Do Dogs Ever Feel Guilty?

Do Dogs Ever Feel Guilty?

When a technician comes to my house, my next-door neighbor’s friendly yet hyper dog often dashes outside. Goober jumps on the startled individual in the middle of the street -- I jumped too the first few times the large dog leaped on me. But a stern “No!” and “Sit!” calms him down and leads to “the look.”

You’re probably familiar with this look. It’s the “I’m so sorry, please don’t be mad at me” face, which can melt even the hardest of hearts. Two-year-old children seem to have it mastered. But do dogs really feel guilt?

Study Examines Dogs That Behave and Disobey
Canine expert Alexandra Horowitz recently conducted an extensive study on what we perceive as dog guilt. The Barnard College assistant professor gathered dog owners and their pets, and she asked the owners to leave the room after ordering their dogs not to eat a yummy treat. While the owners were out, Dr. Horowitz gave certain dogs the treats before the owners returned. During some trials, she told the owners that their dog had eaten the forbidden treats, even if the dog had not and had behaved.

Owners told that their dogs had misbehaved, even if that wasn’t the case, reported that their dogs looked guilty. These dogs were said to look guiltier than dogs that had their fill of treats, especially when owners admonished the innocent canines. The study, published in the journal Behavioral Processes, could be interpreted as suggesting dog guilt is all in our minds, but Dr. Horowitz disagrees.

“Based on the experiment, ‘the look’ that we, humans, think indicates dogs’ guilt was not, in fact, prompted by their disobedience,” says Dr. Horowitz. “Instead, it appeared most when they were scolded or about to be scolded.”

Guilt Versus Understanding Forbidden Behaviors
Guilt requires more complex thought than simply realizing that some behavior is forbidden, bad or wrong. Dr. Horowitz thinks that feeling guilt requires some understanding of a moral code of behavior, which one is conscious of violating and realizes that others are aware of the violation too. That requires more complicated mental processing than learning that certain behaviors are punishable or may lead to undesired consequences.

“Dogs learn that they can show the ‘guilty look’ when we approach them with a certain posture or tone of voice. They know it may lead to a scolding, because it has in the past,” says Dr. Horowitz.

Discouraging Unwanted Behaviors
Guilty face or not, since dogs do understand the connection between punishment and particular actions, Dr. Horowitz offers the following advice:

  • If possible, ignore your dog when it first misbehaves. Getting your attention, even if you are angry, can be an award for your dog. The same holds true for certain children who sometimes act out just to become the center of attention.
  • Try to avoid the situation that leads to the misbehavior.
  • Most important, praise your dog when it performs desired behaviors. Your pet will remember the positive feedback and be more inclined to do “good” in the future.

Theory of Mind
Central to guilt is something called “theory of mind.” It’s the ability to attribute mental states, such as beliefs or intentions, to oneself and others. Dr. Horowitz believes dogs may possess a rudimentary theory of mind. During studies, she says dogs seemed to be attentive to other dogs’ attention -- not simply which way the dogs were looking but also whether they were distracted in play, gazing blankly into the distance or ready to play.

Dr. Horowitz cautions against anthropomorphizing dogs or attributing human looks and characteristics to them. She concludes, “The best tactic is always to first step back and look at what the dog is actually doing, without imagining them as little furry people.”

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Posted on February 25, 2012

Ray says: I too, disagree. My silver lab is not allowed in the kitchen. We evan have a gate to prevent him from going in. But, if the gate is left open and he goes in and eats something off the counter and gets caught, he puts his head down and goes to his kennel without anyone scolding him.

Posted on February 18, 2012

John says: I find myself wondering if Dr. Horowitz has ever had a dog..... or if he has just "studied" them.

Posted on February 16, 2012

Adam says: I agree with Sarah. I can tell that my dog has done something wrong by his behavior and body language before I even realize what has happened. This study is great and all but all it really proves is that dogs show us the "puppy dog eyes" when they know they are going to be scolded. It tells us nothing of what they are thinking. All it tells is us that they demonstrate a learned behavior that gets them out of more trouble. This study did not prove/disprove if dogs are able to feel guilt or shame.

Posted on October 15, 2011

Pat says: I see guilt when they have done something they shouldn't have and I come into the house..both of the sulk...before I even know what it is..its as if they are saying ."we been bad.."

Posted on November 9, 2011

Daisy says: I can't understand how anyone who has a dog could say they have never seen their furry friend look or act in a guilty manner. We absolutely love our chocolate lab puppy, but our list of guilty signs for her could go on forever- she will put herself in her kennel after being scolded, or the favorite is when she is somewheres (bed, couch) that she shouldn't be and looks at us waiting for dispproval. The same goes for our other lab who has passed. These animals are smarter than their own good.

