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Do Dogs Feel Guilt? Here’s What We Know

Do Dogs Feel Guilt? Here’s What We Know

If you have been a dog owner for long enough you might have noticed all of the different emotions your dog seems to go through. It seems as if they truly experience a lot of emotions that we do too. But one thing that stands out is how or dogs react once they get busted in doing something that they shouldn’t be doing. They just give us that look of complete regret and you can’t help but wonder — Do dogs feel guilt?

Their face expression and body language suggest that they really do. However, is that really true? Do our fur babies feel guilty after they did something that they knew they shouldn’t? Or are they just making that face to get out of trouble.

To get an idea of what your dog is going through in those moments, keep on reading.

What is that guilty look for?

If you have ever caught your dog doing something naughty — like peeing on your new carpet or stealing your socks, you know that everything about their body language radiates guilt. However, as guilty as your dog seems to you, many veterinarians assume that this is just a case of anthropomorphism — or in other words, us attributing human characteristics to animals.

Research suggests that dogs display their guilty body language after their owners scolded them — regardless if the dog actually did something wrong.

The “guilty look” is actually a response to the owner’s cues, instead of it being a sign of regret in the dog.

Do dogs feel guilt or are they just fearful?

Owners will usually suspect their dog’s feeling guilty if they display some or all of the following behaviors:

  1. Avoiding eye contact
  2. Tucked tail
  3. Pawing at the face
  4. Flattened ears
  5. Yawing
  6. Licking

But these behaviors are actually signs of fear or stress in dogs. Research wasn’t able to prove that dogs can actually understand that they have broken rules and then feel bad about it. That’s why guilt in dogs is such a complex concept.

In order to experience guilt, a dog would have to understand the cause and effect of his actions. As our dogs can’t tell us what emotions they are experiencing in one moment, we can’t really know what they are going through.

If it’s not guilt, what is it then?

If your dog looks guilty after doing something that they shouldn’t, it most likely is because they have done this before and you as their owner have had a strong and negative reaction to it. The reaction could be yelling, scolding or simply the cold shoulder. Your dog may then anticipate how you will react and exhibit body language to try to appease you as a way of asking for forgiveness.

Never poke fun at your dog acting guilty, as he could misunderstand it for approval. Our dogs are very sensitive to the way we react to things, either negativity or positively.

That’s why making fun of your dog when they are acting guilty could actually be counterproductive. Your dog could perceive that as an positive reaction and think that the thing they did is actually something that you approve of.

But can dogs even understand if they did something wrong?

We spend all of that time training our dogs to differentiate good from bad, but can they even know when they did something wrong?

Well, while dogs can learn to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate behaviors, that will take time. Training your dog is a marathon, not a sprint. That’s why you should give your dog the time and space to learn what’s okay to do and what is not. You also need to educate yourself on different training methods to find the ones that are best for your dog.

But even if dogs can learn which behaviors are acceptable and which are not, we have no evidence to prove that dogs experience actual guilt.

Studies even say that the evidence that is available suggest that dogs do not experience guilt. Instead they are just reacting to their owners body language.

Many dog owners, however, won’t agree on that. As some dogs will start acting regretful even before their owners react at all.

However, unless our dogs magically start talking — we won’t ever know for sure the answer to the question “do dogs feel guilt”.