Can Dogs Feel Regret?

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Introduction

Oftentimes us humans may find ourselves in a bind. We fight with ourselves over past decisions that we made and we feel emotional over certain decisions that we forever wish we could change. That feeling is known as regret. Regretting something that we said or did can haunt us for long periods of time. It is a known fact about humans. 

When it comes to dogs, though, they cannot tell us if they regret something or if they feel guilty about eating that cookie you left on the table. So, it is up to us to just forgive our four-legged pals and move on. This still begs the question of whether or not dogs can feel any regret. If they do, how can we tell?

Signs Your Pup Feels Regret

Since regret is an emotional response to doing something wrong, we can more than likely assume that dogs are able to feel at least some form of regret. When you get home from a long day of work and you find out that your dog has ripped apart your kitchen trash bag, they usually back away and try to hide somewhere far away from the evidence. This is probably because they know that they did something less than wonderful. 

When we confront them with the evidence, we can usually see some signs that indicate they feel at least a little bad about it. When a dog is feeling regretful they may lower their head or their ears, which is a sign that they understand you are in charge and that they know they are in the wrong because they did not follow the rules of your home. 

Your dog may also act strangely by not looking at you. If they look at you, they assume you will immediately figure out they did something wrong, so instead, they will try to avoid any and all kind of eye contact. Dogs are usually understanding of the fact that they did something wrong even before you have found the evidence. More often than not, they give themselves away because they are acting so guilty.

Body Language

If you think your dog is feeling something like regret, watch for:
  • Cowering
  • Dropped Ears
  • Averting eyes
  • Tail tucking

Other Signs

Other cues to look for in this scenario are:

  • Lowering their head
  • Hiding

The History Behind Dogs Feeling Regret

We have taken a look at the signs dogs will display when they are feeling regretful, but how are we able to know that these signs indicate that they are actually feeling regret? According to studies done in the past, it has been brought up numerous times that dogs may be showing you these signs as a learned response. 

A group of researchers in Budapest decided to put together a study on a dog's response to feeling guilty. Their thought process was that dogs do not fully understand the feeling of regret, but because they sometimes get themselves into pickles, they have learned to react as if they feel guilty and regretful because it has been shown owners will punish them less when they act remorseful. 

Because of this study and others like it, people now believe that dogs may not be able to fully grasp the feeling of regret and may in fact only be reacting like they do because they have learned that by doing so they will not be punished as much. With how many studies have been done on our canine companions, it is hard to believe we have yet to completely figure out their feelings and how they portray emotions, but it is difficult to do so when we have a slight language barrier in the way.

Science Behind Dogs and Their Feelings

Various species have different ways of showing their emotions. Humans are easily able to let someone know how they are feeling just by saying something. If you look at another person and they are crying, that is usually a good indicator that they are sad. 

With dogs, it is much different because they can only show you how they are feeling by the movements that they make. Dogs learn over time what their humans want from them, so who is to say that they don't just learn a response and use it to make their humans feel better.

Training Your Pup to React

When your dog does something bad, it is hard to punish them when they bow their head and they give you their sad, puppy-dog eyes. Even so, it must be done. When it comes to training your pup when they exhibit bad behavior or they do something like chew up your sandals, it is hard because you have to make sure they will begin to understand that their behavior is bad, but you also need to be sure that you do not punish them to the point where they no longer trust you. Some pup owners just do not know the correct way to handle their pup's bad behavior and it must be dealt with carefully. 

With all of that being said, here are some ways to handle the bad situations with Fido a little bit better. When you come home from a long day of work and you realize there is trash strewn all about the house, your first instinct is to probably yell at your pup. You do not want to do this. Dogs do not have the best memory and although they will be aware they did something wrong, you do not want to scare them so much without at least knowing what they did. 

If you are in the room when it happens, a popular thing to do is to pick up a piece of the trash and bring it up to their face and sternly say "bad dog." When you do this, they will know they get nothing positive out of the situation and hopefully, they will stop doing it. 

When you put the item up to their face, they are able to smell it and they will associate that smell with negativity. When correcting bad behavior, just be sure to never hit your dog or punish them for too long after something happened because that will leave them confused and upset. Dogs just want to please their owners and will be shaken and undeniably upset if they continue to be punished for something they no longer remember. 

Safely Dealing With Puppy Regrets:

  • Never hit or yell at your dog. This kind of reinforcement may cause them to become depressed or even angry, which can become dangerous.
  • If you already have a temperamental pup, be sure to let them know what they did was bad and work on correcting their behavior without them getting angry.