Posted on November 17, 2011

Melly says: You betcha those doggies look guilty and feel guilty when they do something wrong! They use all their Jedi mind tricks to get out of punishment and you know what? They WORK! *kicks can*

Posted on August 10, 2011

luke says: The writer must own cats

Posted on October 14, 2011

Paul Cohen says: great article, also we should never never hit or yell at our dogs always find a positive way of training.

Posted on August 9, 2011

JT says: My dog Mia will act guilty and hide just if you say her name with disappointment. My dog Buzzy will never act guilty even when he is.  They are just like kids!

Posted on August 9, 2011

Tony says: To Jan, You really should start out right when calling your dog ... by that I mean EVERYTIME you call him make it a "big event" ... even if he has been bad and you want to scold him (I know it seems counterproductive but remember your dog is a dog not a human) ... Praise the dog "love him up" if you will for coming when you call ... even if he is disobeying at the time you call him. Make calling your dog and his subsequent return to you a "happy time" ... Dogs love this and they will forget what they are doing and race to you for that praise. NEVER scold your dog or correct him for something else he may have done ... If he returns to you then that is the next thing he has done and he makes no or little connection to the prior event.

Posted on August 9, 2011

Brian says: Jain Bain... If your dog does not respond to your commands, he doesn't look at you as the Pack Leader. That makes him the pack leader... And he does as he see's fit.  How to solve the problem... THE WALK! Never announce to your dog you are going to take him/her for a walk! Just get the leash and go to the front door. Remain calm and ask hin/her to sit. When your dog is sitting calmly put the collar on and open the door. Never allow the dog to go out the door before you!  If you are going on a 45 minute walk... For the first 10 or 15 minutes he/she must walk near your side or a step or 2 behind you. Your goal is to get your dog in a concentrated/focused march. No roaming sniffing on grass or hydrantates, just straight forward marching!  After your dog buys into you being ing charge of THE WALK... He will buy into you being his/her pack leader.  Then... All of the commands you give your dog around the house will be followed.  In the dog world there is no equal... You lead or you follow!  Until you establish THE WALK... You CANNOT be the pack leader! Even though your dog really, really wants you to be his/her PACK LEADER.  Even if your dog is old... If you take the LEAD, they will willing give it up.  Good luck!

Posted on July 3, 2011

Joshua says: My dog may look sad, many people think it's because he gets left home alone. He is actually pretty bummed about the economy.

Posted on June 9, 2011

linda s. says: We have a 3 month old chocolate labrador puppy that is very willful and defiant. She will go outside to urinate and assume to deficate, but the minute she gets back in the house, she spins around and deficates on the carpet and looks you in the eye doing it! What's with that?

Posted on June 9, 2011

Joe says: "Dr. Horowitz illustrates the "ignorance" of so many scientific types who are not tuned into animal behavior. Some dogs wish to please and others do not care about pleasing." The type of "ignorance" that uses the scientific method to divulge real facts? Don't let your own feelings about animals cloud your judgement. Animals aren't people. Stating otherwise is the true "ignorance" here.

Posted on June 9, 2011

Donovan says: People do realize that associating something with "bad" does not automatically mean a dog feels "guilt" right? Guilt is an abstract concept associated with social norms and a feeling of fitting in or do something that is to be ashamed off. Dogs do not feel this. Dog know when they have done something that will warrant a negative response and therefor will respond accordingly. Dogs do not have the cognitive ability to process the complex emotion of guilt, especially so because they have no since of societal acceptance or a "conscience". Guilt: a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined Dogs do not feel remorse. They feel that they do not want to be punished. A dog cannot regret an action. They simply do not think like that. And the certainly have no since of "responsibility" in the true sense of the word. And the whole thing about dogs wishing to please. Animal behavior is all about the rewards/reactions to certain behavior. Some dogs are more inclined to please if an owner has a stronger reaction. Dogs do not think like we do.

Posted on June 5, 2011

Don Rorschach says: Dr. Horowitz illustrates the "ignorance" of so many scientific types who are not tuned into animal behavior. Some dogs wish to please and others do not care about pleasing.

Posted on June 1, 2011

Ed says: I'm not sure about this! Our neighbor's Rottweiler was a trash barrel picker and knew it was not allowed. I came home one day and the dog was scurrying into my backyard having just left the barrel. 5 Seconds later came around with head held high in a welcoming posture, Face covered with egg salad from the barrel. Obviously knew enough to hide the barrel behavious. No repercussions from me, I just laughed.

