October 1, 2020
Most dog owners have had the experience of coming home and knowing that their pooch has been up to something. They look at you with their big eyes and tucked tails as if to say, “did I do that?” They look super guilty and sure enough, you find the trash upended or a pillow ripped up. Now your dog may have looked guilty but did they feel guilty?
Dogs have emotions too
Dogs do have feelings. They can feel happy, sad, angry, these are all considered primary emotions. But guilt is a complex emotion, like pride or embarrassment. All of those feelings are considered secondary emotions, and it is commonly believed that dogs do not experience those sentiments.
I hear what you are saying, but my dog looks mad guilty
So if dogs don’t really feel guilt, why do they look like they are guilty when they do something wrong? There are a couple of possible explanations. A “guilty” look can mimic stress or anxiety (tail between the legs, whale eyes, lip licking), if this destructive behavior has happened before and you’ve been upset about it, a dog could be anticipating your anger and be nervous. That look can also be appeasement. Around 60% of dog owners say that they are less angry at their dog when they look guilty. If a dog can sense you being annoyed they might be defensively acting pitiful so you will reduce your frustration level. That’s right, your dog might be playing you.
Dogs live in the moment
Remember that dogs mostly live in the moment. One reason a dog can’t feel guilt is they don’t associate what you are mad about to their previous actions, they just know that you are mad or annoyed. When we put human emotions onto dogs like guilt or remorse, we are anthropomorphizing them – which isn’t fair to the dog.
What to do with my little (not so) guilty criminal?
Try to use positive reinforcement to encourage the behavior you want to see. You can’t shame a dog, but you can make them wear a sign that tells the world exactly what they ripped/chewed/ate/destroyed.
Zoe Sjogerman is the North-East manager for Rover-Time and has been part of the RT team for four years. When she isn’t walking dogs she is the executive director of Avalanche Theatre and an avid book reader. She lives in the north-side of Chicago with her husband. Although she doesn’t have a pet of her own, she loves getting to walk pups all over the Chicagoland area.