Do Dogs Feel Guilt?
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
I walked out of my office this morning to find Sierra lying on the foyer carpet. But when she saw me, she sat up and gave her version of the “guilty look;” ears pinned back, eyes squinting, corners of the mouth slightly retracted. She was cringing and looking at me as though I was about to hit her. Since I’d never raised a hand to her unless it was to pat her head or rub her tummy, I wondered what was wrong. Had something scared her? Was she unwell? Was there a poltergeist hanging over my shoulder? Then I thought, Hmm, she must have done something. I walked to the kitchen, peeked out the back door and, sure enough, there on the dog ramp lay the evidence: a tissue she’d stolen from the bedroom trash can. Clearly, the theft hadn’t occurred within the last few seconds, and maybe not even the last few minutes—and yet Sierra’s expression was clearly connected to the offensive behavior. Traditional literature suggests that a dog will only look “guilty” about something he did within seconds beforehand; I disagree.
In 2009, Alexandra Horowitz published a study aimed at determining whether a dog’s “guilty look” was associated with something the dog had actually done, or if it might instead be a result of the owner’s reaction. Trials went as follows: A treat was placed in a room, and the owner would tell the dog to “leave it.” The owner then left the room. While the owner was absent, Horowitz would give the dog some of the forbidden treat. In some trials, when the owners returned, they were told the dog had left the treat alone; in others, they were told the dog had eaten the treat. Here’s the tricky part: what the owners were told was sometimes untrue.
Horowitz found that the “guilty look” (which should really be termed the “I hope you’re not going to punish me” look) had little to do with whether the dog had actually eaten the treat or not. Predictably, dogs looked most guilty when owners admonished them. But interestingly, dogs who had not eaten the treat but were still scolded by their misinformed owners looked even more guilty than the dogs who had eaten it! I haven’t read Horowitz’s thoughts on why that might be, but I would imagine that a dog who hasn’t done anything wrong might be more surprised by an owner suddenly scolding him for no reason he could fathom, than a dog who’s actually committed a doggy misdemeanor.
Just as the truly guilty dogs in Horowitz’s study most likely associated the owner’s scolding with having eaten the treat, dogs associate events that happen within a short time frame. When a dog sits on cue we offer a treat immediately, rather than sauntering back into the room 10 minutes later with the reward. We advise owners who return home to find potty accidents not to punish their dogs, since the event probably happened much earlier and the dog won’t associate the punishment with the behavior. Now, I’m not suggesting we punish dogs after the fact; but I do believe that rather than feeling the complex emotion of guilt, there are dogs who are simply capable of putting two and two together.
Sierra’s brain is so finely wired that she could not only put two and two together, but finish by giving you the square root. During the early days with Bodhi, there were times when we’d come home to find Sierra looking guilty. I knew she wasn’t destructive—she’d never touched a thing, and we’d had her for a few months before we’d brought him home. But from time to time Bodhi would do something that ranked pretty high on the Doggy Destructo scale, and Sierra knew we would not be pleased. The time he ate the couch comes immediately to mind. I can imagine poor Sierra standing by helplessly as Bodhi tore into the cushions. As pieces of foam wafted through the air, I’m sure she was frantically, telepathically pleading with him to stop. And he kept right on going.
Even with all we know about dogs physiologically and behaviorally, there’s still so much we don’t fully understand about how they process thought, what they’re mentally capable of, and their complex emotional life. I don’t think it’s that unusual for a dog to show the “guilty look” long after the fact. But it is fascinating to me that one dog can look guilty over another’s actions. Although I’ve never seen a study on the subject, it would make for some very interesting research.
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