Tag: 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

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.

Graphic: Shutterstock.com




Your Dog Smells and Mirrors Your Emotions

You are convinced your dog understands you better than anyone else.  Maybe you’re right. A newly published study by Biagio D’Aniello of the University of Naples “Federico II” found that dogs respond in predictable ways to chemosignals from people in different emotional states.  In this study, sweat was collected from men who watched videos that evoked fear or happiness.   Dogs were exposed to sweat dispensers randomly loaded with sweat from fearful or happy men, or no sweat (control).  The dogs’ owner and a stranger were also present.  Scientists recorded the dogs behavior, noting activities like approaching, interacting, and gazing.  They also noted whether the behaviors were directed at the owner, the stranger, or the sweat dispenser.  Dogs interacted less with owners and more with strangers when exposed to the “happy” sweat.  They interacted more with their owners and exhibited fear behavior when in the presence of the “fearful” sweat.  Heart rate data also indicated that dogs exposed to sweat from fearful people were more stressed than those exposed to sweat from happy people.

These results indicate that not only does your dog understand you, but he also senses the emotions of strangers.  This may be important when you and your dog are in a public place and exposed to people who may be afraid of dogs or who may be having a bad day.  (Anger was not tested in this study, but it’s a safe bet that dogs modify their behavior in the presence of angry people).  Dog trainers know that one of the keys to successfully controlling your dog is to control your own emotions.  This study provides further evidence that the best thing you can do for your dog in a stressful situation is to remain calm and positive.  Not only will your dog read your facial expressions, she will also read your scent.