Can Dogs Feel Guilt?

Can dogs really feel guilt?

Dogs are intelligent, sentient beings with emotions and language of their own. Humans and dogs have coexisted together for so long that we are often unaware where their feelings begin and ours end. We assume that in many respects dogs must think in the same ways as us.  

Picture the scene – you come home to find your dog has chewed one of your shoes. Your dog slinks away as you approach, giving remorseful puppy dog eyes and lowering their head. They seem ashamed for what they have done and guilty for being caught out. But is this what they are really feeling?

In this post we will be taking a peek into dog emotion and looking at whether dogs can actually feel guilt.

Why Do We Think Dogs Are Guilty?

A dog being told off

As humans we like to have reasons for why things happen. A straightforward explanation for our dog’s guilty look is because they feel remorse for being naughty, such as urinating on the carpet or destroying the sofa. 

If we confront our dogs or show them the scene of the crime, they seem to confirm this guilt by lowering their heads or slinking away. 

Another reason we tend to attribute guilt to our dog’s behaviour is because there is a lack of other reasons available. There may be plenty of resources out there to teach your dog to sit or come when called, but how many have you read about dog emotion and behaviour? 

The notion that dogs can be naughty is also perpetuated by alleged dog experts on TV and social media, misinforming the public that dogs must be disciplined to gain control.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

The emotion of guilt is complex as many therapists can attest to. For a dog to feel guilt they would need to:

  1. Understand what they have done wrong 
  2. Understand the impact it has had on others
  3. Take responsibility for the action they regret

As clever as dogs are they are not capable of processing or understanding these concepts, it’s just not the way they are wired. 

Timing is also something that is hugely overlooked when we think about dog behaviour. A dog only lives in the here and now. If they are being reprimanded for having stolen a sock five minutes ago they cannot make the link.

Here are some examples of how differently we view the world:

HumanDog
Plans for the future, reflects on the pastLives in the moment
Sees carpets for walking onSees carpets as good absorbent for urine
Sees sofas for sitting onSees sofas as a huge chew toy
Has values, knows right and wrongActs on impulse and what feels good

If It’s Not Guilt, What Is It?

So we’ve established that dogs are incapable of feeling guilt and do not live by the same moral compass we do. If that look on your dog’s face isn’t guilt, then what are they feeling? 

Dogs are very attuned to our emotions. They do this by studying our body language, listening to the tone of our voice and most impressively, detecting hormonal changes within us through scent.

If our voice becomes angry and we suddenly invade our dog’s space with sharp hand gestures, they are going to be frightened. They are unsure why we are behaving aggressively but they may attempt to diffuse the situation with appeasing body language. 

This is when we start to see the big wide eyes, the averted gaze and lowered body. Our dogs are simply reacting to our behaviour and have no concept as to why we are angry. They are asking us to stop by showing they mean no harm. 

Let’s have a closer look at the picture below. The dog is displaying typical body language that can often be misinterpreted as guilt. These are all signs that your dog is feeling scared. 

A diagram of a scared puppy

With your new found knowledge of dog emotion, try searching for ‘guilty dogs’ on YouTube. You will see the dogs’ reactions in a whole new light and realise how embedded the myth of dog guilt really is in society.

What To Do If Your Dog Is Misbehaving

A dog with a chew

Just because your dog doesn’t feel guilty or know right from wrong, doesn’t mean we can’t teach them how to behave. Often the solution is providing them with an appropriate outlet. For example if your dog chews shoes, provide them a long lasting chew or kong. 

Another way would be to manage your dog’s environment so they no longer have access to shoes. 

Above all we must avoid reprimanding dogs, particularly when they are in a state of fear. Not only is this unethical, it could also mean the dog escalates to using aggression as a form of defence.

If you feel your dog is displaying destructive behaviours on a regular basis or is soiling in the house despite being toilet trained, there may be underlying issues at play. Please feel free to contact me to see how I can help.

Summary

  • Dogs are never intentionally ‘naughty’
  • Dogs are unable to feel guilt
  • If you find your dog doing something they shouldn’t take a deep breath
  • Pause – think ‘what is my dog trying to tell me?’
  • Seek professional help if you are struggling with any aspect of your dog’s behaviour 

I hope this post has been informative and given you food for thought. If there are any other topics around dog behaviour you would like me to cover please let me know in the comments below!