Guilty as Charged

imageWith tons of dog shaming photos and videos buzzing around social media these days, it got me to wondering, do dogs feel shame or guilt? Everyone will tell you their dog ‘knows’ when he’s done something bad; he’ll hang his head or go to another room out of shame, but is it really shame or remorse that he’s feeling? I thought maybe for just a nanosecond it might be in Sam’s case, but research suggests otherwise.

Oh, you know that look and exactly what it looks like: pathetic, hangdog look often times with lowered head, ears back and a soulful “I’m so sorry, it won’t happen again” pleading from his eyes. It’s next to impossible to catch Sam on the sofa though I know he’s been on it due to the obvious indents on the pillows (despite the rule that dog must be invited in order to lounge on furniture–whether it’s on the sofa or the bed). I can’t decide if he’s actually sorry for disobeying the rule or so excited to see me or some combination of heaven only knows with that dog because he always jumps down before I can whip out a camera and photographically bust him.

A 2009 study suggested that ‘guilty’ look is in response to being scolded and not from any real feelings of shame. A Barnard College psychology professor put a number of dogs through a series of trials to see how they reacted when their owner told them not to eat a treat and then left the room. Naturally some ate the treat, others did not which lead Professor Horowitz to observe that the dogs assumed the “look” most often when the owners reprimanded them. While she didn’t rule out the possibility that dogs may feel guilt, she pointed out that ‘look’ isn’t necessary an indication of it. Of course, dogs (hopefully) learn from bad behavior but probably only based upon our reaction to what occurred which underscores the importance of catching them in the act so they will make the connection between good and bad behavior. All this prompted me to try a couple tests myself to confirm.

Recently I was able to bust Sam getting into something he shouldn’t have, I raised my voice and said “Oh Sam, what did you do?” spoken with a stern voice but with a slow cadence with pauses between each words and heavy emphasis on each word as well. Immediately that hangdog look took over. It was so pitiful, I actually chuckled inside because it was hilarious. I shooed him away knowing full well he’d back in a moment to investigate since he really hadn’t had enough time to quench his curiosity. And just as predictable as if he were some pre-teen, he was back in a few minutes sniffing and checking it out again. When I ‘caught’ him in the act again, I said nothing. He was a little confused and then followed me out of the room with his tail happily swishing as if I’d bestowed some awesome gift on this goofball. Of course I removed the curiosity so avoid this again.

Clearly my non-reaction was a better outcome for Sam and he proved it by being his usual goofy self, tossing his head, wagging his tail and trying to engage me in play. I guess the real take-away for me here is to make sure the house is completely baby’ proofed so that the opportunity for mischief is removed. We’ll both be happier and that’s the bottom line, right?

Do your dogs show you that ‘guilty’ look when you found they’ve committed some bad behavior? Did it make you secretly smile or be obviously cranky?

Live, love, bark! ❤

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16 thoughts on “Guilty as Charged

  1. My Golden Life

    I am of the opinion that dogs are opportunists. When they see an opportunity to do what they want to do, they will seize it and enjoy to the fullest extent possible. But they are also way smarter than us in that they know how not to get caught in the act (most times). They know no guilt or shame, just the tone of our voice. Which is what they react to (or not).

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  2. Anna

    I think it’s just human nature to anthropomorphize domesticated animals, in other words we can’t help assigning human attributes to them that aren’t actually there. My dogs only “look” guilty to me because in my mind they should be for whatever no good they were just up to, but I agree they’re really just responding to my stern voice. Positive reinforcement and removing opportunities for mischief is the only way to go! 🙂

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  3. maxwellthedog

    Every dog I’ve owned or known well has a move I call “The Slink”. The Slink is not in reaction to any words and often is caught in the corner of your eye meaning the The Slink occurs not from getting caught but from knowing that the next action is disapproved. The Slink usually consists of frequent sideways glances, a lowering of the body and a stealthy walk, often with tail down as the pup gets closer to the misdeed. Looks like he is expecting to get disciplined but has decided the reward is worth the price. So I guess I’m in the camp that dogs have some level of guilt association.

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  4. camparigirl

    I read the same research and, while it might be true dogs feel no guilt, they can tell right from wrong. How else would you explain never catching Sam on the couch? Same goes for my dogs: they do know they are not allowed on bed but I do catch indentations sometimes – yet, I never catch them.

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  5. Will and Eko

    The dog in your photo is completely following the rule. One dog is fine, he just can’t invite a friend up.

    As for the guilty look. I’ve wrestled with what it means (aside from a clean up now and a laugh later). My brother’s dog would always greet us at the door, unless he’d done something bad. In that case he’d hide before we even saw him. So clearly he knew we’d be upset by what we found, but did he feel any guilt on his part? Who knows.

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    1. Tails Around the Ranch Post author

      It is remarkable that sometimes they act as though they have really thought the whole thing through, from the actual misdeed to the hiding afterwards. Dogs are much smarter than we sometimes give them credit!

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