Posted on May 31, 2011

Dogs R. People says: Dr Horowitz is a putz, and dogs probably don't like her with good reason!

Posted on May 9, 2011

Albert says: Jerry, now don't go looking for facts in the bible now. You know that it was written by delerious desert dwellers thousands of years ago and allowed for misogyny, sexual abuse and if he's not in your tribe, the murder of others. A resource for finding souls in animals? Maybe you should get a windup dog, to which you can do no harm. A

Posted on May 9, 2011

A.M. says: too much analysis for an under-controlled experiment. My German Shepherds Heidi and Brigitte, alive years apart, clearly show(ed) guilt when discovered just after doing something that they were trained to Not do. Fact.

Posted on February 14, 2011

Julie says: My dog has guilty face even before i discover he did something wrong. He will "slink" into the room and have the guilty look on his face and once I start looking around I find what he did and I ask who did this and he gets really guilty.

Posted on February 18, 2011

Tree says: When our incntinent old shepherd sometimes loses it on the carpet, he looks very ashamed of himself indeed...

Posted on February 22, 2011

Yakov says: I think dogs DO feel guilty. Seen too many 'hangdog' looks for too many years right after the lil guy/gal did something.

Posted on February 24, 2011

Pat says: My dog is a therapy dog -can visit hospitals etc.  She insists on trying to "kiss" people which is not allowed.  I have put my hand on her head, also I have tried gently holding her mouth.  She still tries to sneak kisses.  I do let those who meet her know that kissing is not allowed.  Help?  She is a very gentle Collie.

Posted on March 19, 2011

Bill says: I have seen my dog exit the kitchen with a guilty look on his face when I surprise him as he raid the garbage. He adopts the look before he ever sees me, so he is not responding to my body language. Whether true guilt or subserviance in the face of a scolding I can't say, but he knows he violated a rule and that there will be consequences.

Posted on February 11, 2011

threestart says: Jan,  It will take a little while but you can teach your dog that the best place is always with you - and then she will happily come to you when you are calling. Here is how it works:  a) when you dog comes to you then never scold her for being late or not coming right away, instead praise her. b) practice the command "come". Have her sit and have a few small training treats in your pocket. Say "come" maybe she comes...if yes...then treat her. But only then. If she does not react - then no treat. Practice each day.  c)always be nice and positive to your dog when she comes on her own or approaches you. Praise her.   All this works for me, our dogs always come when called and mostly don't even want to leave our sides. But it took regular work and training (positive reinforcement style, no punishments at all).  If you have a good dog trainer near you then you should consider taking a few classes, they are big fun. And - really help. In my case I found they rather teach the owner than the dog but that also often the solution.

Posted on February 2, 2011

JWS says: I have two dogs. A femaleJack Russell Terrier and a male Queensland Heeler. Both give me that " I'm Sorry " look when I scold them. I wait a few minutes, and say to them /you two "Behave" god girl, good boy. Everything 's back to normal. Dogs want to make their owners happy and comfortable to be around. I love my dogs. They are the best company a man could have. The article is right on!

Posted on January 27, 2011

BtA says: Agreed with several other commenters that while the science in this article is sound enough, it's missing something. I don't think the experiment as created here can definitely rule out emotions (even doggie emotions) in dogs. We had a poodle pup who deeply disliked my (loud, careless, but not evil) sister and bit her chest one day, and while our first response was surprise and I'm certain that's what showed on our faces (I know it did on my sister's face), the dog's first response was to blush visibly through her grey fur, open her eyes wide, and then duck her head - she knew she'd done something wrong and showed it in her demeanor before we ever changed from startled to scolding.

Posted on January 23, 2011

Kathy says: I disagree as well. From the time my lab was a puppy, she would be put in timeout (a specific corner). We oftem would arrive home and find her in the corner, hanging her head. Leading us to ask... "What did you do?" Sometimes we would have to search the house to find evidence of her wrongdoing.

Posted on January 13, 2011

natasha says: I wonder, if they repeated the same study with humans, would they get similar results? Once you are told (especially by an "authority figure", e.g. the person administering the study) that someone is guilty, you tend to believe that idea even in light of exculpatory evidence.  Just look at how many wrongful convictions have occurred because someone is fingered in a line-up, and the rest of the pieces just "fall into place", sending an innocent person to jail.

Posted on January 14, 2011

lindsay says: i disagree. my dog definitely has guilt. if we are gone for a long time and she has an accident in the house, she goes into her cage and stays there. and when we come home, instead of jumping for joy and rolling onto her back for us to rub her tummy, she stays in her cage with those puppy dog eyes. we can tell her it's okay all she wants, she doesn't realize it's an accident. she associates "peeing in the house" with "bad."

