You’ve left the dog alone only to come home to discover that they’ve chewed the cushions or your favourite shoe. Perhaps they’ve broken into the kitchen cupboard or have had a toilet accident on the floor. You tell them off, “bad girl, no!”.
The dog stands there looking very sheepish, maybe they’ve turned their face away from you. If they were human, their body language would immediately tell you they had done something wrong and felt guilty. But according to some research, your dog could be feeling a very different emotion. They may actually be showing fear.
Can dogs experience guilt?
Ljerka Ostojic a research associate at Cambridge University led on research into whether dogs have the capacity to feel guilt. During the study, owners told their dogs not to eat a biscuit. Then the owners left the room, and another person removed the biscuit or encouraged the dog to eat it. When the owner returned and saw the biscuit had gone, they had to decide whether the dog had eaten it just by looking at their face. But they could not.
"If that guilty look is really an expression of contrition, they would only show it when they have done wrong. But that’s not the case,” Ostojic told the Daily Mail. “I had a client who had three dogs and whenever something happened like a shoe was chewed, it was always one of them that had the guilty look. Yet often she was not the dog who had done it. She was just the most timid dog, and got frightened more quickly by her owner’s reaction."
Is my dog showing remorse?
There have been a number of studies that agree with Ostoiic’s findings, showing that dogs don’t actually feel or display guilt. It’s not how their brains work. A 2009 study by cognition scientist Dr Alexandra Horowitz, focused on how humans interpret canine behaviour and emotions based on our own emotions and behaviour. The guilty look is a key example. “I look at a dog showing the guilty look and it feels guilty to me. It does! We’re kind of wired to see it this way, so it’s nobody’s fault,” Dr Horowitz told Business Insider.
The ‘guilty’ look of a dog is quite distinctive. They cower, showing the whites of their eyes while looking up at you. They might pin their ears back, lick the air or yawn. Signs that we commonly assume is guilt. But According to Dr Horowitz, these are actually characteristics of fear in a dog.
Do we humanise our dogs?
Dr Horowitz’s study revealed that we tend to humanise our dogs and automatically translate their behaviour into something that a human would do. In her study, whether the dog had eaten or not eaten a treat, she told the owners it had and they should scold the dog. In most cases, the dog showed a look of guilt when told off. Whether they had been naughty or not.
It’s easy to interpret this to mean that dogs don’t feel guilty, however, Dr Horowitz disagrees. She believes it only goes to prove that a dog’s response to being scolded is just that. Their natural response to being told off. It does not mean that they don’t feel guilty, it just means that we can’t recognise the physical response to guilt if they feel it.
Do owners misinterpret dog guilt?
Guilt is a complex emotion, requiring an understanding of cause and effect. Dogs don’t use words to talk about how they feel. That means we can’t really know what they think about while they wait for their owners to come home and discover a chewed cushion or table leg. But we do know that dog’s experience stress and fear. This makes it much more likely that your dog’s guilty look and behaviour is actually an attempt to placate you, rather than guilt over their actions.
We’ve all seen the funny photos and videos online of dogs looking embarrassed and guilty for some misdemeanour. But we could be misinterpreting what we see. When the dog looks guilty, they may just be reacting to their owner’s behaviour such as gestures, tone of voice and possibly even their owner’s smell. The dog responds with appeasing behaviour, like cowering, as their way of asking for forgiveness. This potential misinterpretation can lead to problems. Punishing a dog after the fact is ineffective and can cause them unnecessary stress. Instead, try to look at how you can prevent situations that lead to this naughty behaviour in the first place.
Do dogs feel guilt or is it just a myth?
While there might be different opinions on whether dogs feel guilt or if it’s just us putting our human emotions on to them, the consensus seems to be that we don’t really know for sure. The cues we take from our dog’s physical reactions aren’t necessarily reliable, so it’s difficult to know for sure how a dog is feeling. See for yourself the next time your dog has been naughty. Watch their behaviour before you show that you are cross and tell them off. Do they still look guilty?
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