Category: behavior

Do Dogs Feel Guilt?

Do dogs feel guilt?  If you own a dog, chances are you have seen the look.  When your dog greets you with head down, eyes averted, and crouching, you look around for the mess. You probably find garbage on the floor. But is the guilty response a reaction to a guilty conscience, or to you?  A new article in The Atlantic questions the widely-held belief that dogs can harbor a guilty conscience.

Popular culture and dog shaming

Whether or not dogs actually experience guilt in the same way as humans, people have capitalized on the guilty behaviors of their canine friends.  Dog shaming is a popular internet meme in which owners post images of their dogs with a sign detailing some recent misbehavior.  And it’s true.  Many of the dogs in these images look properly abashed.  Some trainers instruct dog parents to scold their dog even when they don’t catch him in the act.  Popular culture assigns the full range of human emotions and logical reasoning ability to our canine companions.

Admittedly, dogs do an impressive job of convincing us that they feel guilty or remorseful.  But does science provide any evidence?

Is there scientific evidence that dogs feel guilt?

In addition to our own intuition that dogs indeed experience basic human emotions like, joy, fear, anger, and disgust, there is reasonable evidence that this is the case.  There is less behavioral evidence to suggest that dogs feel more complex human emotions such as jealousy or guilt.  Much research has been conducted around the ways dogs relate to human emotions, but behavioral science has not prioritized studies to demonstrate whether or not dogs experience emotions.  However, the topic of dog guilt has been evaluated in some excellent and convincing studies over the past decade.

Horowitz, 2009:

Researcher Alexandra Horowitz studied 14 dog-human pairs and investigated the context of the so called “guilty look.”  In a series of trials, the dogs were shown a treat and instructed by their owners not to eat it.  The owner left the room and the dog was either allowed by the experimenter to eat or not eat the treat.  The owner was called into the room and told whether or not her dog ate the treat.

In two of the trials, the owners were deliberately given the wrong information.  The experimenter videotaped the entire trial and the dog’s responses were analyzed.  This study showed that dogs expressed the guilty look equally whether or not they had eaten the treat.  However, dogs that were scolded were much more likely to express the guilty behavior.  Interestingly, dogs that did not eat the treat but were scolded were more likely to look guilty.  The results of this study suggest that expression of guilt was associated with perception of the dog’s guilt by the owner.  It should also be noted that the three dogs whose owners routinely used physical means to scold them were three of the four dogs with the highest number of guilty behaviors.

Hecht, 2012:

A follow-up study with a similar design demonstrated that owners were able to correctly determine whether or not their dog ate the treat by how the dog behaved.  However, the study was set up in such a way that in a baseline trial owners were allowed to see whether or not their dog ate the treat.  These owners were allowed to scold the dog if she ate the treat during the baseline.  It is reasonable to think that these owners were likely biased by knowing their pet ate or didn’t eat the treat at the first trial.  This study also did not include experimental manipulation of owners’ knowledge about their dogs guilt.

Ostojic, 2015:

In this study, investigators repeated key feature of the Horowitz and Hecht experiments.  However, they controlled the baseline period in such a way that testing began only after all dogs learned not to take the treat while owners were in the room.  Similar to the Howoritz study, owners were sometimes intentionally given the wrong verbal and visual information about whether their dog ate the treat or not.  Ninety-six dog/human pairs were tested in this study.  The study showed that the owners were not able to detect whether or not their dog had eaten the treat based on their dog’s behavior more than they would have by chance alone.  This study also suggests that dog’s guilty behavior is more to do with our behavior than it is a guilty conscience.

These studies were not designed to determine whether or not dogs feel guilt.  Rather, they were designed to examine whether the guilty look expressed by dogs is related to our human behaviors.  Dogs may feel guilt.  Unfortunately, there is not yet good evidence that they do so.   There is good evidence that the behavior we think expresses guilt is more an indicator of our dog’s response to us.  This makes good sense in light of the ways in which dogs have evolved to read and react to human emotions.

