Do Dogs Feel Guilty?

Dog digging in garden
Do Dogs Feel Guilty?
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In 2012, the world was introduced to what became one of the internet's most popular and beloved memes: dogshaming. Started as a Tumblr page by a pet owner poking fun at her underwear-eating dachshund, dogshaming snowballed into a phenomenon and resulted in a community of dog owners putting their naughty pets on blast with signs detailing their crimes.

Most of the pets featured wear similar looks — laid-back ears, downturned heads, and upturned puppy-dog eyes. Some, however, don't appear bothered by being caught in the act in the least. The close relationship formed between people and dogs has left countless pet owners and researchers asking the question: Do dogs feel guilt and shame?

The short answer

The short answer to whether dogs feel guilt and shame is that no one really knows for sure. The truth is, despite the countless opinion pieces and essays out there, there is no proof that dogs feel guilt at all. Studies have shown that people can detect guilt in dogs based on certain expressions, but that still leaves the question unanswered.

In a recent article published on Psychology Today, Dr. Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. points out that a lot of attention has been paid to whether people can decipher what their dog's averted eyes, hanging head, and submissive smile means to them. Sad faces aside, it hasn't been proven if dogs are feeling guilt and shame, or just displaying the symptoms. Berkoff explains that he has yet to find a single study definitively stating that dogs do or don't feel guilty, nor has he been able to turn up any neuroimaging studies of dogs' brains that focus on guilt.

What could it be?

While the guilty or not-guilty feeling among dogs has yet to be scientifically proven, you can't deny those common traits displayed among dogs who did something they weren't supposed to do. Most often, when a dog knows she has done something wrong, she'll present that slinking "I wish I were invisible" posture. This is not normal behavior of most healthy dogs. So, why do they do that? Several sources suggest that it's not guilt that your dog is displaying, but fear of repercussions.

Business Insider cited a 2009 study conducted by dog-cognition expert and author Dr. Alexandra Horowitz. In the study, dogs were shown a treat and told by their owners not to eat it. When the owners left the room, the dogs were presented with an opportunity to take the treat. The only guilty looks that appeared were on the dogs who were scolded by their owners. This suggests that the "guilty" look we perceive may be a reaction to our own energy and behavior. The dogs in the study were simply responding to their owner's anger or disappointment.

While we still don't know if dogs are capable of feeling guilt or shame, we do know that they can learn by association. So when their owners are pointing at them and yelling "Bad dog!" they may be anticipating a punishment of some sort. According to the American Kennel Club, the sad looks you get are your dog's way of appeasing you and asking for forgiveness.

Stopping the shame cycle

Whether you believe that your dog feels guilty or not, the symptoms of shame he exhibits after being scolded aren't ideal. After all, they are signs of stress. The best way to keep your dog from displaying signs of guilt, shame, or fear is to limit the opportunity for him to do "bad" things. If you know your dog can't resist the temptation of a pizza crust but you leave one on the coffee table and walk away, you are setting up your dog to fail. If you notice a pattern of your dog falling short, be proactive and set clear boundaries to help keep her from slipping up.