Do Dogs Experience Guilt?

by Bonney Brown

It’s now widely accepted that dogs experience many of the same emotions we do. People who love animals are only surprised that scientists ever doubted this obvious fact.

“Dogs have all of the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans. Dogs even have the hormone oxytocin which is involved with feeling love and affection. It seems reasonable to suggest that dogs also have emotions that are similar to ours,” writes Dr. Stanley Coren, psychologist and author of many books about dogs. But he also cautions that we should not make the assumption that because dogs have emotions, they experience all of the same emotions we do.

When we come home to see that the trash can has been raided and trash strewn across the floor, we may turn to our dog with a stern face and tone of voice and see the dog react. One of our family dogs, Benji, was especially good at looking guilty —he would lower his head and lick his lips while nervous eyes looked away and glanced back. Everything about him seemed to say “I am SO sorry! Please forgive me!” It certainly looked like he felt guilt.

However, research shows that dogs’ minds are similar to that of a two-and-a-half-year-old child. At that age, children feel many emotions, including excitement, contentment, fear, suspicion and love, but the capacity to feel guilt, shame and pride develop later.

The behavior we interpret as guilt is a more basic emotion of stress or fear. The dog has either learned that when trash is on the floor and you come home you get upset or your dog may simply sense that you are angry and that it is directed at him. So a dog uses the same postures he or she would use with another dog to avoid a confrontation. Animal behaviorists call these behaviors appeasement or calming behaviors. Since your dog is not feeling guilty about the trash on the floor but simply trying to calm you down, any punishment is meaningless as far as preventing the problem behavior in the future.

Understanding this about our dogs can help us recognize when it’s time to take a step back and consider how we can best manage the environment to minimize the likelihood of them getting into trash in the future. It can also deepen the bond of love that we cherish with our dogs.

Events that Help Animals

The Great Bunny Ranch Rescue featuring dozens of bunnies for adoption as well as  adult cats for $10, adult dogs for $50, and kittens two for $60 or one for $35. All pets are spayed or neutered. At Nevada Humane Society, 2825 Longley Ln, Reno. 11:00am to 6:30pm daily and 10:00am to 6:30pm Saturdays.

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One Response to “Do Dogs Experience Guilt?”

  1. joyce styron madsen Says:

    So totally NOT true!!! When I come home all happy and cheerful after being away for a short time, three of my dogs are equally happy and cheerful to see me. But my little Chihuahua is hiding guiltily around the corner. At that point, I hadn’t even seen that she had chewed her bed and hidden it out of sight. My face and manner revealed nothing but happiness. But she knew she had done something wrong and GUILT was written all over her face. Maybe you need to do a little more doggy observation and a little less pseudo-research! 🙂

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