Posted on January 11, 2011

Bea says: I secretly videotaped my dog who had taken to snatching food off the table and been scolded for it several times. The tape revealed that he went to the table, sniffed the food. Then he went through the house and checked every room and stood at the door listening. Everytime he passed the table, he raised his head and sniffed the steak bits and juice I had left out. Then he circled the table several times, rising up on his hind legs and gingerly, keeping his body as far from the table as possible, stretching his head out in an unnatural way.. (rather than placing paws or climbing on the table like I had thought he would) he finally ate the food. The tape revealed him gulping hastily and looking around, his eyes were wide and looked fearful as he ate. The tape showed him then slinking down and lying underneath the table with "the look". His posture had changed, and he slinked around and looked fearful until I came to the door. As i walked up the steps, i saw him cowering thru the sidelight windows and laughed because I knew what he had done. When I saw the video i was surprised; I used to think that dogs just were following instinct, etc. and honestly did not expect to see the cowering behavior till he saw me being upset...but the above study is not a real-life situation, and mine is. Dogs trained not to do something do appear to display postural and facial changes when they have disobeyed. Guilt is a human word, but they are sure experiencing something. I recommend taping your pet if you are trying to correct a behavior. PS. I am a retired scientist.

Posted on January 7, 2011

DogMom says: I totally disagree with this study. When my dog rips into the garbage when I'm gone, the moment I walk into the house (before I see the garbage) my dog has a guilty rather than happy face when she sees me. That's when I begin to search for the destruction. She knows she's done something bad and is going to get in trouble.

Posted on January 6, 2011

Grace says: All the time at the dinner table my dog begs! She drives me nuts! How do we stop her from begging??? Help!!!!

Posted on December 30, 2010

Judi Foster says: This is a wonderful article, very informative.

Posted on January 5, 2011

Dog Trainer says: Cody's Mom, please take your dog to an obedience trainer. Talk to other people and find a good one. Aggressive behavior cannot be tolerated. To get the dog to come when called, put a leash on the dog. Reel in the leash and tell the dog to "come". He will learn to associate the command with coming to you. Remember to praise the dog! Dorothy, try crate training. For my two cents' worth, dogs can feel shame. My PWD pup had an accident in her crate and she looked so ashamed of herself.

Posted on October 25, 2010

Cody's mom says:

Posted on November 13, 2010

sarah says: i disagree with this study. i don't know about other dogs, but treats seem to deafen some dogs because they want it badly. so perhaps a dog will go ahead and eat a treat without thinking about whether or not s/he got a command or perhaps doesn't understand the importance of listening to the owner well. i know when my dog has done something wrong because before i ever even realize what he's done (for instance, tear up trash) my vision is poor without glasses, but his behavior is so distinct that i know to look for what he did because of his body language.

Posted on October 18, 2009

love says: i love puppies sp muvh i really want one really bad!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted on December 11, 2009

Rottweiler trainer says: Maltese female? Your dog needs more excersize,... otherwise she wouldnt be distructive. When dogs are bored and left for hours in a day alone they are like kids... they get bored so they do things they should not do. Try making time for your dog each day (same time each day) then go for walks in a park, or simply enjoy playing with her to get rid of that built up energy. If this does not work this means your dog thrives to have more play time and needs longer walks.

Posted on October 13, 2009

dorothy says: My dog doesn't seem to have any guilt about ripping up papers and tissues all over my room. I scold her and she still does it. When I leave to go out I feel guilt about leaving her. Do dogs pout when they are left for a number of hours?

Posted on September 30, 2009

Jan Bain says: How do I get my dog (a labordor) to come when called. She will turn around look at me & keep right on going. Suggestions please. Thank you

Posted on October 1, 2009

Garry says: Great article, and I most whole-heartedly agree. Pet owners are continually regarding their animal companions as "little furry people", as seen daily in the dog park. I'd heard too, and in light of what you've transcribed here it seems more plausable that our dogs do not feel shame. While I cannot know your views on the subject, it's biblically understood too, that the beasts of the earth have no soul, yet it is hard to look in those loving eyes, and believe this to be so. On the other hand, a priest at one of our local churches here sponsored a day a few years ago, where us pet owners could bring our animal companions for a blessing, so go figure?

Posted on April 16, 2012

Marley's mom says: I don't know if it's "guilt" in the human sense, but my dog knows when he does something he shouldn't. In stead of greeting me at the door, he runs past me into the basement and lies down in front of my daughter's door, as if he wants her to protect him from my wrath - this is before I even know he has misbehaved. He won't come upstairs, no matter how sweetly I'm calling, until he's good and ready to "face the music" - lol.

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