Do dogs feel guilty?

Many people tell me that their dogs feel guilty about stuff. Maybe they’ve come home to find something has been chewed or broken, or perhaps a little “gift” has been accidentally deposited in the hall! But, can you really trust that guilty look?

Many owners are convinced they see it in their dogs behaviour. If that’s you, you’re not alone. According to Scientific American, 74% of dog owners believe their dogs experience guilt. In fact, it’s such a common interpretation, that in 2009 a bunch of scientists put the idea to the test!

a black pug type dog shows us guilty eyes
Do dogs feel guilty, or is this dog just trying to make you feel better?

The experiment involved a selection of dogs and their owners. The owner was asked to place a treat in front of their dog. They asked their dog not to touch it and left the room. Before returning to the room, the owner was told whether their dog had been good and left the treat, or naughty and had eaten it!

Unbeknownst to the owners, the dogs owners had been divided into four groups.

  • Took the treat, but owner was lied to and told they had been good
  • Took the treat, and owner was told the dog had been naughty
  • Didn’t take the treat, but owner was lied to and told they had been naughty
  • Didn’t take the treat, and owner was told the dog had been good

The owners were asked if their dogs looked guilty when they returned to the room. Almost overwhelmingly, the owners that were told their dogs were naughty, were the only ones that described their dogs as looking guilty! The dogs that had reportedly been good, showed no guilty behaviour at all!

So, what happened?

Non-verbal communication is your dogs super power! They are masters at reading our body language, and can spot the tiniest of micro-signals. If you’re interested, I dedicated an entire blog to it. In these cases, the dogs didn’t demonstrate guilt. Instead, they sensed their owners disapproval and displayed appeasement behaviours to try to make their owner feel better and love them more.

They also use this behaviour to avoid a negative interaction. Dogs aren’t daft, they know that if they behave this way, our mood improves and this is good for them, as well as us!

Guilt is an extremely complex emotion. It requires a certain amount of reflection, regret and also a sense of morality, and dogs are just far too spontaneous for all that. So, that “guilty” look is merely a response to your behaviour, not the situation at all. Sorry!


Are you struggling with your dogs behaviour?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond, or via zoom. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!

Caroline
Caroline

I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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