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Do our dogs feel guilt?

I have heard this saying a million times, “My dog knows what it did wrong.” Many dog owners have told me, “My dog knows better than to not (insert behavior here),” or “When I come home I can tell Nala did this because she is acting guilty.” I am here to inform you about dogs learning styles and a few other things to show you that dogs do not “know better” and to explain WHY they aren’t acting “guilty.”

Looking at recent research in dog psychology, psychologists believe that dogs DO NOT have the mental capacity to understand guilt. Guilt is a complex emotion and is not even believed to be experienced in toddlers until years 3 or 4. To feel “guilt” one must understand the sense of self and to be able to cognitively think about third parties. It is not believed at this time that dogs have the ability to do this.

Think about the common descriptions of guilt in dogs: avoiding eye contact, running away, hiding, head hanging, tucked tail, etc. All of these examples are also signs of fear and/or submissive behavior. All of the “signs” of guilt are the same as a fear response or submission.

Association is one specific way dogs learn. A loud noise followed by pain would lead to a negative association with loud noises and a fear response and this is where people start to think that there dog is being guilty. The dog pairs an action with being scolded or punished, BUT the dog does not pair the act of DOING (something) with being bad.

Let’s look at some examples.

Example 1: Samantha came home and the trash is scattered throughout her house, she scolded, and punished the dog.

Fast forward to another occurrence, Samantha arrives home and finds the trash tipped over again, and her dog looks “Guilty.” This is an example of pairing a situation (trash can is tipped over) with a response (bad).

THIS IS THE MAIN POINT: The trash can being tipped over in addition to you arriving home is why your dog is showing a fear response. NOT the act of tipping over the trash can.

THE DAY AFTER THE DOG LOOKS GUILTY: The previous day Samantha saw her dog looking guilty and the trash was everywhere. Samantha comes home today with the expectation that the trash will be tipped over but when she opens the door she sees her dog and he looks “guilty,” yet the trash is not tipped over.

WHY? Dogs communicate mainly by body language (sight) and they can hear and smell from lengthy distances away. Anger or nervousness in humans sometimes creates sweaty palms and heavier breathing, in addition to other signs. Whenever we as humans express different emotions our body’s change and dogs can sense these changes and they react accordingly.

Additionally, coming home and finding the trash can tipped over, the dog senses and understands your anger and dismay, then act “guilty.”

Example 2: Your puppy poops on the carpet while you are away and you walk through the door, see the poop, then scold the puppy.

The puppy has learned that the poop on the floor + owner is home = BAD. The puppy has NOT learned that the ACT of pooping inside is bad.

Try this: If your dog does “bad things” whiles you are away, do not get mad or upset rather, be overly happy and enthusiastic. You will begin to notice that your dog will not seem “guilty” for very long because you are changing the response.

IN CONCLUSION, there is no point or reason to reprimand, scold or punish your dog after an event has already occurred. The dog has no real idea as to why it is being punished, and that is unfair to the dog.

Now how do we solve this problem?

It is simple: Better Management. Crating your dog solves almost everything. Crating your dog will not enable them to get into things or soil in your home while you are away. If you prefer to give your dog “Freedom” make sure all the food is off of the counter, close the door to the bathroom, or put the trash somewhere the dog cannot get to it. Train your dog, find a good dog trainer that can help you. I always advise that when you are gone you cannot control what your dog does (with some exception). Even the most well behaved dogs, still end up being a dog from time to time.

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