Do Dogs Feel Guilty?

32 Comments

Do Dogs Feel Guilty?Every time I see one of those dog shaming images with a guilty looking pup displaying their confession written on a sign hung around their neck, I wonder if any of those dogs really feel ashamed. Even though they may look or act remorseful, do dogs feel guilty?

What Do Researchers Say?

Most of the research on this subject suggests that dogs aren’t capable of having complex emotions like jealousy or guilt. It’s believed that when dogs act guilty, they’re usually responding to being scolded after they’ve done something wrong. Okay, I can easily accept that theory because I know how most dogs react when you raise your voice or use a stern tone with them, whether they’ve done something wrong or not. It’s also a common belief that dogs mostly live in the moment and don’t understand why they’re getting reprimanded for something, unless they’re caught in the act of the transgression.

…But Then There’s This Scenario

When I come home and Haley’s not standing at the door, ready to greet me with her wagging tail, I know something’s up! This happens on the rare occasions when I forget to move the kitchen trash can before leaving the house and Haley decides to have a field day redecorating the kitchen floor while rummaging through the can for tasty tidbits. I will find her lying in her bed with a guilty look on her face. You know the look: head lowered, ears back, pleading eyes and in Haley’s case, an ever so optimistic slowly wagging tail.

I have to admit, I have mildly scolded Haley a few times in the past for getting into the trash, but I haven’t done that for years because I realize now that it’s my fault for forgetting to move the trash can before leaving home. So, if she doesn’t feel guilt, as most researchers believe, why doesn’t she greet me at the door? If dogs live in the moment, wouldn’t she forget about her little party in the kitchen by the time I get home? She must know or feel that she’s done something wrong, because she won’t even look in the general direction of the trash can after I come home.

Here’s what I really wonder about. What’s she thinking or feeling during the time between her dirty deed and when I arrive back home? Does she look at the mess and think that sometimes I get upset when there’s trash on the floor? Does she lie on her bed for hours feeling bad about what she’s done or dreading the moment when I return home? I sure hope not! The fact that she doesn’t come to greet me means she’s feeling something and hasn’t forgotten what she’s done.

Dog Getting Into Trash

Remnants of the after-party party

Luckily, I don’t often forget to move the trash can when leaving the house and thankfully, Haley’s never eaten anything that made her sick but I’m glad that dogs don’t have opposable thumbs and the ability to create their own shaming signs and internet memes of us!

Despite the widely accepted theory that dogs don’t feel guilt, these two articles by Live Science and Scientific American suggest the verdict may still be out on whether dogs experience guilt or other complex emotions.


What do you think? Do dogs feel guilty when they’ve done something wrong?

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Do Dogs Feel Guilty?

32 Comments on “Do Dogs Feel Guilty?”

    • It just seems to me since the mammalian brain was around for a long time before humans went and piled a bunch of fancy grey matter on top of ours that emotionally we’re much closer to our fellow fur bearers than not.

    • Hi Y’all!

      Of course I feel emotions! I feel loss, loneliness, love, protectiveness. I know when you don’t feel well even when your spouse or parent doesn’t. I feel pain too, despite the fact many people think we don’t. What makes humans think they have an exclusive on these emotions?

      Y’all come on by,
      Hawk aka BrownDog

      Dog is God spelled backwards.

    • Definitely food for thought! If dogs can remember commands and tricks we have trained them to do, than why wouldn’t they be able to remember what happens when they get into something they shouldn’t? If they enjoy (are happy, excited, etc) to perform tricks for treats then I would think they would feel bad if they do something wrong.

      • Chasing Dog Tales

        I think so too! They do tend to live in the moment in some respects but they sure remember bad experiences that frighten them and experiences that are rewarding.

    • I think Oz raises an important point above. I guess I am not sure. It sure seems like Ruby feels guilty or has regrets sometimes. For example, she occasionally has an accident in the house (usually if we are late getting home). She does so in one spot in the basement. When we arrive home and she has made a mess in the basement, I can tell because she sits at the top of the stairs (while I go downstairs) and looks guilty. On days where she hasn’t made a mess, she comes bounding down the basement stairs with me.

      • Chasing Dog Tales

        Exactly! Ruby does know and remember what she did and maybe she does feel some guilt about it too. One day researchers will be able to know exactly what they’re thinking. I’m not sure we really want to know though, lol!

    • I don’t know if it’s necessarily “guilt” that they’re feeling – the same way we feel it – but I think they probably realize when they’ve done something that is not going to make mom & pop happy. Maybe it’s more like “regret” than guilt. Who knows? (They sure do *look* like they feel guilty though, eh?)

    • I don’t know if they feel guilt necessarily but they know what we like and don’t like, and generally want to please right? I think Mr. N definitely has a sense of wrongness. I tried really hard to get him to go in the airport bathroom for dogs with pads and he was like this is wrong, I don’t go indoors!

      • Chasing Dog Tales

        I’ve seen those doggy bathroom stations and I can’t blame Mr. N, haha! That must seem so unnatural to potty there.

    • I think it depends on the dog for sure but I totally think they feel and know a lot more than we think sometimes. Cocoa totally knows when she does something she should not and when we tell her she is wrong she will not look at us. She literally will look any way but to us because I think she knows and does not want to get in trouble. And sometimes she sneaks around to get something. Like if something is lying around that she is not supposed to have she will put her toy next to it and then chew her toy for a while and then when we are not looking she will get the thing she is not supposed to have!!

