We’ve all heard it said that dogs feel no guilt—that their shameful behavior (peeled back ears, eyes looking low, etc.) is rather a reaction to the anger they sense in our finding whatever havoc they have caused. I just don’t know if I can really believe that. Watching videos like “Denver the Guilty Dog” (http://youtu.be/B8ISzf2pryI) or observing my own furkids at home leaves me with the gnawing notion that there’s something there… we’re just not understanding it all the way.
For us humanfolk, guilt suggests we think we could have done better. We’re aware that our behavior was not quite what we are capable of, leaving a void in our subconscious. In order to feel full and balanced again, we fill our hole with shameful and/or guilty self-talk.
Alexandra Horowitz, associate professor of psychology at Barnard College, wrote an incredible book: Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. (If you haven’t read it yet, order it on Amazon right meow!) She performed a study with dog-owner teams to try and evaluate whether or not dogs can feel shame. Owner left the room after telling Dog to leave the treats. When they returned, owners were told Dog had either taken the treats or not (regardless of what had actually happened). Horowitz found that Dogs’ appeared to look “guilty” when Owners came back to the room upset with Dog for taking the treats, regardless of whether the dog had actually disobeyed or not.
This seems to affirm what we’ve already been told—that dawgs are just reacting to us being upset because they are scared of what we are going to do next. What we have here is another example of how difficult canine research is because we have to make so many inferences; but I believe that we can conclude from this research that dogs display “guilt” when they feel they have upset us or let us down in some way, not because they are afraid.
So here’s how the study translates for me:
Dog is hanging out by himself all day. Maybe he gets into the trash because you left something super smelly and delicious at nose level. Perhaps she finds those delicious new leather shoes that you set out for her on the mat near the door. Or, it could be that your pups just realized how much fun it is to rip the stuffing out of pillows and MAN did they have fun today. Whatever it was, when you see it, you are mad, disappointed, angry, frustrated,… and your furkid can sense that. When you look at him with stern eyes, an elevated voice, and a pointy finger, your dawg is smart enough to put it together that he or she is somehow responsible for making you feel this way (when in reality, it’s probably your bitchy boss or a-hole of a partner that primed you to come home irritated). Your companion, ever faithful, feels terrible seeing you in pain and this leaves a gaping hole in their sense of undying loyalty, which they fill with guilt.
Really, this is the same as with humans right? The dog knows we are upset with him or her, but does not understand why. Dogs don’t like it when we aren’t happy, especially when they think they might have had a part in creating these negative feelings in us. They think they should/could have done better for us—guilt.
At least that’s how I see it—what do you think?
Do dogs feel guilt? Comment below!