74% of dog parents believe their dogs feel guilt based on their dog’s “guilty” body language after their rule-breaking – but is it correct?
Here’s what the science tells us:
- Dogs do feel emotions and some researchers believe dogs have the mental and emotional development of about a 2-year-old human.
- Evidence shows that canines feel primary emotions (fear, anger, love, happiness).
- Research cannot confirm if dogs feel secondary emotions like jealousy, shame and guilt.
- But it’s still up in the air if dog’s do indeed feel guilty.
Why Does My Dog Look Guilty?
When your dog meets you at the door, head low with ears slicked back and eyes averted, is that a canine apology? Does your dog look guilty? The behaviors certainly mimic what humans associate with feeling shame or apology. We know dogs can feel grief, but whether guilty behavior accurately reflects the dog’s true feelings is open to debate.
Not all dogs “act” guilty, though. I don’t think my Magical-Dawg has ever felt the least bit apologetic about swiping the cat food, or chewing up something he shouldn’t. Other dogs, though, slink around the house every time owners come home, prompting you to ask (with an appropriate accusing tone of voice),
“What did you do?”
That makes apology-pup act even more guilty, while you search the house for whatever the miscreant has done. When dogs learn you get upset if they scatter the garbage, they theoretically may “act guilty” after such behavior and tell on themselves even before you know something has happened. That’s one explanation, anyway, but honestly, I don’t buy it.
Dogs show these same apologetic behaviors when they’ve done nothing wrong. What’s up with that? Learn about top dog behaviors here.
Teaching Bad Associations
We often teach dogs to act guilty as a default behavior. We don’t mean to do it, but dogs pay attention to events and consequences. She learns to apologize when you give her certain cues, or she recognizes a routine that has a predictable outcome. Here’s what happens.
You’ve returned home and found dog-damage. Fair enough. But thereafter, you return home EXPECTING to find dog-damage. As a result, your dog associates your homecoming with these intimidating human behaviors:
- Accusatory tone of voice
- Looming posture
- Heavy footfalls
- Strong eye contact
When dogs feel anxious, they use behaviors to diffuse the threat that they feel. These behaviors may look like they feel contrite, when actually your dog simply wants you to stop shouting and stomping around the house. She may have done nothing wrong. And, if she chewed up the sofa cushion hours before, your dog may not even recognize THAT’S what has you upset. Nope, she just goes through the motions of what diffuses potential aggression. Shy and anxious dogs especially may associate your displeasure with a potential attack—how scary (and sad) is that?
Dogs do this with other threatening dogs, too, to tell them, “I am no threat, and you’re the boss of me!” They’re called appeasement gestures, sometimes called calming signals, and often include:
- Slicks his ears down
- Licks lips
- Crouches low to ground
- Grovels on the floor
- Rolls over
- Wets—(submissive urination)
Nobody knows for sure if dogs feel guilt, or simply go through the motions. But it’s clear that our dogs do pay exquisite attention to their human’s behavior and emotions, and react accordingly to make us feel better and diffuse our upset feelings. How cool is that?! It’s up to us, as caring and savvy pet parents, to do the same for the fur-kids that we love.
While we still don’t know for sure if dogs feel sorry for what they’ve done, plenty of humans feel guilty for yelling, scolding or being angry with their dog. Do you ever feel guilty about what you did while parenting your pet? You’re not the only one.
What About Cats?
Like dogs, cats can definitely look guilty, but more research is needed to know for sure. What we do know—cats are wired to follow their instincts. Their cower might be a fear response to your yelling (not guilt for doing something wrong) or they might fight with a new cat in the household to establish hierarchy (not because they’re jealous).
If you’re dealing with challenging pet behavior, be sure to visit the veterinarian asap to rule out any underlying health issue.
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!