DEAR DIDI: Do dogs feel guilty for things they have done? Our boy sure looks like he KNOWS he has done something wrong when we get home from work. – Shepherd Parents
DEAR SHEPHERD PARENTS: I think everyone knows what this looks like. The dog’s head hangs low, his ears drooping and looking sideways away from the humans. It’s that look our dogs get after we come home and they have, yet again, raided the kitchen trash can or pooped on the living room carpet. These are all classic signs of guilt, right? “He knows he isn’t supposed to get into the trash! See, he looks guilty!”
Even though man’s best friend is showing all the same signs of guilt that we see in humans it doesn’t mean he is actually sorry. We assume dogs feel guilty because we anthropomorphize them, meaning we think of them as humans and apply human logic to their actions. We assume that they share our cognitive and emotional abilities, which causes us to read their actions and behaviors the same way we would read a human’s. As much as we love our dogs and count them as family members, they are not like humans. They do not feel guilt like humans.
In order to feel guilt, you have to have reference to yourself and be able to remember what you did in the past. Guilt comes from an absolute knowing that what you did was something you weren’t supposed to do. Dogs don’t learn the way humans do. You can’t show the dog the mess he made with the trash can three hours ago while you were at work and punish him for it because he will not associate his actions from hours ago with the reason for the punishment. Instead, he begins to associate you coming home from work as being a time he gets yelled at. So the minute you walk in the door he anticipates your anger and offers ‘calming signals.’ Most owners report that if their dog “looks guilty” they don’t punish him as harshly or for as long. Your dog learns to offer the hung head, averted gaze and drooped ears because he has learned it calms the angry human a little bit. So remember that the next time Fido tries to pull the guilt act, he’s probably not sorry that he peed on your bathrobe but he sure is sorry that you are angry.
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Dear Didi. Email your questions or inquire about dog behavior presentations at firstname.lastname@example.org.