According to science, your pup may not actually feel the emotion of guilt over something bad they have done. Rather, they are responding to the negative energy and body language you are putting out and respond to you with the appearance of a guilty "look."
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Signs of a Dog Feeling Guilty
So why does your dog act as though they are guilty, even before you scold them for something bad they have done? What are the most common signs your dog is showing "guilt?" Let's take a look.
Whether or not your pup has actually done something bad or not, most dogs respond with guilt signs after they have been scolded. This suggests that the signs of guilt your dog is displaying are actually a form of submission to your scolding and negative energy and body language. Essentially, they will avoid eye contact, lower their ears, bow their heads, hide from you, lay on the floor, put their tail between their legs, give you the puppy eyes, etc. to show they know you are upset and that you are in charge. These are the most common forms of apparent guilt your dog is likely to show.
However, these signs can vary from dog to dog and they can display any variation of the most common signs we discussed above. The best way to tell if your dog is responding to your stress/negative response is to observe them when they have done something bad and see what emotional signals they show.
- Ears drop
- Hiding from you/laying on the floor in front of you.
- Bowing or lowering their heads.
- Showing their puppy eyes.
- Tail between their hind legs.
- Avoiding eye contact with you.
History of Dogs Feeling Guilt
A multitude of people have stories about coming home from work to find their favorite couch torn apart and stuffing ripped out, only to find their very guilty pup hiding in a closet trying to avoid the human because they know they have done something bad. For as long as dogs have been domesticated, there is surely years upon years of stories and tales of dog owners claiming and believing their pup is able to feel guilt and subsequently show the emotion of guilt as well.
Over time, it has elicited a handful of studies to see she how dogs feel emotions and what emotions they may feel. Many studies suggest dogs don't feel guilty, while many other professionals believe there is a severe lack of evidence to blatantly claim dogs don't feel quilt at all. This is an important topic because for centuries there has been wonder and speculation about what emotions dogs feel and how they feel those emotions. There remains much of a mystery surrounding how complex dogs' brains actually are and what their brains are capable of.
Science Behind Dogs Feeling Guilt
There have been no direct studies examining if dogs really don't feel guilt - i.e. no brain imaging studies have been performed on dogs when they are believed to be experiencing guilt, so there is a lot of room for conversation regarding this topic.
Most of the claims that state that dogs don't feel guilt are based on some variation of evidence, but in the end, the conclusions are just mere speculation, not hard and true fact. For instance, one of the most commonly cited studies by Dr. Horowitz that suggest dogs don't feel guilt, never actually confirms with irrefutable evidence dogs don't feel the guilty emotion.
In fact, the study was not actually about whether or not dogs feel quilt, but how well humans are able to detect guilt in their dogs. In later years, Dr. Horowitz, a renowned dog researcher at Barnard College, states that her study never concluded dogs don't feel guilty, and to close the door on research regarding this subject would be premature.
The bottom line is, we don't know definitively whether or not dogs can or cannot feel the emotion of guilt and the scientific community remains split on this subject. Therefore, for the time being, we say owners of pups decide whether or not they believe the actions their dogs display after they do something bad is genuine guilt or if it's instinctual or learned behavior.
Training for a Dog Feeling Guilt
How To React if Your Dog is Feeling Guilt
Use a stern voice.
Use commands like "no" and "bad dog."
Give them a puppy time out.
Reprimand them for bad behavior, but don't be too aggressive.