Can Dogs Feel Blame?

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Introduction

Where's your homework? The dog ate it. Who broke the vase? The dog knocked it over. Hey, who farted? That was the dog! There's a mess on the floor! Oh, must be that dog again. It's just so easy to blame the dog! They are frisky, they get into things, they have no discretion about passing some gas, and they can't talk back. 

Your dog can't talk back in self-defense. So, blaming the dog can become an easy excuse for many an indiscretion around the house. There is probably one very big reason why we are so easily able to blame our dogs, too. Even if the dog did "do it", they would not even remember what anyone is getting upset about. So, why the guilty look on the dog's face if they can't remember and they did not do it anyway?

Signs Your Dog May Show That Look Like Guilt

Sometimes it's hard to tell who does a better job of reading who's behavior! Our dogs can actually read our facial and body cues and interpret the tones of our voices. They can tell when we are sad. They know something bad might happen if we start pointing and raise our voices. 

They even learn our routines. They know about the time you are coming home, feeding them and going to bed. So how about us? Are we as good at reading their behavior as they are at reading us? Your dog will give you many signals of what they are feeling or reacting to in the moment. It is up to you to understand the context, your dog's disposition and interpret what their behavior.

Have you seen the guilty look on your dog? The body is low. The tail is tucked. The dog looks at you, staring with wide, pleading eyes. The dog might blink or look away. You might see your dog cowering and skulking away from you. Yawning does not mean your dog is ignoring you or is bored. The yawning is a sign of passivity. 

While we are interpreting these behaviors as signs of guilt, they are actually signs of submission. When you are upset with your dog or blaming your dog, they will engage in submissive behavior in response to you.

There is the blaming we do when we make excuses for our actions. There is the blaming that may occur when the dog has done something wrong. There is also blame that is in the form of excuses for the dog's behavior. When the dog is getting blamed, think of your behavior at the moment. Is your voice raised? Are you acting angry or agitated? The dog knows something is wrong but does not know what it is. The dog can tell that your reactions are directed to the dog. 

There are other behaviors you might see in your dog when they are being blamed. The dog may lick the lips, make a stretch, and turn the head. These are calming mechanisms for the dog. Sometimes a dog will just slink away, not knowing why you are upset but getting out of the way. If your dog is giving you the whale eye, this very wide-eyed stare is a signal that your dog is feeling stressed.

Body Language

Some signs your dog may give that you are likely to interperut as guilt include:
  • Cowering
  • Yawning
  • Low tail carriage
  • Whale eye

Other Signs

More things to look for are:
  • Engaging in calming behaviors
  • Licking their lips and stretching
  • Slinking away when voices are raised

The History of Dogs Feeling Guilt

There is actually a history of how man has treated canines when they believe they did something wrong. The Avesta, an ancient Zoroastrian religious text, considered dogs to be capable of “willful” offenses and ordered that they be punished with mutilation. 

There are images of dogs being owned by pharaohs in Egypt. Ancient Greeks and Romans kept dogs. In medieval Europe, misbehaving dogs were tried in court on criminal charges such as assault and murder; with punishments that ranged from jail to death. Pet-keeping was not generally accepted in Europe until the end of the 17th century. 

The middle classes embraced dogs in the 18th century. Dogs became popular as pets in the era of Queen Victoria, who herself had companion dogs. The Kennel Club was founded in 1873. The American Humane Society was founded in 1877 with the purpose of promoting the bonds between people and animals and the kind treatment of animals. 

Much of the early work of humane organizations in America focused on treatment of horses and women. It has been in more contemporary times that the focus has been on the rescue and care of dogs. Public education promotes teaching owners how to train their dogs and give them proper care.

Science Behind Dogs Feeling Guilt

When you are blaming someone, you might expect the reactions to be shame or guilt - maybe even embarrassment. Scientists have been interested in studying how dogs react to humans. When we think the dog is acting guilty, it is not guilt at all. 

Alexandra Horowitz from Barnard College has conducted studies to learn more about a dog's capacity to feel guilt and blame. The owners of dogs told the dog to ignore a treat and left the room. While the owner was gone, the researcher either fed the dog the treat or took the treat out of the room. When the owner returned to the room and there was no treat, they were told the dog either had or had not eaten the treat. 

When owners thought the dog ate the treat, the dogs were reprimanded and the dogs looked guilty. The dogs that did not eat the treat looked more guilty than the dogs who had eaten the treat. The guilty look is a submissive response, which is the dog's way of resolving conflict with the owner. 

Subsequent research on an owner's reactions to their dog has shown that dogs can be confused when owners become upset with them for acts they did not do or do not remember. Dogs will actually have more behavior problems when owners chastise them. The dog and owner can get into a cycle of destruction and appeasement. 

Training Your Dog to Behave

Chewing is part of normal dog behavior. Dogs, both in the wild and domesticated, will chew bones to keep their jaws strong and teeth clean. Puppies will go through a stage of teething up to the age of 6 months. During this phase, you can help your pup with appropriate chew toys and special dog toys that can be frozen. Dogs enjoy chewing and will chew on pretty much anything - toys, sticks, or maybe your shoes.  

They will chew for fun, stimulation, or out of anxiety. It can be a problem if the dog is chewing and destroying things or if the chewing is related to other behavior problems that need to be addressed. Here are some things for you to consider if your dog is having a chewing problem:

Separation Anxiety - Dogs will chew to alleviate the stress of being left alone. 

Fabric Sucking - Dogs will suck on carpets and fabrics if they were weaned too early. The behavior can become compulsive and the owner will need professional assistance to address the behavior.

Hunger - Dogs on a restricted diet may be inclined to chew on things that smell like food because they are hungry.

There are other reasons dogs chew and things that you can do about it. Simply providing toys to chew on is not going to be enough to prevent problem chewing. Here are some tips to manage the behavior: 

Put things away so that your dog cannot access things you do not want them to chew on. Put away the shoes and laundry.

Provide your dog with appropriate chew items and chew bones. Do not feed the dog bones from the table. Provide natural chew bones made for dogs. 

  • Identify the times of day when your dog chews and provide an option such as a puzzle chew toy at those times.
  • Supervise your dog and if you see the dog chewing on something the dog should not have, take it away, say, "No" and give the dog something they can chew. Seek professional help if your dog is aggressive when you take the object.
  • Do not give the dog the run of the house when you are not home. Keep the dog confined where there is less likelihood of getting into trouble. 
  • Make sure your dog is getting enough exercise and attention.
  • Do not offer your dog old items to chew on. Your dog cannot tell the difference between an old shoe and a good shoe. 
  • Teach your dog what is acceptable for chewing and provide your dog with a balance of exercise, diet, and safe spaces with appropriate objects for chewing to provide a safe environment. 

How to React When Your Dog Misbehaves:

  • Do not show the dog the damage done and spank or scold them.
  • Do not hit your dog.
  • Do not put duct tape on your dog.
  • Do not leave the dog in the crate for an extended time (more than 6 hours.)