Can Dogs Fake Feeling Ashamed?

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Introduction

We've all had those long days when we've needed to be away from the house for hours at a time, leaving our pups alone to ponder about how exactly they're going to spend their time of freedom in the quiet, quaint home we left for them. If you have a dog anything like many, you've found yourself coming home to the abundant number of surprises they've left you, most of which are not pleasant- we're not talking made beds and vacuumed carpets, here! 

From your favorite shoes being chewed into a thousand pieces to your most cherished piece of furniture being mauled, you've most likely seen it all. You've probably also had the same experiences as most do when they confront their beloved pooch for the destruction they've caused; that is, a sorry, submissive puppy who couldn't be more ashamed of what they did. 

Is it shame your pooch is feeling, though, or is it merely a direct reaction your dog is having because they're reading your behavior? Recent research supports the latter, challenging the notion that our dogs can feel ashamed, making it more evident they're actually experts at faking their shame.  

Signs Dogs Show When They Appear to Feel Ashamed

What are the signs dogs are likely to show when they appear to be feeling ashamed for what they did? For starters, like you've probably noticed if you're a dog owner, your dog is the master at looking like they're guilty or sorry for what they've done. From the moment they realize we know they've been up to no good, they immediately show signs of submission by tucking their tails between their hind legs, avoiding your glance by pointing their adorable puppy eyes at the ground, and even going as far as leaving the room to prevent interactions from occurring between the two of you. 

Some of the cutest signs a dog might show when they appear to be ashamed are when they make attempts to cover their eyes with their paws, to shield them from the death stare we're sending their way. All in all, it seems as if our pooches almost act as if they are children, knowing exactly what they did, searching for a way to reconcile for their misconduct. 

Even though it's not nearly as common as becoming submissive, some dogs have been known to react to their owners confronting their naughty behavior by becoming aggressive, showing what has been interpreted as forms of defiance. This can include whining at their owners, barking or even baring their teeth. Overall, its clear our dogs are reacting to something when we caught them after their defiant acts, but whether it's actually shame they are feeling is a whole other story. 

Body Language

These are some signs you might notice if your dog is faking feeling ashamed:
  • Ears drop
  • Averting eyes
  • Tail tucking
  • Ears back

Other Signs

Some other signs to watch for include:
  • Submissive behavior
  • Hiding behavior
  • Acting apologetic
  • Whimpering or whining, in anticipation for your angry reaction

The History of Dogs Faking Feeling Ashamed

The history of our understanding of our dogs' apparent shameful behavior is actually quite short. It's pretty obvious then, that dogs have been getting away with tricking us into believing they are ashamed of themselves for their bad behavior, when really, they are just reacting to the way we behave when we see what they have got up or into. It's no question this has been going on since the domestication of dogs, with anecdotal stories of all kinds being told about how human-like our dogs seem when they are caught being mischievous.

Melissa, a long time dog owner, shared footage she captured of her pup Matzo after he was found causing ruckus inside the home. Even before Melissa had an opportunity to point her finger at Matzo, he can be seen sliding backward in the photo, attempting to hide himself from her view.

According to Melissa, Matzo knew he was about to receive reprimanding for his unwanted behaviors. Whether Melissa knows it or not, it's likely Matzo is already picking up on other behaviors she exhibits when she is reacting to his misconduct, things she doesn't even realize she is doing, including face gestures and body language, all which help explain how he knew what was coming.

Other stories similar to Melissa's have proven Matzo's not alone in his behaviors. One video on YouTube shows a pup named Ziggy doing his traditional "guilty sit" after his owner found the ripped apart garbage bag he left behind after searching for an afternoon meal. Not only was Ziggy sitting in a humanistic, upright position, with his head pointing downward, he was also avoiding his owner’s eye contact altogether.

Ziggy and Matzo are only two of the many examples you can find of dogs looking remorseful for their unwanted behaviors. It’s the scientific research that helps us understand why it is dogs seem to unanimously react in this way, and whether or not it can really be attributed to them feeling shame.

The Science Behind Dogs Faking Feeling Ashamed

It wasn't until a study conducted in 2009 that we were given some insight into whether or not our pups can actually feel ashamed of their behaviors. The first study known to look into this common belief most people have about dogs was a study conducted by psychologist Alexandra Horowitz. Horowitz set out to prove it wasn't actually shame dogs feel when they're naughty behaviors are discovered, but that their behavior is really just a direct result and reaction to our own. 

She proved this by conducting a study that examined how dogs reacted to their owners angry shaming both when they did do something wrong, and when they didn't misbehave at all. According to Horowitz, we would expect that a dog who receives shaming following an unwanted behavior would show signs of shame, whereas a dog who was innocent of misbehaving would not, seeing as they have nothing to be ashamed of.

Interestingly enough, the findings of this particular study indicated dogs reacted to their owners in a shameful manner, regardless of the experimental group they were in, proving that it is actually something they are picking up in us when we are angry, that is causing them to act in this way. Studies also support the notion that dogs do not have the capability of remembering what they did that is causing you to react angrily and therefore can't possibly feel shame for it, further strengthening the position that dogs do not feel shame. 

Whether or not a dog has the capability to feel ashamed, though, is another story. Biologically speaking, dogs, like all mammals, have the neurological capacity and brain structures necessary to allow them to feel ashamed. In other words, animals that have been shown to feel shame have similar brains as our dogs. Further research into this area needs to be done, however, in order for us to know if they really can feel ashamed for their actions. 

How to React When Your Dog Appears Ashamed for Misbehaving:

  • Try your hardest not to overreact with anger (e.g. do not hit your dog).
  • Remember, your dog most likely does not remember what they did, so screaming isn't the answer.
  • Reprimand your dog for the unwanted behavior if you catch them in the act (point and say no sternly).
  • Comfort your dog if they become so fearful they shake or have an accident.