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Do Dogs Feel Guilty?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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“I walked into the house, and he was acting strange. I could tell he had done something wrong,” she told me. I pressed for further details.

“His head was down, and he wasn’t making eye contact,” she explained. “Then, I found it. Under the bed.”

She had spent weeks training her dog, Henry, not to crap on the carpet. And there it was, under her bed. Evidence that he had transgressed. “He knew he had misbehaved, that’s why he was acting so guilty,” my friend insisted, sure that her dog knew that he had violated her rule.

Seventy-four percent of dog owners believe that their dogs experience guilt. One owner described her reasoning as follows: “I behave in a particular way when I feel guilty; my dog behaves in a similar way in equivalent circumstances; I know intuitively that my behavior is motivated by guilt; therefore the behavior I see in my dog is also accompanied by feelings of guilt.” Almost sixty percent of dog owners claim that their dogs’ guilty behavior leads them to scold their dog less.

There is plenty of evidence for what scientists refer to as primary emotions – happiness and fear, for example – in animals. But empirical evidence for secondary emotions like jealousy, pride, and guilt, is extremely rare in the animal cognition literature. The argument usually given for this lack of evidence is that such secondary emotions seem to require a level of cognitive sophistication, particularly when it comes to self-awareness or self-consciousness, that may not exist in non-human animals. In other words, guilt is complicated.

However, Charles Darwin observed that the types of behaviors associated with guilt – keeping one’s head down, and averting one’s gaze – are also seen in other social non-human primate species. On one hand, this should not be too surprising; guilt serves to reinforce social relationships and to minimize the effects of transgressions against social partners. These are important things for any social primate, whether monkey or man. The same patterns have been observed in wolves as well as domesticated dogs. In wolves, it is thought that guilt-related behaviors serve to reinforce social bonds, as in primates, by reducing conflict and eliciting tolerance from other members of the social group. The same could be true of dogs, though their social groups would primarily include humans.

The problem is that the display of the associated behaviors of guilt are not, themselves, evidence of the capacity to emotionally experience guilt. Do guilty behaviors follow from transgressions? If so, that would provide evidence that dogs may be aware of the violation. Or do guilty behaviors instead follow from scolding? This is a reasonable speculation, given that owners tend to scold their dogs less if their dogs “act guilty.” If this was the case, guilty behaviors could simply be the result of a learned association between a stimulus (such as crap on the carpet) and impending punishment – not so different from Clever Hans, the famous horse who relied on subtle behavioral clues from his owner in order to “succeed” at mental arithmetic problems. This is an empirical question that can be answered with a clever enough experiment.

A group of canine cognition researchers from Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, led by Julie Hecht (blog, twitter), created just such an experiment, which they report in a paper in press in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.

Given that so many dog owners report that they believe that dogs who have broken a rule act guilty even before the dog’s transgression is discovered, and given that owners report that they are likely to scold their dogs less following the display of guilty behaviors, it stands to reason that dogs’ “guilty look” may just be a learned response. If scolded, a guilty look might simply serve to reduce the duration of the negative social interaction. Keeping this in mind, the researchers designed an experiment to answer two questions. First, would dogs who had misbehaved in their owners’ absences behave differently when greeting their owners than dogs who had not misbehaved? Second, would owners be able to determine, upon entering a room and relying solely on dog greeting behavior, whether or not their dogs had actually transgressed?

In 2009, Barnard College psychologist Alexandra Horowitz found evidence that dogs were more likely to display behaviors associated with guilt after being scolded, whether or not they had actually been guilty of a perceived violation in the first place. However, in that experiment, dogs who had not misbehaved and were scolded displayed more guilt-associated behaviors than dogs who had been scolded and had actually misbehaved. And those behaviors also appeared in situations in which owners did not scold the dogs at all.

The new experiment was designed to address some of these problems. First, the researchers determined the baseline greeting behavior for each of sixty four dogs, when reunited with their owner after a brief separation. Then, the researchers enforced a social rule that food placed on a table was for humans, not for dogs. Then, dogs were left alone in the room with the food. Then, researchers assessed how dogs greeted their owners after eating or not eating the food. In addition, they assessed whether the owners could determine whether or not the dog had transgressed and eaten the food.

(A) The testing room. The barrier prevented the owner from seeing whether the dog had broken the rule. (B) Baseline greeting behavior is established. (C) Researchers present the food. (D) Researchers establish the rule. (E) The dog is told to sit. (F) The dog is left alone with the food.

