Do Dogs Feel Guilty?

By Ashley Tyler

How many times have you come home to see a guilty look on your dog's face, you know the one — head down, no eye contact, tail between the legs — and just knew they did something wrong, sometimes without even seeing the trash they ate or big wet spot on your new rug beforehand. This has to mean your dog definitely feels guilty since they know they did something wrong, right? RIGHT?

Well, not exactly.

Bad Dog Getting Into Garbage
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An article published by Scientific American explains that emotions fall into two categories: primary (happiness and fear) and secondary (jealousy, pride and guilt). While there is plenty of research and literature to validate primary emotions in animals, secondary emotions "require a level of cognitive sophistication, particularly when it comes to self-awareness or self-consciousness, that may not exist in non-human animals."

Basically, just because your dog exhibits the classic guilty behaviors, that is not sufficient enough evidence to prove that they actually feel the emotional weight associated with guilt.

To really answer the question of guilt, you need to examine whether the guilty behavior started right after they did something wrong or if the behavior occurred after you scolded your pup for their wrongdoings. According to the SA article, "owners tend to scold their dogs less if their dogs act guilty"

mugshot dog
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What this means is if the latter is true, then a dog could be exhibiting learned behavior. For example, your dogs always gets in the trash and you always yell at him for it. After a few times, your dog knows that getting in the trash means he's going to be in trouble for it later. The guilty look on his face when you come home is due to him reacting to the inevitable punishment coming his way, not the fact that what he did was wrong or against your rules. Your dog has also learned that if he gives you the sad puppy eyes, you're less likely to yell at him.

Since a whopping 74 percent of dog owners believe their pups feel guilt, a group of canine cognition researchers from Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest set out to determine whether this is true or not. They designed an experiment that would answer two questions: 1) will a dog greets its owner differently when they've misbehaved in the owners absence and 2) can owners tell if a dog has misbehaved based solely on their greeting.

Through the course of their experiment they found "no significant difference between obedient and disobedient dogs in their display of ABs (associated behaviors) after having the opportunity to break a rule in owners' absences." Some dogs acted guilty even though they did nothing wrong, while others who misbehaved greeted their owners the same way they always do.

Terrible dog.
credit: Lisa5201/iStock/GettyImages

Shucks.

So the next time you come home and your pups got the look on her face, give your place a once over before getting mad. Or you could just pick up the garbage can before you leave the house.