Let’s come back to the garbage on the floor.  Your dog probably comes to the door with a guilty look, even before you have seen the mess.  Isn’t that an indication of guilt?  Perhaps.  But it may also be a reaction to a memory of the last time you scolded him for garbage on the floor.  He’s smart, and he has a good memory.  He can also, it seems, put two and two together.

bad dog good dog, border collie, black and white, dog sign, dog shaming, guilt
Bad dog or good dog? Dogs may express guilty behavior even when they are not guilty.

Hecht, J. et al, Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dogs, Applied Animal Behav Science, 2012; 139: 134-142

Horowitz, Disambiguating the “guiltylook”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour, Behavioural Processes, 2009; 81: 447-452.

Ostojic et al, Are owners’ reports of their dogs “guilty look”influenced by the dogs’ action and evidence of the misdeed? Behavioural Processes, 2015; 111:97-100

It’s Train Your Dog Month 2018

It’s National Train Your Dog Month 2018, and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) has the resources you need for successful training. January is the perfect time to focus on training, because so many people get new pets over the holidays.

What is National Train Your Dog Month?

The APDT initiated National Train Your Dog Month in 2010.  The group aimed to promote awareness of the importance of socialization and training for dogs. The ADPT designs each NTYD month theme and resources to emphasize how rewarding and fun training your dog can be.  This year, the group is promoting training basic behaviors for the family dog.  These skills are covered in their Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S) program.  You can learn more about the types of basic skills your dog needs to achieve levels from Bachelors to PhD on their website.

What resources are available to pet parents during Train Your Dog Month 2018?

The APDT will offer free webinars throughout the month of January to help you teach your dog basic skills like sit, down, stay, wait, recall, and walking on a leash.  Be sure to follow them on Twitter at #APDTTrainYourDogMonth2018 and on Facebook to stay up to date on events and resources.  The NTYD website links to a wealth of free resources including training videos, tips, and more.   You will want to click through the website, because training tips and videos are located under several tabs.  On the homepage you will find several videos to get you started.

Where can I find a local trainer?

The APDT maintains a listing of member trainers with a convenient search feature.  Local trainers may offer discounted services and special training classes during January.   Use the quiet winter months to get a head start on training your new dog or brushing up your trusted companion’s basic skills.  It’s never too early or too late for training.





Dog Safety for the New Year

Many families get new dogs during the holiday season.  Whether you are a first-time dog owner or a seasoned puppy parent, following some simple tips for dog safety can help you keep your dog bite-free in the New Year and always.

Respect your dog as a dog

Fatal dog attacks made the news again in December and re-ignited the debate over what makes a dog dangerous.  Debate focused on specific dog breeds or types of mixed breed misses an important fact.  All dogs have the potential to be dangerous by virtue of their instincts as a predatory species. For this reason, you should never assume that any dog will not bite.  Dog breeds involved in fatal dog attacks in the US include those with a positive reputation as excellent family pets.

Although our dogs are beloved family members, it is important to remember that they are not human.  Dog parents should respect their dog’s natural tendencies.  Aggression is a natural and context-dependent behavior, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (ASVAB).  Whether and how a dog expresses aggression is influenced by early environment, genetics, learning, and physical and mental health.

Understand your dog’s breed characteristics

Since 1998, dog bite reports do not not include breed information for many reasons including the difficulty of accurate breed identification.  However, this does not mean that breed-specific behaviors are not important.  Humans have bred dogs through many generations for specific character traits.  Working breeds such as border collies and German shepherds often strongly express such traits. Therefore it is important to know what types of behaviors your dog may express as result of her breed.  For instance, herding dogs have a strong tendency to chase moving objects.  Bites, especially to the lower legs, can be a result of overzealous herding behavior.  Learn more about the tendencies of specific dog breeds at the American Kennel Club (AKC).

Know your dog’s triggers

Dogs are individuals, and you will quickly learn your own dog’s triggers for aggression. Even if your dog does not generally express aggression, it is important to remember that any dog may lash out when pushed too far. There are certain triggers common to most dogs.  These include resource guarding (think food bowl, toys, and territory) and response to sudden or fast movements.  Consequently, people running, biking, or skating may trigger aggression. Dogs may learn other triggers as a result of adverse experiences.  For instance, a dog that has been punished by hitting may learn to snap at an outreached hand.

