Do dogs feel guilt?
Updated: Jul 28, 2022
Does your dog “know they did something bad” and yet continue to steal shoes, get into the garbage, have accidents, or jump on the counter? What does your dog do that tells you that they are feeling guilt or shame? Do they avoid you, or lower their gaze, pin their ears back, while thumping their tail between their legs? These are just a few fearful-submissive behaviors that are commonly confused with guilt. But how do we know that dogs are most likely feeling fear in these moments, and not guilt or shame?
Body language does not lie, but it can be misunderstood, especially across species. These misunderstood guilty expressions fall under the umbrella of fearful and appeasement/submissive gestures. The “guilty look” is a fearful-submissive behavior from a history of ineffective harsh or poorly-timed punishment.
How can we know if dogs feel guilt when we cannot ask them how they feel?
To find out, Horowitz (2009) set up an experiment where dogs were left alone with a piece of food that they were instructed not to eat. The dogs were either given the opportunity to eat the food, or the researchers took the food so the owners were given the impression that the food was eaten. They found that dogs still looked guilty when scolded even if they didn’t eat the food.
Hetcht (2012) did a similar study where dogs were left with food that they were told to leave alone. When the owners returned to the room, the food was either eaten by the dog or taken by the researcher so the owner was given the impression that the food was eaten. They were asked to stand still while their dogs greeted them and assess if the dogs were guilty or not. Just like in the last study, the dogs displayed a guilty look regardless of if they ate the food or not. This suggests that these dogs were reacting to their owner’s behavior, not their own behavior.
If dogs can feel guilt, they shouldn’t express guilt if they weren’t the ones that broke the rules. It makes sense for both groups of dogs to display fearful or appeasing behaviors if their humans were upset with them.
Guilt has no place in dog training
I once worked with a dog who was written off as “untrainable” because the dog didn’t express any “guilt” or “shame” when punished for bad behavior. This is based on the false belief that if the dog knows they did something bad, they will express guilt, making guilt desirable in training because that’s how you know the dog has been properly disciplined. When this tactic fails to address behaviors that occurred while the owner was gone or in another part of the house, the blame is placed on the dog for not feeling guilty/bad enough for breaking the rules. This will oftentimes encourage the handler to deliver a stronger punishment so the dog “feels bad enough.”
For a dog to understand why they are being punished or rewarded, the consequence must happen within a moment of the target behavior. Noncontingent punishment, such as punishing a dog for something that happened even 5 seconds after the undesirable behavior occurred, will usually result in more “guilty” expressions without decreasing the target behavior. Instead of learning what they can do to avoid punishment in the future, they learn that you are unpredictable, and you might become scary and intimidating at any moment. This gives them all the more reason to become fearful or overly submissive. In contrast, a dog that understands why they are being punished will not behave fearfully because they are confident in what they can do to avoid the consequence in the future. Proper training does not require harsh forms of punishment, and should not create fear in the dog.
Punishment in psychology is defined as something that decreases a behavior. A target behavior can be punished through something called positive punishment (adding something to decrease a behavior) or negative punishment (taking something away to decrease a behavior). Training isn't about teaching the dog that they did something right or wrong, but it is about teaching the dog that their actions have consequences.
Dogs can develop pseudo-guilt when they have been punished around destroyed items or soiled areas. These dogs might even display fearful-submissive behaviors even before the damage has been discovered, or if another dog committed the act. They might understand the connection between the environment and your behavior, but this doesn’t impact their future behavior. This is because the punishment had poor timing, or there weren’t any interventions that impacted the underlying cause of the behavior.
This phenomenon is especially detrimental for dogs that experience separation distress. The dog experiences distress while their humans are away, triggering an accident or destructive chewing. If the dog has been punished for such behavior when the owner gets home, the dog is learning that the mess AND its distress are precursors to punishment. Sadly, their behavior will likely continue because the underlying cause of their behavior has not been addressed.
Dogs don’t have a moral compass like us. They are opportunistic creatures that make decisions based on what has worked for them in the past. Many dogs have learned that they cannot get away with certain behaviors if you’re nearby, but they can if you’re preoccupied with something else or if you aren’t home. That’s why many dogs will sneak into the kitchen to grab food off the counter when we are watching TV in another room, or chew on the rug when we aren’t home.
I recently worked with a dog who became fearful of one of her caretakers every time he came home from work. It all started when he came home to find that she chewed on a rug while he was away. He scolded her and thought that would be the end of it. Since the punishment occurred long after the behavior, the dog had no idea that she was being scolded for chewing on the rug. Instead, she learned that she might be scolded after he came home, which made her fearful of him every time he came home. Before they started training with me, she would oftentimes urinate when he would come home because she was so worried.
Thankfully, it is possible to teach your dog boundaries and manners without making your dog fearful
For counter surfing, problematic chewing, and potty training issues, you have to prevent the problem if you hope to improve it. This might mean that you have to use gates to block your dog from the counter or your shoes when you can’t supervise your dog and crate them when you aren’t home. When you are home, supervise your dog closely so you can reward them for good behavior and prevent them from making poor choices.
Does your dog display fear-submissive behaviors when you are telling them to do something? If you find that you are yelling at your dog to gain compliance, your dog is likely responding to your tone of voice rather than your instructions. If your dog cannot respond to you in a calm tone of voice, there is a good chance that your dog doesn’t clearly understand what is being asked, and you should seek the help of a professional trainer so you can learn how to effectively communicate to your dog.
Hetch, J., Miklosi, A., & Gacsi, M. (2012). Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dogs. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 139(1-2) 134-142.
Horowitz, A. (2009). Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioral Processes, 81(3) 447-452.
Lindsay, S. (2005). Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Vol. 3: Procedures and Protocols. Wiley-Blackwell.