Dogs exhibiting signs of guilt such as avoiding eye contact, hiding, or slinking away are often interpreted by owners as an admission of wrongdoing. However, the latest research suggests there may be more to it than a simple display of shame over misbehaving.
Do dogs actually feel guilt?
Whether dogs experience true guilt is debated among animal behavior experts. On one hand, guilt requires complex cognitions including a sense of right and wrong and evaluation of one’s actions. On the other hand, some research indicates dogs may possess a rudimentary form of morality and the capacity for complex emotions like guilt.
|Evidence suggesting dogs don’t feel guilt
|Evidence suggesting dogs may feel guilt
Overall, the consensus is dogs likely do not experience true guilt but may exhibit guilty behaviors to appease owners.
Why do dogs avoid eye contact?
If not pure guilt, what causes dogs to avert their eyes and slink away when owners suspect them of misbehavior? Several alternative explanations exist.
Fear of punishment
Dogs aim to please owners and associate scoldings or punishments with anger. While not feeling remorseful, they may display submissive body language like lowered heads or averting eyes when anticipating an owner’s anger over a perceived transgression.
Confusion over owner’s behavior
Dogs perceptive of owner’s behavior may pick up on subtle cues like a change in tone of voice or body language. They display guilty behaviors in reaction to the owner’s signals, not any understanding of a misdeed.
Submissive behaviors like avoiding eye contact may function as appeasement gestures shown in response to social confusion or threat. Dogs aim to avoid escalation and smoothly restore good relations.
Dogs previously scolded upon returning home may come to associate any anger with their own misbehavior. Later they react submissively even if the owner’s anger stems from unrelated events.
What does research say?
Controlled studies provide further insights into dogs’ demonstrations of guilt.
Evidence against guilt
- Dogs show guilty behaviors whether or not they committed a misdeed, depending only on the owner’s cues.
- Dogs do not differentiate between scoldings for one misbehavior over another.
- The intensity of the “guilty” response depends on the owner’s scolding, not the dog’s misbehavior.
Evidence for proto-guilt
- Dogs were more likely to display guilty behaviors when they directly disobeyed an order.
- More intense responses occurred after eating a forbidden treat compared to when they obeyed instructions.
While not definitive proof of complex guilt, such findings suggest dogs may possess a basic form of moral sensitivity and self-awareness.
Why eye contact avoidance?
If dog guilt is real, why the avoidance of eye contact specifically? Some explanations from canine ethology:
Sign of submission
Eye contact is perceived as a threat in the canine world. Subordinate dogs avert their gaze to avoid challenging more dominant members of the pack.
Dogs similarly avoid eye contact to defuse tensions and communicate good intentions in ambiguous situations.
Averting gaze reinforces other appeasement behaviors aimed at smoothing over relations with angry owners.
Diverting owners’ attention away from the misdeed may also motivate gaze avoidance.
Other appeasement gestures
Along with shunning eye contact, dogs employ various other appeasement or displacement behaviors when owners suspect wrongdoing, including:
- Lowered heads and bodies
- Closed mouths or long, wide tongues
- Yawning, lip licking, or paw lifting
- Scratching or sudden interest in toys/spots
Some experts posit that these behaviors represent attempts to cut off owner reprimands and smoothly restore positive relations.
What is the significance?
The complex dance between owners and potentially “guilty” dogs carries several implications:
Dogs do not possess human levels of morality. While capable of basic emotions like fear, we should avoid attributing complex feelings like guilt they may not actually experience.
Labeling dogs’ behaviors as guilt may lead owners to misinterpret the underlying causes like fear or confusion.
Scolding dogs for behaviors not driven by true guilt may seem unfair from the canine perspective.
The research highlights the sophisticated nature of dog-human communication, with dogs finely attuned to human cues.
So why do dogs avoid eye contact when appearing “guilty”? While they may not experience the same form of complex guilt as humans, dogs have evolved intricate skills for diffusing tensions and restoring relations with angered owners. Gaze aversion, head lowering, and other odd behaviors function as appeasement or displacement signals aimed at peacefully ending reprimands, not admissions of remorse over misdeeds. Understanding the true motivations behind our pets’ behaviors allows us to better communicate and coexist with our enigmatic canine companions.