Whether dogs actually feel remorse or guilt is a topic of debate among canine experts and owners alike. While some argue that dogs’ guilty looks are simply learned behaviors to avoid punishment, others believe canines do possess complex emotions that allow them to feel moral sentiments like guilt, shame and regret when they misbehave.
Do dogs display guilt?
Many dog owners report that their pets show “guilty” behaviors, like avoiding eye contact, hiding, or laying their ears back, when the dog has done something it shouldn’t have. These behaviors often seem to suggest that dogs know they did something their owner would disapprove of. However, skeptics argue that these actions are not motivated by guilt, but are simply learned responses to avoid punishment after misbehaving.
In 2009, researcher Dr. Alexandra Horowitz conducted a study on dog guilt at Barnard College. In the study, owners were asked to command their dogs not to eat a treat, then leave the room. During some trials the dogs were instructed not to eat the treat but did so anyway, while in others nothing was prohibited and the dogs simply ate the treat.
Interestingly, the dogs still displayed “guilty” behaviors like avoiding eye contact with the owner, even when they had not been commanded not to eat the treat. This suggests the dogs’ guilty behaviors were not indicative of a knowledge of a misdeed, but rather an anticipation of scolding from the owner.
Do dogs feel complex emotions like guilt?
The question of whether dogs experience guilt hinges on the debate around whether dogs have the cognitive complexity required to experience moral emotions like guilt, shame or empathy.
Some experts theorize dogs do not possess a human-like sense of morality given their limited cognitive abilities. From this view, dogs lack the introspective capabilities required to internally reflect on and regret their actions.
However, recent research provides evidence that dogs may experience complex emotions and mental states including some moral sentiments. Studies indicate canines likely feel primary emotions like fear, anger and happiness. There is also evidence they feel secondary emotions like jealousy, shame and guilt.
In particular, research from Dr. Friederike Range at the University of Vienna supports the idea that dogs can feel regret and guilt. In a 2008 experiment, dogs were trained to cooperate with a human partner to earn a food reward. When the dogs were later prohibited from cooperating, they showed clear signs of guilt by avoiding the human partner.
The evidence for dog guilt
Here is some of the evidence that dogs may experience feelings of guilt:
- Dogs display guilty behaviors like ears back, avoiding eye contact, hiding, and slouching when they have misbehaved, even if they were not scolded in that particular instance.
- Dogs appear to feel regret when they realize they made the wrong choice in cooperating with a human partner.
- Canine cognition research indicates dogs likely feel primary emotions like happiness, fear, anger.
- Recent studies provide evidence dogs also experience secondary emotions like jealousy, empathy, shame.
- Owners commonly perceive dogs as looking guilty and believing they feel guilt based on their body language and response to scolding.
The evidence against dog guilt
However, some experts interpret the evidence differently and argue dogs do not actually experience guilt:
- Dogs’ “guilty” behaviors still occur when dogs have not misbehaved, suggesting learned responses.
- Guilt may require a level of moral reasoning dogs do not possess.
- Dogs lack humans’ ability to reflect on and analyze their own behaviors and emotions.
- Similar guilty looks are also seen in situations where dogs are anticipating anger/punishment but have not actually done anything wrong.
- Rather than guilt, dogs may simply feel fear of punishment or shame at disappointing their owner.
Why do dogs look guilty?
If dogs do not actually experience guilt, why do they often act guilty by slouching, hiding, and avoiding eye contact with their owners? Canine experts suggest a few explanations for dogs’ stereotypically “guilty” behaviors:
Anticipating punishment – Dogs showing guilty behaviors may simply be responding fearfully to angry vocal tones, body language, or other signals from owners that anticipate punishment or scolding.
Appeasement – Crouching, rolling over to show belly, avoiding eye contact, and other similar behaviors may be the dog’s way of showing appeasement to avoid wrath from the owner.
Conditioning – Dogs may learn that certain responses, like hiding or running away, successfully allow them to avoid punishment when they have misbehaved. These behaviors then become conditioned responses.
Shame – While not the same as guilt, dogs may feel shame or embarrassment when their owner is angry with them, similar to a young child.
Do puppies show guilt?
Puppies typically do not show signs of guilt or remorse. Research indicates guilt and other secondary emotions develop as dogs mature, if they develop these complex emotions at all.
Puppies younger than 4-6 months very likely do not experience guilt or shame for misbehaving. Puppy behaviors like rolling over, submissively urinating, or avoiding eye contact when scolded are probably just fear responses, not guilt. Puppies start exhibiting a wider range of emotions beyond basic primal feelings around 6 months to 1 year old.
How to Tell if Your Dog is Guilty
Determining if dogs truly feel guilty is complicated, since simply displaying “guilty behaviors” does not necessarily mean a dog is actually experiencing guilt. However, there are some clues that may indicate if your dog is feeling authentic guilt or simply reacting out of fear or conditioning:
- Does your dog react guilty prior to any cues from you, or only after seeing your disapproving response?
- Does your dog only act guilty when you are present to see the misbehavior?
- If you act angry towards your dog for no reason, does he still act guilty?
- Does your dog act guilty when someone else scolds them?
True guilt is more likely if your dog reacts before you discover the problem, rather than just responding to your anger. Puppies under 6 months almost certainly do not experience real guilt.
Do guilty dogs know they did something wrong?
So do dogs truly recognize when they did something wrong? The answer may depend both on your individual dog and your interpretation as an owner.
Some studies show dogs behave as if they feel guilt and regret over misdeeds. But other research indicates dogs’ human-like guilty behaviors are just conditioned responses to owner displeasure or anticipation of punishment.
Ultimately, there is evidence on both sides of the debate around dogs’ moral behaviors. While dogs may not reflect on their actions the same ways humans do, some dogs do seem capable of feeling guilty in certain circumstances.
Many owners perceive their pets to display guilt and regret through behaviors like avoiding eye contact, hiding, and acting submissive when they have misbehaved. However, researchers debate whether these behaviors truly indicate dogs feel morally guilty.
Experts argue dogs may simply display “guilty” actions because they were conditioned to associate those responses with avoiding punishment. Some researchers believe dogs do not possess the complex introspective cognition required to experience true moral guilt. However, other studies provide evidence dogs are capable of feeling at least some complex secondary emotions, including possibly guilt in limited circumstances.
Ultimately, there is no consensus on the extent to which dogs are able to reflect on their actions and feel remorse. But it appears at least plausible that some dogs may experience forms of guilt and regret when reprimanded by an owner they respect, even if not to the same degree as humans. Determining if your own dog feels guilt may require attention to the specific circumstances that prompt your dog’s guilty behaviors.