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.”