The key to preventing dog bites is to avoid these triggers.  Don’t become too complacent if your dog is very well-behaved.  Always be observant and react quickly if a situation arises.  For those living in apartments or dense urban housing communities, avoiding triggers may be especially important.  Check out our post on dealing with reactive dogs for some helpful tips to keep your dog safe.

Socialize early and often

For those of you lucky enough to have a puppy at home, the importance of proper socialization cannot be overemphasized.  Take your puppy to as many places as you can.  Find a puppy class near you.  Expose her to new situations. Join a social group.  In the Kansas City area, the KC Dog Club and the Bar K Dog Bar offer opportunities for socialization.

Most dog bites can be prevented by taking common-sense precautions.

Preventing dog bites doesn’t have to be difficult.  In most, but not all, dog-attack incidents, pet parents failed to follow basic, common sense rules for dog safety.

Always supervise your dog when small children are present.

Unfortunately, small children are often the victims of dog aggression.  Never leave a baby or small child alone with any dog. Period.  However, even a well supervised dog may bite.  If your dog stiffens, closes her mouth, or licks her lips, she may not be happy with her situation.  Learn how to recognize the signs of stress in your dog at the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

Always supervise your dog closely in novel situations.

Dogs are creatures of habit, and they like their routines.  Exposure to new places, people, or experiences can make dogs fearful.  When dogs are fearful, their threshold for aggressive response to triggers may be lower.

Do not chain or tie your dog outside.

Avoid chaining any dog, for many reasons.  A chained or tied-up dog can easily become protective of her limited territory. Chained dogs may also become frustrated and irritable.  Additionally, a chained dog is usually easily accessible from the street or sidewalk.  Therefore, a chained dog can easily become a recipe for disaster when a passer-by approaches the dog and is taken by surprise.  One thing is very clear.  Dogs that are kept outside (or inside) with minimal human interaction are more likely to express aggression.  Simply by making your dog an important member of your household you have taken an important step in minimizing dog bites or attacks.

Do not let your dog run free.

Your dog is your responsibility.  A dog left to his own devices can easily become dangerous, either to himself, local wildlife, or other people.  Always supervise your dog as you would your child.

Use an appropriate muzzle when needed

Don’t underestimate the value of a muzzle in preventing dog bites, especially if you know your dog may snap in certain situations.  You will find a good guide to types of muzzles and when to use them at the AKC.  Muzzles are always a temporary solution, and are no substitute for training and desensitization.

Seek professional help if your dog is aggressive

Finally, seek the help of a professional right away if your dog is aggressive.  All too often, dogs involved in bites or attacks have a history of aggressive behavior that their pet parents did not address. Don’t simply tolerate aggressive behavior.  Treat it before it becomes a problem. Dog aggression is a complex behavior, and professional help is almost always necessary to correct it.  Using the wrong techniques can cause the behavior to worsen, or may lead your dog to become aggressive to you.


Give Your Dog a Job This Winter

Getting in enough outdoor time and physical activity with dogs is a challenge in colder climates.  Boredom-related behaviors can increase during the colder months.  Make a plan to keep your dog active and engaged.  Dogs need structure in their daily lives, so give your dog a job this winter.  Helping your dog avoid cabin fever doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming.  Try these activities for 5 or 10 minutes a couple of times a day.  And remember to use small training treats to avoid overfeeding.

Basic Training Review

Dogs love to please you, and they enjoy completing even the simplest task.  Reviewing basic commands is a great way to give your dog a job. Take a few minutes each day to practice sit, down, stay, and other basic commands your dog may know. Reward your dog with sincere praise and small treats.  It’s even better if you can schedule this activity regularly so your dog has something to anticipate.  Give it a fun name like “game time,” and watch how excited your dog gets when you tell her it’s time to play. Our dogs particularly like the “leave it” game. This is a fun way to teach your dog to leave dangerous items alone on your command. Hold a small treat in each hand. Open one hand. When your dog moves toward the treat, close your hand and say “leave it.” When your dog looks you in the eye, give the treat that you are holding in the other hand. As a variation, put the treat under your foot.  (We learned this game at Gentle Dog Trainers in Overland Park).

