Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Do Dogs Feel Guilt?

One of the most common complaints I hear from pet owners in regards to their dog's misbehavior is that the pet knew he did wrong but did it anyways. Let's take, for instance, the owner that comes home to find that her dog has urinated on the carpet at some point during the day. Upon seeing the owner and the mess on the carpet, the dog lowers his head, flattens his ears, and approaches the owner very slowly. To this the owner may respond;
"Just look at his face, he knows he isn't supposed to pee on the carpet or else he wouldn't look so guilty."
But is this really guilt we are seeing when dogs offer these kinds of behaviors? For the answer we need to understand more about how dogs think and perceive the world.
First off we need to understand that dogs tend to live in the moment. They are unable to understand consequences for behaviors they have done in the past. It may seem obvious to us that the urine spot on the rug was caused by the dog peeing there, but to the dog it is just a urine spot on the rug, he does not think about how it got there in the first place.
Another reason to question the idea that dogs feel guilt is that to feel guilt would imply that dogs have a moral code. There is no evidence to suggest that dogs have a true understanding of right and wrong. Certainly dogs understand that their actions can result in good and bad things happening, and therefore will modify their behavior accordingly. However, to truly have a sense of morality would require such abstract thinking that is far beyond the capacity of a dog's mind. This is not to say that dogs do not experience a wide range of basic emotions such as fear, sadness and happiness, but I have yet to hear of any research that can truly prove that dogs feel guilty for their actions.
So what is really happening in the scenario with the owner and the dog that peed on the carpet above, if not guilt? The answer lies in a dog's incredible ability to pick up on cues from us and their environment. Dogs can read our body language and tone of voice amazingly well. The reason the dog acted the way he did when he saw his owner was that he was able to pick up on the fact that the owner was angry and quite possibly about to punish him. So he quickly begins offering appeasement behaviors(lowering head and body, flattening ears, etc.) in an attempt to avoid being punished. He has no idea why he is going to be punished, but he has learned that an angry owner predicts bad things that need to be avoided. The poor dog is not feeling guilt, but fear.
Now what about the dog that offers these behaviors before the owner even realizes something is wrong? There is no way the dog is picking up on signs of anger from it's owner, so surely this dog must be feeling guilty, right? Here is where the environmental cues come into play. At one point in time the owner came home, saw a mess on the carpet, and punished the dog in front of the mess. So now the presence of the urine on the carpet and the owner coming home have become predictors of punishment for the dog.
Here is why this is so important to understand when it comes to training dogs. If we truly believe that the dog is feeling guilt for his actions and therefore knew that he was doing something wrong, then it is easy to understand why we would want to punish the dog. This way of thinking has led to the unfair treatment of an untold number of dogs. Once we realize what is truly going on when our dogs behave this way, we can begin to foster a relationship of understanding and trust between us and our furry companions.

-The photo above was taken by Colure. Visit her flickr site here.


  1. Good post, I agree!

    Several of the yahoo groups I'm on have been arguing about guilt recently, it's been very interesting to read everyone's thoughts and perspectives.

    Behavior is shaped by the environment and past consequences. We can't know if dogs feel guilt because we can't get in their minds or talk to them. However, if we look at behavior and operant conditioning, we can come up with a very good behavioral explanation for the guilty face.


    Mary H.

  2. Exactly. It's like the principle of parsimony. The simplest explanation of behavior is usually the correct explanation unless there is evidence to the contrary. Why make up such a complex explanation of the behavior involving emotions and guilt that we cannot yet prove when the simplest answer it that the dog is responding to cues in it's environment to avoid punishment?