The first finding validated the notion that dogs don’t always act guilty – only under certain circumstances. Dogs displayed significantly fewer guilt-related behaviors when being greeting by their owners, compared with when they were scolded. Next, the researchers wanted to see if dogs who had actually transgressed displayed more guilt behaviors than those who had not. The two groups were equally likely to act guilty! Together, these findings provide a potential answer to the first question: dogs who had misbehaved were not statistically likely to behave differently than dogs who had not misbehaved.

However, there was a subtle finding that may have actually provided evidence that the dogs who had misbehaved were more likely to show guilt-associated behaviors. But not in the way you might think. Each dog had three opportunities to greet their owners. Once before the rule had been established, a second time after the rule had been established and dogs had an opportunity to violate the rule, and a third time, after the rule had been established, but without an opportunity to violate the rule. While all dogs were more likely to act guilty during the second greeting while being scolded, only the dogs who had actually transgressed were more likely to continue acting guilty during the third greeting.

The next set of results are just as confusing. Almost seventy-five percent of owners were able to determine whether their dogs had misbehaved, which was significantly more than would have been the result of random guessing. However, it is possible that owners were relying on their dogs’ prior behavior to determine whether their dog misbehaved. Each dog had originally been presented with the food prior to the establishment of the social rule, and some of the dogs managed to eat the food before learning the rule. Perhaps, then, the owners were relying not on their dogs’ greeting behaviors at all, but on the dogs’ prior likelihood of eating the food! After removing those owners (who were aware that their dog had eaten the food before the rule was established) from the analysis, a different result emerged: owners were not successful in determining whether their dogs had misbehaved. They may as well have been guessing randomly.

Like many scientific studies, these results are a bit messy and fairly ambiguous. Why might that be? For one thing, the experiment was a highly unusual procedure for dogs and their owners. It is possible that there were so many new, salient stimuli in the testing room – including the unfamiliar researchers – that the dogs did not have enough working memory available to successfully encode the no-eating rule. It is also possible that previous in-test greetings or scoldings altered the later in-test greeting behaviors. The researchers acknowledge as much, writing, “an ambiguous social situation generated by repeated scoldings and greetings – not uncommon for experiments investigating guilty behavior – could affect the behavioral displays in question in a complex way.” While not uncommon for these experiments, these situations are far removed from more typical dog-owner interactions and the environments in which they occur.

Taken together, these results both support the common anecdote, that dogs act guilty prior to their owners’ awareness of the violation, as well as the earlier scientific findings that, regardless of transgression, dogs act guilty in response to being scolded by their owners.

Future research, according to the researchers, ought to investigate these questions in a familiar environment rather than in a laboratory, and should examine a social rule that has already been established between an owner and a dog. It may still be some time before we can know for certain whether dogs can experience guilt, or whether people can determine if a dog has violated a rule prior to finding concrete evidence of it.

But! – dog owners, take heart. Even that great observer of animal behavior Konrad Lorenz wrote of the dog’s “guilty look,” saying that we can “assume with certainty that it hides a guilty conscience.”

For more on canine social cognition:
Dogs, But Not Wolves, Use Humans As Tools
Biological Evidence That Dog is Man’s Best Friend
Did Dogs Gain Their Social Intelligence By Accident?

For more on secondary emotions:
Gratitude: Uniquely Human or Shared with Animals?

ResearchBlogging.orgHecht, J., et al., Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dogs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. (2012), doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2012.02.015

Horowitz A (2009). Disambiguating the “guilty look”: salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural processes, 81 (3), 447-52 PMID: 19520245

Dog photo copyright the author.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. SiaraDelyn 12:06 pm 05/31/2012

    For evidence see this:

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 12:13 pm 05/31/2012

    Well done. Dogs are so much easier to analyze and clearly understand than people!

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  3. 3. promytius 1:53 pm 05/31/2012

    Yes, and they are also exceptionally good at the Seven Deadly Sins, hypocrisy, being effusive, evasive, perspicacious and ALL other human qualities…
    not. Fourth grade vocabulary word: anthropomorphism, not science.

