” action.