- The Daily Wag!
- Can Dogs Feel Guilty?
Can Dogs Feel Guilty?
You've been there - you've walked into the house after a few hours away, looked down, and seen your favorite pair of shoes ripped to shreds and a very guilty, eyes-cast-down dog who can't meet your gaze. That guilty dog look really is something else, but can your pup actually feel the guilt for what they've done?
Odds are, they know they've done wrong - you've trained them not to eat your things or chew up your stuff, but there they go, chewing and eating. There are tons of resources and research that let us know that our dogs absolutely feel the guilt when they know they've messed up (Scientific American, for example, says that 74 percent of dog owners believe that their dogs feel guilty when they misbehave).
Even if you don't have a dog, you know what we're talking about. You've seen those hilarious dog-shaming posts on the internet where a downtrodden dog looks at the camera with sad-eyes and a sign strung around their neck saying something goofy like "I dragged the garbage around the house for hours" or "I ate my brother's favorite toy because I'm selfish."
We will note that dog guilt isn't exactly like human guilt. It's more like, "I want to please my human, and my human is unhappy that I've had accidents all over the house, so now I'm upset."
Doggo guilt can best be examined when you know what signs to look for. We've put together a list of their body language cues they'll give you to let you know they're guilty, how you can help them change their guilty behavior, and what you can do to prevent dog-shaming episodes.
Signs Your Dog Is Feeling Guilty
When it comes to doggo behavior, it's all in the body language. Even before you stumble across that accident in the house or that ripped up pillow, you can pretty much judge that your dog's done something they're not too proud of just by their behavior.
For example, your dog will give you the look. Sure, that's vague, but you know what we're talking about. They'll hang their heads and look at the ground. They might give you those big, wide puppy dog eyes where they look up all innocent-like.
They'll get submissive, too. Slumped down shoulders, low or skittish gaits, putting their tails between their legs and dropping their ears are all signs of submission. You can likely expect some side-eye from your dog, too. They likely won't want to meet your gaze because they know they've done wrong. Expect doleful looks, submissive body posture, and if your dog has a dramatic streak, a little whimpering and soft doggy sounds.
Historic Causes of Guilty Dog Behavior
Word on the street from researchers and doggy experts is the body language we get from dogs after they've done something wrong is less guilt and more a simple, submissive response to body language from the higher ranking person - that's you.
According to Texas A&M University professor Bonnie Beaver, it's hard to tell if dogs can actually feel guilty or if they simply respond to stimuli surrounding their behavior. The most common cause of this "guilty" dog behavior is when the dog does something he knows, or is trained to know, is wrong. Think accidents in the house, making a mess, tearing up the couch, or jumping up on guests. Your dog has been trained to know what's right and wrong, but they're dogs - they do not understand the "why".
The Science Behind Dog Guilt
As dog owners, we often thrust human emotions on our pooches to try to relate to them better. While dog's do have emotions similar to people, they're not always as cut and dry as we like to think. For example, your dog might feel "guilt" about misbehaving, but they don't process that emotion the same way that people do.
Your pup understands the connection between something being wrong, but he doesn't understand the reason it's wrong or the reason you're upset. More likely, your dog is giving you the "guilty behavior" because they're scolded.
Dogs are creatures that are led by stimuli, and they'll react appropriately to that stimuli. So, if your dog is being scolded, they'll obviously change their behavior to mimic your reaction. Often, your dog will know they've done wrong and feel bad about it, but not because they understand it's inconvenience. They simply want to please you, and when they know their actions don't please you, they get the guilty look.
How to Train Your Dog to Cut The Guilty Drama
Getting your dog to stop giving you that guilty look is pretty simple - stop the behavior that's causing them to give it to you in the first place. Make sure your dog is well-versed in the basic commands - things like no, sit, stay, drop it, leave it, and come are all going to play a giant role in your dog's behavior.
If your dog suffers from bad behavior when you're gone, this might be a form of separation anxiety. Lots of dogs misbehave while their owners are gone, and upon return, the owners find not only a torn up sofa, but a super guilty-looking doggo.
If your dog struggles with these issues, consider crate training them. Instead of giving them free reign of the whole house while you're gone, give them a comfortable, safe, and spacious crate to make them feel at home and secure.
By a Great Dane lover Hanna Marcus
Published: 03/02/2018, edited: 04/06/2020
More articles by Hanna Marcus