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  4. 4. JamesDavis 3:14 pm 05/31/2012

    If you expect us to take your word after that kind of research, then you have to take our word on our kind of research. When my boxer was a baby, he peed the bed twice; he has always slept with me ever since he was about six weeks old; the first time I just changed the covers and told him, in a voice that you would use with a child, not to do it again. The second time he peed the bed, I changed the covers, picked him up, cradled him in my arms like I did my son when he was that age, took him into the sofa, laid him down of the cushion I always sat on and told him, in the same kind and loving voice, that he had to sleep on the sofa until he felt that he wouldn’t pee the bed anymore. From my bed, I could see him on the sofa and he could see me. After two weeks, he got down off the sofa and came into the bed room, placed his front paws upon the mattress, looked up at me and whimpered a little. I looked at him and said, “You’re not going to pee the bed anymore are you, sweetheart?” He looked at me with sad eyes and I picked him up and put him up in bed with me and he has been the perfect child ever since. He felt ashamed and guilty for what he had done and thought that two weeks was enough punishment for his crime. I don’t know if he knew two weeks went by, but I do know that he thought that it was long enough. During the day, the bed wetting was never mentioned and I played and talked to him like I did every day and we always went on our walks.

    Dogs have been with us for over 30,000 years and they modeled themselves after our children, so how can you even think that dogs do not feel guilt or shame or pride?

    This happened the last time my son came home from the academy: I got up at my usual time at 5:30 and noticed that Herk wasn’t in bed with me as he always had been for the last six years. I looked in all his usual cool places he sleeps when he gets too hot and couldn’t find him. I went into my son’s room to ask if he seen him and there he was, sprawled out on the pillow beside my son. I looked at him with mean eyes and said, “You little trader!” He looked up at me and wagged his stubby tail like a bowl of jello in an earthquake and snuggled back down beside my son. Every fiber in my body knew that that tail wagging was not guilt, but pride and love he had for my son…after all, that’s his brother.

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  5. 5. Jason G. Goldman in reply to Jason G. Goldman 3:20 pm 05/31/2012

    “If you expect us to take your word after that kind of research, then you have to take our word on our kind of research.”

    Heh, well. The thing about research is that it isn’t the same as an anecdote, or a story. It’s controlled (to the extent possible), and generally (but not always) involves a larger sample than one. In this case, the sample was sixty four dogs and owners.

    This particular experiment may have left us with some ambiguous results, but that doesn’t make it unscientific. I’m not saying that your anecdote may not have something real underlying it; I’m just saying it doesn’t qualify as “research” or as “science.”

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  6. 6. ravine68 7:10 pm 05/31/2012

    Do I think that my dog feels moral or ethical regret? Of course not, that is kinda silly. Does he know when he has violated a rule and will likely be punished for it? Definitely. If I come home and he is hiding in the crate refusing to make eye contact then I get to play a special kind of hide & seek. The funny part comes when he forgets he got into the trash or something similar, presumably earlier in the day, until I walk into the room whereupon he looks at the mess and immediately skeedaddles. On the other hand, if you yell at your dog they understand you are upset even if they did nothing wrong and will respond accordingly.

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  7. 7. Lou Jost 8:57 pm 05/31/2012

    Once my dog lightly bit a visitor to my greenhouse (he was laying in front of the entrance at the time–maybe she tried to pet him). I yelled at him, and he gave me a “guilty” look, as expected. But then he did something extraordinary. He meekly approached the woman who had been bit and gently leaned against her leg, as if to apologize to the woman. I had never taught him anything like this, and indeed I was apprehensive when he started to approach her again, so he certainly was not getting any cues from me about this behavior. Incidentally the woman interpreted the behavior just as I did, as an apology, which she graciously accepted.

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  8. 8. janvones 1:15 am 06/1/2012

    I fail to see how a dog’s behaving guilty being a learned response would make it any less real guilt. Children learn guilt too by being punished. Certainly the behavior is not unlearned in humans.

    As for a dog’s having to have been punished for a specific act before in order to act guilty, that’s not the case. My family dog was mildly scolded on occasion for messing in doors and taught which furniture and rooms were off bounds. One day, attempting to chase a squirrel, she ran from the den to the backyard without stopping to open the screen door, which she knocked out of its hinges. I laughed; my mother jokingly said, “Wait til Dad gets home.” She quickly returned to normal behavior. But when Dad got home three hours later she crept towards the front door on her belly rather than running to greet him. This was not a cued or conditioned response.

    It is beyond all materialist and uniformitarian credulity to believe that a mammal with the same overall brain structure, the same neurotransmitters, and the same action patterns and behaviours as ours is not experiencing the same sort of subjective feelings as us. Our minds and theirs (and yours for that matter, given one could arbitrarily speculate you are a mindless zombie putting on a good act) are evolved from the same stock and subject to the same laws.

