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Do Dogs Really Feel Guilt When They Look Guilty?

Posted September 02, 2015 in Dog Behavior

Dog looking guilty

We all want to believe that our dogs are capable of complex emotions. We want them to love us, not just to need us because we feed them. We don’t want them to just be happy that we have come home. We want to know that they missed us when we were gone. Personally, I think we just want to know that they feel about us, the same way that we feel about them—with that same level of care, adoration and appreciation for the place they have in our hearts. So I don’t find it at all surprising that we also want to think they feel remorseful when they do something bad. We want to think that they value our opinion and our approval–that they anticipate our disappointment and feel guilty for having let us down. The question is, do they?

What does it mean when your dog looks guilty?
Let’s say you find evidence of a transgression (a chewed shoe, an unsanctioned indoor bathroom break, or an empty plate where there once were freshly baked cookies) and you turn to your faithful sidekick and query, “What did you do?” How else does your dog respond but with that classic, hangdog, sad, boo-boo face. The face that tells you immediately, not only is she responsible for the transgression, but also (and maybe most importantly) she is sorry that she did it. Okay, to be fair, you might admit that the way you say “What did you do?” might, possibly, cue that expression. BUT what about when you come home and she makes ‘the face’ before you discover the offense? Certainly THAT proves that she knows she did something wrong, right? Not necessarily.

What does the science say?
I believe that there is just no way to know for sure when a dog feels guilty. Until we can ask that question of a talking dog, we simply cannot be certain. That doesn’t mean, however, that researchers aren’t trying to find evidence.

In a study published earlier this year, Ljerka Ostojic of Cambridge University developed a study to see if owners could tell by looking at their dog’s face whether the dog had misbehaved in their absence. According to ScienceDirect.com, the dog was instructed not to eat a “desirable treat.” The owner left the room, and a researcher either took the treat away or got the dog eat it. When the owners returned they had to read the dog’s expression to decide what had transpired. The study concluded that:

  1. The owners guessed that their dog had eaten the treat no more than would be expected by chance
  2. How the dog acted was not influenced by whether or not they had eaten the forbidden treat

Also according to ScienceDirect, some years ago, a similar study performed by Alexandra Horowitz at Barnard College came to similar conclusions. In addition, Horowitz found more ‘guilty look’ behavior when the owner scolded the dog (no surprise there), and that ‘the effect of scolding was more pronounced when the dogs were obedient, not disobedient.” Horowitz concluded that the guilty look was a response to owner cues rather than an appreciation of the dogs’ own misdeeds.

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Mike has more than 35 years of experience in companion animal veterinary practice and is a valued member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team since 2013.