Do Your Dogs Feel Guilty?


Guilty Dog
Estefany Blasco / Flickr

If there is one animal that could express all the human emotions in the best possible way, it is a dog. Dogs have a very expressive face as well as body language. You can understand when they are happy, sad, excited, and grieving. However, some emotions are still beyond the mental makeup of all the animals, including dogs. Guilt is one such emotion.

If you are a dog owner, this is no surprise that many times you would have walked over your pooch when he was mercilessly tearing your cushions or chewing your expensive product. Before you could even react, the little fellow would drop his gaze and make an angelic face that is way too difficult to not adore.

So, what’s this expression on his face? Fear? May be, guilt? Let’s find out.

The Science of Emotions

Scientists broadly divide emotions into two categories – primary emotions and secondary emotions. Happiness, grief, and fear are classic examples of primary emotions and are the least complicated to understand, while the more complicated emotions like pride, jealousy, and guilt constitute secondary emotions.

Guilty Dog
Calamity Jenni / Flickr

Experts state that animals lack complicated secondary emotions. It brings us to a very confusing question – “Do dogs feel guilt?”

Well, what makes this question confusing for many dog owners is the fact that they have seen their furry friends giving out a “guilt-stricken” vibe on various occasions where they did something to dismay their masters. If that’s not guilt, what possibly could it be?

Guilt or Fear?

Lack of understanding of guilt doesn’t make dogs any less intelligent and expressive. They are completely capable of understanding when their masters are upset. Your dog will not take even a moment to realize that their naughty stint with your expensive belongings has miffed you to the core & you are about to channel all your frustration by punishing them. And, the sad face and all the emotions that your dog expresses is in reaction to your anger. There may be no guilt.

Guilty Pug
Mike O / Flickr

The innocent eyes and dropping face are not an implication of an apology or an assurance that this will not be repeated. It may be just a reaction that can be based on similar episodes from the past. This phenomenon is called the learned association. In simpler words, you may have scolded your dog for the same reason in the past, and he may be reacting, much in advance, with submissive behavior.

According to Mary R. Burch, a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Ph.D. and AKC Family Dog Director, dogs don’t feel guilty. Burch states that your dog may give out indications of guilt by the virtue of dipped head, avoiding eye contact, dropped ears, and tail tucked between the legs, but it is not guilt; it could be fear. Dogs are not capable of processing guilt in their system. They are oblivious to this complicated emotion.

Katie Coleman / Flickr

Bottom Line

A question mark has been lingering over this emotion since eternity. Many scientific studies and research have been carried out to figure out whether dogs feel guilty or not, but no study indicates any result even remotely affirming or denying the subject of study. Many theories try to prove the point and draw a suitable conclusion, but every essay, every article, and every theory ends with “maybe” instead of giving a definitive answer. The presence or absence of guilt in dogs is still a big mystery.

It is often said that few questions are best left unanswered. For the time being, we must not worry about this question that constantly raids our mind and focus on not giving our dogs opportunities to exhibit any behavior that makes way for complicated emotions like fear, aggression, shame, or guilt.


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