    As for the experiment described in the article, the dogs were taught a new and arbitrary rule in a strange environment. Dogs which acted guilty but had not eaten the food may have believed the rule was really don’t smell or go near the food or approach the table or so forth. The guilty behavior simply shows the combination of stress and the dog’s expectation that some behavior has been expected of him in this rule. Even humans can feel momentary guilt when they see police lights behind them, for example, even when obeying all laws. It doesn’t mean their having minds is in doubt.

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  9. 9. jtdwyer 8:46 am 06/1/2012

    OK folks, I hope the author’s intent was to answer the question of dog guilt in the article, not to solicit your favorite dog story…

    JamesDavis – it would have been more correct for you to say to your dog: ‘you little traitor’! – not trader…

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  10. 10. jgrosay 5:33 pm 06/1/2012

    The underlying problem in guilt may be that in childhood, most of us made an association between wrong doing and some kind of a punishment. When somebody makes something that deep inside him or her is not right, the guilt would come automatically, and probably won’t dissapear until begging and getting from somebody some kind of pardon, this would be the positive issue in guilt, but has also the inherent danger of yourself looking for the punishment that will relieve you from guilt. When you receive a punishment with no obvious reason, your mind starts running around to find your wrong fact reason why, and this puts you in dependence of the punisher, even when you feel having done nothing wrong. Some use an angry or philippic like tone of voice to give his/her assertions a moral value when their comments have no moral value at all, and many times this kind of instructions just look as wanting to take you out of the other’s way. There is also something called “guilt paranoia”, people being put in dependence from others, sometimes because of criminal pressures from the other part, will start feeling bad because deep in their mind they know being in the condition of harming the other. There are worst dangers: if you don’t find a way to get rid of accusatory indications from others, you may finally get depressed, as you’ve internalized that you’re an evil doer, and depression is some kind of a self-punishment that may get you feeling having paid for the wrong action, but in fact it’s just a feedback loop that increases you self-destructive pulsions over and over. You must remember that it’s not only in the psychoterapy field that there are many psychopats abusing neurotics.(For S Freud, neurosis are conflicts between a desire and a too strong superego that blocks even the desire coming into your conscience, there would be several ways to overcome this: reduce or modulate the superego strenght, increase the libido and ego strenght, or discard the desire as unconvenient, but once your mind has made the decission to accept the desire, this is a hard task to accomplish) Salut +

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  11. 11. rgerrits 7:07 pm 06/1/2012

    I am not an expert either, but bear in mind that people also may “act guilty” or demonstrate the same signals (such as a flushed face, for instance) when confronted with an accusation, even if they are not guilty. As the psicology involved in these cases is not always clear, likewise we cannot expect to speak in absolute terms about dogs in the same situation either.

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  12. 12. Lou Jost 7:09 pm 06/1/2012

    Jtdwyer, observations are essential first steps in the generation of hypotheses.

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  13. 13. MrVester 9:13 pm 06/4/2012

    According to Prof. Mary Holmes of UC Santa Cruz, “Dogs got their guilt from haven eaten the core of the famous apple from the Garden of Eden.” I can assure you if Mary said it, it has to be the truth. . . .

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  14. 14. lct115 11:23 pm 06/4/2012

    Interesting study, although I would suggest that for future research they have someone other than the dog’s human greet the dog and THEN see if the dog displays “guilty” behaviors. Otherwise, the dog may only be acting “guilty” because of a learned response from being scolded by their human. If the dog was indeed feeling “guilty,” the dog would display these “guilty” behaviors with any human, right? If it’s wrong to eat the food from the table, then it’s wrong to eat the food from the table — it doesn’t matter who’s greeting the dog. If the dog “knows” it’s wrong to eat the food from the table, then it’s wrong no matter who’s coming through the door next.

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  15. 15. RRMal13 8:11 am 07/25/2012

    You know anecdotally speaking. I have seen as much evidence for dogs feeling guilt as I have for humans feeling guilt. And you know when humans are being scolded (i.e. in a courtroom) they will fake showing guilt to get a lighter punishment for their crimes too.

    So frankly, unless someone finds a positive way to test if humans feel guilt in the first place, I can’t be sure whether either other humans or dogs can feel guilty.

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  16. 16. svend 12:04 pm 03/24/2013

    It would be useful to differentiate between shame and guilt. Sounds like what dogs most often experience is shame: they feel bad that they’ve done something that someone else disapproves of. Do they have enough sense of ego, and have they internalized this shame enough to be ‘ashamed before oneself’ even if they somehow knew that there was no one else to make them feel bad about it? If we cannot differentiate between feelings shame and guilt in general (if indeed there’s an appreciable difference), how can we run elaborate experiments testing these feelings in dogs?

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