Can Dogs Feel Ashamed?

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We've all been there before - you walk in the door after a long day of work, only to find trash strewn everywhere and your favorite pillow destroyed. And of course, there's your dog, looking at you with those big puppy eyes full of guilt. 

Or are they? While a whopping 74 percent of dog owners believe their dogs feel guilt and shame, science says otherwise. According to research, dogs can feel primary emotions such as happiness and fear,  but guilt is another story. Pride, guilt, and shame are all considered secondary emotions, which are too complicated for your dog to experience. 

So why does it look like your dog is guilty if they can't actually feel ashamed? Scientists believe those guilty looks are actually just a learned response or an associated behavior. 

Your dog knows you are unhappy, but they don't know what you are saying or why you are upset. This is a form of submissiveness that can reduce the duration of scolding, in your dog's mind. 

Introduction of Can Dogs Feel Ashamed?

Signs Your Dog is Ashamed

Like we discussed, your dog cannot actually feel guilt or shame, but there are a few behaviors they display that may indicate they know you aren't happy. These learned responses build up over time as your dog begins to understand you and your tone. However, just because they may be sitting in front of you with their head, ears, and eyes all turned downward doesn't mean they know they did something wrong. 

Dogs can sense anger and disapproval, which often leads them to feel what we interpret as shame or guilt. This can bring about certain stress signals and a wide range of submissive behaviors, such as flattened ears, a tucked tail, and those sad, puppy dog eyes. You may not want to admit this, but your takeaway from all of this should be that no, your dog is not feeling ashamed after they've destroyed your favorite pair of shoes. 

Body Language

Here are some signs your dog knows you are upset with their behavior:
  • Whining
  • Shaking
  • Cowering
  • Ears drop

Other Signs

These are other signs your dog knows you are upset:
  • Hiding
  • Looking Down
  • Avoiding Your Gaze

History of Dogs Feeling Ashamed

History of Can Dogs Feel Ashamed?
Contrary to what many dog owners want to believe, there is no scientific or historical proof that dogs feel ashamed. Sure, you may interpret their downward gaze and tucked tail as guilt, but this simply isn't the case.

Over the years, numerous studies have been conducted trying to determine how dogs feel and what emotions they can interpret. We have learned that guilt and shame are simply not possible. Fear, happiness, love, and anger, sure, but guilt, not so much. There are, therefore, no real instances of dogs feeling ashamed in history.

Science Behind Dogs Feeling Ashamed

Science of Can Dogs Feel Ashamed?
As we've discussed, it is not possible for your dog to feel ashamed, no matter how guilty he looks. Dogs cannot register secondary emotions like guilt, pride, jealousy, and shame, they are far too complicated. These emotions require a much higher level of mental sophistication than most animals - including dogs - can display. 

What humans interpret as shame is actually submissiveness and learned behaviors. Over time, your dog learns to read your tone and actions. They know when you are happy with them and they have done something to please you, and they also know when they are in trouble.

However, they do not know why they are in trouble and most definitely do not link shredding that pillow with your tone. Scientists continue to experiment with these feelings and future studies hope to investigate how dogs react in their own environment, rather than a laboratory. 

Training Your Dog to Understand Their Bad Behavior

Training of Can Dogs Feel Ashamed?
When it comes to training your dog to understand when you are upset with them and that they have done something wrong, you have to get them to associate a certain behavior with a corrected action. 

When you come home to a destroyed house and scold your dog, they aren't going to understand why you are upset, they just know that you are. The only way to truly correct these bad behaviors is to catch them in the act and correct the behavior. As frustrating as it may be, yelling at your dog for something they did when you weren't around, does absolutely no good. 

It is important to make an effort to time your corrections to catch your dog in the act of doing something you do not approve of. If you are able to be successful at this, over time there is a good chance your dog will begin to associate these actions with being reprimanded. 

How to React If You Catch Your Dog Behaving Badly

  • Scold their behavior.
  • Isolate them.
  • Use a squirt bottle and say "no!"
  • Use the sit command.
6 Years
Labrador Retriever
Definitely Guilty
Flattened ears
Looking away
Tail tucked

I walked into the kitchen and noticed George had gotten into the trash. I waited until he turned around. When he saw me he immediately went submissive and walked away from the trashcan. It seemed he had known what he had done. Another time I had walked into the kitchen to see George lying down, looking away. He had eaten the bread that was on the counter.

3 years, 7 months ago