      • Chasing Dog Tales

        Haha! I had to laugh at Cocoa concealing things with her toys. Boy, is she smart! I bet the first time she did that, you thought it was a coincidence, then you were probably surprised when you figured out it’s a strategy. Cocoa’s got such an awesome personality! 💗

    • Great post. If it’s not guilt, then someone needs to hurry up and give it a name, because I can watch Jaxson come to me with a different stride and stance when he’s been into something he should’t have. Even when he’s caught in the action he will look at me sheepishly. If that ain’t guild please tell me what is… LOL

    • When Storm was hunt testing she had a terrible habit of breaking (or leaving before she was released to retrieve). In a master level test that is an automatic DQ. We tried all kinds of things to work on her staying put until she was released to retrieve. She was fine in training, but at a test with birds and gunfire, not so much. I don’t think she felt a bit guilty that we paid $80 for her to pick up one duck either. She knew she was wrong but the duck was more important to her.

      Then one test she broke, but hubby was able to call her back before she got to the duck. Again, she knew she was supposed to wait and this time she did look very guilty as hubby leashed her up and took her back to the truck with no retrieve. She never broke after that. 🙂

      • Chasing Dog Tales

        Being called back and not being able to participate that day really worked for Storm. There’s nothing more frustrating than having your dog take off after something and not listen, but paying $80.00 for it hurts even more, haha!

    • I don’t think dogs feel complex emotions like guilt. I firmly believe that dogs have been “trained” by humans to know when they will illicit a negative emotion. There is trash on the ground, humans will scream, there is poop on the floor, humans will yell, there is an empty bag of dog treats on the floor, humans will exhibit negative behavior. Dogs only know that one thing leads to another, this does not equal “guilt” on their part, rather a trained response of “oh shit” here comes the negativity.

      • Chasing Dog Tales

        I’ve wondered about that, Kristen. Maybe when Haley’s done rummaging through the trash, she sees all the debris on the floor and has her “oh shit” feelings, haha.

    • I’ve read about dogs probably not feeling actual guilt, but I have to admit it’s really hard not to make assumptions when we see the body language & postures they show sometimes. I read one rather convincing study that dogs seem to feel jealousy like us humans, which if true certainly doesn’t surprise me either. I think it’s neat how far canine cognitive science has come over the past few years, we’re learning more & more about how complex their emotions really are.

      • You have a great point about jealousy, Jen. I do think dogs feel some form of it. When I start loving on another dog, Haley will sometimes get between me and the other dog, but she’s relaxed and wiggly, not defensive. It seems like she’s jealous and only wants me to love on her.

    • I’m not really sure if dog’s feel guilt, but I have read dogs are really good at reading body language. I wonder if most of the time our dogs are just reading our body language and responding accordingly.

    • My cat is the one who gets into the trash. He does not feel one bit guilty, I know that! However, he does something similar to Haley where he lowers himself and looks away when he’s done something “bad.” This is sort of sad, but I think it’s because he’s been scolded so many times for this that he’s slightly “scared” of the consequence. But I guess I haven’t caught him hours after the fact in a long time. It’s usually within a few minutes or immediately.

      Dogs … I have no idea. I always believed they were incapable of feeling guilty but who knows! Remy certainly seems to feel no guilt but it’s harder to tell with Ace who is so much more observant and connected to my emotions.

      • It’s so funny to think about a cat feeling guilty, but some cats seem to be more like dogs than normal cats, so maybe they do feel some emotions like guilty. I’ve loved reading about Remy and I’ve been reliving so many of those issues from when Haley was a puppy. He sure is a sweetheart! 💗

    • On our run yesterday, we were on a familiar part of the trail where I let her off leash for about 200 yards. For the past six weeks, she has run ahead and in and out of the woods and then meets me at the turn that takes us back into a residential section. Instead of running to me, she spent the next TWO hours in a frenzy chasing rabbits, cats and who knows what else. It was raining and I could hear her collar/id so I tried it all- sweetly calling her name, begging, calling her name with authority and finally just hanging out close to her sound in the woods. I finally called my husband who left work and he firmly called her name and clapped his hands. Katniss did what I expected. She crawled out of the woods and laid down at his feet. I thought she was injured but she just acting pitifully ashamed and avoided me. She hung her head all the way home. Of course she won’t be off leash there again.

      • Oh my gosh, that had to be a looong two hours! Katniss must have been having a grand old time in the woods. It’s so frustrating when they won’t come to you but someone else calls them and they listen. I can only imagine the look on her face all the way home, haha! I’m glad it all worked out well in the end. 😊

    • Just like Humans, all dogs have different personalities. Roxie the hound dog knows when she does wrong but still does it just looks pathetic afterwards. Jakey the mini schnauzer also is aware when he does something wrong but basically has kind of a “screw you” attitude about it. “I’m cute, I screw up sometimes, Deal with it” . Neither of them rarely do anything they shouldn’t although at 11 Roxie has started stealing food even off the counter. Don’t leave any meat rest where she can get it because you’ll find your roast beef GONE! I’m not sure why she has suddenly started doing it. Teddy also knows and doesn’t care if he does things he shouldn’t. Generally it’s chewing up a paper towel that was left out. If he picks up something he shouldn’t, like yesterday it was a plastic fork, he bring it too someone and sets it at their feet looking extremely guilty. The funny thing with the fork is none of us have any clue where it came from.

      • What a wonderful pack you have, Mary! You’re right about their unique personalities. I think Teddy was trying to tell you that he would like to have some of that roast beef that Roxie helped herself to, haha! Jakey reminds me so much of a miniature schnauzer we had when I was growing up. They are just so adorable!

        I’m guessing your crew keeps you smiling and laughing and that’s an awesome thing.😊

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