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Can Dogs Feel Shame?
You come home from work to find your dog cowering in the corner, ears down and back, and they have that infamous droopy-eye guilty face. This can only mean one thing...your dog has done something they are not supposed to.
Perhaps they went through the kitchen trash again or counter surfed and stole those muffins you made yesterday. Your dog looks guilty and like they are full of shame, but is this really shame they are expressing? Does your dog have the capacity to feel shame?
Although the answer is not completely straightforward, the general consensus in the scientific community is that dogs do not feel shame. However, there are some conflicting viewpoints that do suggest dogs can feel shame and guilt in some capacity.
Signs of a Dog Feeling "Shame"
Many studies have been conducted that confirm dogs can feel primary emotions, such as feeling happy, sad, and fearful. It is a different story when it comes to secondary emotions, like jealousy, guilt, or pride. The theory dogs are not able to experience secondary emotions like shame is because these emotions require cognitive sophistication and a high level of self-awareness, which a dog may not have.
Regardless of whether your dog has done something they are not supposed to do or not, most dogs respond as shameful after they have been scolded by their owner or can sense they are not happy. Reacting with signs of shame after you get angry at them suggests your dog is showing a form of submission to your scolding, negative energy, and body language, not because they know they did something bad prior to your arrival.
Dogs will show signs of "shame" or reaction to bad energy by avoiding eye contact, lowering their ears, bowing their heads, hiding from you, putting their tail between their legs, and giving you those bad puppy eyes, to confirm they know you are upset and they know you are in charge. Like we stated above, this is not shame per se, but a way to show their submission to you.
Signs of "shame" and submission can vary from dog to dog. Keep an eye on their behavior when you have found they did something wrong. Do they look guilty before you even say anything to them? Do they react in a submissive way after you show anger and frustration? Some dogs may not even show signs of shame and will act as if they are full of pride!
History of Dogs Feeling "Shame"
Although it may appear this topic is black and white, there is some gray area that suggests dogs may actually have the capacity to experience and feel more complex emotions than we may have thought. For many years, the most common consensus was that dogs were not able to feel more complex secondary emotions like shame.
Although, this theory is mainly reserved for the scientific community. There is a different opinion among dog owners, however. We have to remember that just because science has not been able to confirm dogs feel secondary emotions, it doesn't mean it's not possible!
Many dog owners have stories about coming home from work to find the dog bed has been shredded into hundreds of pieces or the kitchen trash has been rummaged through and scattered about the floor. They claim that before they even got mad at their dog, their pup was cowering, hiding under a bed, or sitting in the corner of a room with their ears drooped down and they puppy eyes gazing at the floor.
Stories such as these have been floating around for many many years, and we can assume that as long as dogs have been domesticated and a part of the family, similar situations happened as well.
This is a complex and highly subjective topic because for centuries, there has been speculation regarding what emotions dogs feel and how they are able to feel those emotions. Much mystery surrounds just how complex dogs' brains actually are and it may take hundreds of years to come to an actual conclusion.
Science Behind Dogs Feeling "Shame"
There have been a few studies on the guilty look dogs give when they do something they are not supposed to. Most of the claims that state that dogs don't feel guilt are based on some form of evidence from the study, but the conclusions are just speculation, not total fact. This is important to note because many who claim there is evidence to fully support these claims miss that fact that the evidence is not conclusive.
One of the most commonly cited studies was conducted by Dr. Horowitz that suggests dogs don't feel guilt or shame. The study took 14 dogs and videotaped them in special trials to see how the dogs reacted when they were told not to take the treat in front of them and then the owner left the room.
In some cases, dogs would eat the treat and other times, they would not. Horowitz found that the dogs' guilty look appeared most often after the owner scolded the dog for eating the treat, not before. Although this may suggest a pattern of behavior in some dogs, the study never actually confirms with irrefutable evidence that dogs don't feel shame after doing something wrong.
It is also important to note that the study did not start as a way to detect if dogs actually felt guilt or shame, but how well humans are able to detect guilt in their dogs. Years after the study was completed and some backlash from the study's findings, Dr. Horowitz stated her study never actually concluded dogs don't feel guilt and shame. Horowitz also said to cease research about dogs feeling shame would be premature.
Training Dogs to Feel or Not Feel Shame
You will not be able to train your dog to feel shame or train them not to feel shame, or at least to not show submission after doing something bad. Whether they truly feel shame or are just responding to their owner's negative energy, your dog's emotions and actions of guilt will remain.
This is not necessarily a bad thing for your dog to feel if they have done something wrong, and it generally will not affect your life or their life in any serious way.
If you find that your dog is constantly getting into things and acting badly when you are away from home, you may want to consider putting them in a crate while you are away or placing them in a spare room where they cannot get into anything. This won't just save you from a headache when you get home, but it will also keep your dog much safer as well.
By a Samoyed lover Kayla Costanzo
Published: 05/11/2018, edited: 04/06/2020
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