Are dogs capable of feeling guilt?
Not according to a study done by Alexandra Horowitz in 2009. In this study, dog owners left their dog in a room with a treat, after having told the dog not to eat the treat. Some dogs ate the treat, researchers gave some dogs the treat, and with some dogs the researcher took the treat away. Regardless of what actually happened, some owners were told that the dogs had behaved as the owner wished, that they had not eaten the treat, and some owners were told that their dog had eaten the treat. All dogs who were told off by their owners showed signs of ‘guilt’ regardless of whether they were guilty of eating the treat or not.
Although research is ongoing, the current belief is that the part of the dog’s brain that does the thinking is too small to be able to process the effect his behaviour will have on others as well as knowing and caring what others are thinking and feeling, therefore dogs are not able to feel guilt.
So why do dogs look ‘guilty’?
We are seeing ‘human’ signs of guilt and are assuming that they mean the same in dogs as they do in humans; avoiding eye contact, deflection, anxiety, apologies. In dogs, these are signs of ‘appeasement‘ and are used to deflect confrontation. Rather than your dog trying to tell you that he’s sorry, he’s really trying to say ‘don’t hurt me, I mean you no harm’.
If you perceive the dog to be ‘guilty’ of something then your dog is reading your body language (or your actual !@#$% language) to be hostile and is trying to avoid reprimand or violence.
Dogs understand consequences (reward or punishment), but associate the consequence with the behaviour that was immediately prior to the reward or punishment. For example; your dog sits, you give your dog a treat, your dog understands that he was rewarded for sitting. If your dog rips a cushion up at lunch time and you come home at tea time and smack your dog, he’s not going to understand that he’s being punished for destroying the cushion, regardless of whether you’re gesticulating at the cushion or waving it in his face. He’s going to associate the punishment with happened immediately before the punishment – you coming home.
Does your dog know what he did was wrong?
To him, ripping up the cushion probably alleviated his boredom. Can you expect to be able to leave your dog at home for hours on end without some form of entertainment? Take a look at some ideas for enriching your dog’s life.
If you come home to a smelly ‘present’, has your dog toileted on the carpet to spite you? No, that’s not how a dog’s brain works. You may have left him too long, he may have an upset stomach, or he may even be so stressed that he looses control of his bodily functions.
If your dog is chewing at doors and windows, he may be distressed at being left alone.
Is it funny?
No, dogs showing signs of guilt is not usually funny. If you have a dog that looks guilty, I’d recommend looking at what you could be doing to repair your relationship with your dog.