Learn a New Trick

give your dog a job; treat balance; dog, dogs, dog tricks
Treat balance is always impressive!

Long winter evenings can be a perfect time to teach your dog that new trick you have been thinking about.  There are plenty of easy to train tricks based on dogs’ instinctual behaviors.  Start simple with army crawls, high fives, and belly-up.   If your dog is more advanced, move on to asking him to learn names, find objects, and pick-up and bring you things.  Mastered those?  Start training service dog tasks and dance moves!  One popular and always impressive trick you can teach your dog is to balance a treat on her nose, then toss and catch it on command.  You will be surprised at what your dog can learn with regular training time.  Just remember to set your expectations appropriately.  Your dog won’t learn advanced tasks overnight.

Buy or Make Some Puzzle Toys

Keep your dog busy with a puzzle toy when you aren’t around.  Dogs enjoy a challenge.  You can buy a variety of active dog toys from three-dimensional puzzles to simple Kong toys and peanut butter.  A variation that has worked well for us is “find the treats.”  If your dog is not crated when you are away, hide some treats before you leave.  Announce the game to your dog before you go out the door.  If you are more ambitious, you can make your own active toys.  You can find a great review with links to several projects at

Pay to Play

Pay to play is bad for politics, but great for dogs.  Throughout the day, ask your dog to perform a task before you feed or pet her.  She’ll look forward to your interactions and will learn not to expect handouts.  Not that handouts are bad, and we would never tell you not to pet your dog whenever you feel like it.  This is just a good way to stay in control of interactions with your dog.

What do you do to keep your dog active in the winter?  How do you give your dog a job? Share your ideas with our community as a comment.

Images: JCDoss and

Feeling Overwhelmed with Your Pets?

Pet frustration: your cat just knocked your coffee all over your keyboard.  Your dog ate your best pair of heels.  It’s 5 am and someone needs to go outside for a potty break. Even if you live with the most well-trained dog or the best-behaved cat, the day to day demands of caring for animals can be stressful.  And if your pet has behavioral or health problems that require more of your time and attention, you may experience true caregiver fatigue.  Help yourself and your pet by taking care of your own needs, too.

Don’t feel guilty if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Pet blogs and informational websites tend to focus on positive experiences and solutions to problems.  Training websites, in particular, may make you feel that any frustrations you are having with your pet are down to you.  After all, if you diligently follow their simple methods, your pet will behave.  Unfortunately, it’s not usually that easy.  Like people, dogs are complex, and so are their behavioral issues.  If the latest three-step training technique is failing you, it may not mean that you are a lousy trainer.  Try a new technique.  You are going to lose your patience sometimes, and the trick is being able to step back.  You are not a horrible person if you occasionally get angry at your pet.

Take a break.

It’s easy for people to understand that parents need to get away from their human children from time to time.  For some reason, it’s harder for people to accept that pet parents need to take an occasional break from their furry dependents, too.  Let’s face it, the daily demands of a pet, especially an active dog, can be taxing.  Sure, you signed up for it, and you have accepted the responsibility for your pet.  That doesn’t mean you won’t need a vacation from the litter box  or the hair balls or the early morning wet nose in your face once in a while.  Take some intentional time away from your pet if you can.  You’ll come back feeling more generous.

Reach out for support.

If you are feeling overwhelmed and discouraged, chances are there’s someone in your tribe of animal lovers who has been through the same thing. Don’t go it alone.  Get in touch with a veterinarian or trainer if you think you need extra help with your pet.

Make a change.

Boredom can contribute to feeling overwhelmed.  If you are bored with the daily walk, take a new route or go to a dog-park instead.  Buy your pet a new toy.  Teach him a new trick.   Doing something different together can strengthen your bond with your pet.