Bad dog! No! (Do Dogs Feel Guilt?)

By Brian Gendron, Ph.D.
Published July 12, 2012

Man’s best friend just ate another pair of your shoes. Naturally, you scold him for it, at which point you might notice an expressed reaction that looks a lot like guilt. But are canine’s capable of such a complex emotion?

Guilt is a self-conscious emotion, which requires a self-concept (an understanding that one is separate from the world around them, and that others have their own self-concept, filled with different thoughts, information, and desires). Psychologists argue that self-concepts blossom in the second year of life. A well-known test of this is known as the “mark test” and it involves placing a mark on a child’s face, then having that child placed in front of a mirror. Those with a self-concept recognize their physical form in the mirror and notice that something has changed about their image. Thus, they will touch the mark on their face. Younger children will not take notice of the mark on their face, as though they don’t distinguish their mirror image from anything else in their surroundings either. They remain egocentric, and thus unable to experience self-conscious emotions.

To experience something like guilt requires one to put themselves in the ‘mental shoes’ of another person. It appears as though this ability arises in humans by age 2. But what about dogs? What are they really experiencing when they put on that adorable guilt-esque face (see video below)? 

Turns out, what you are seeing is probably not guilt, but actually just a display of submission. In one 2009 study, dogs were put into separate rooms from their owners. The owners were then told that their dogs ate something they shouldn’t have. In actuality, some dogs did eat the forbidden item, and others did not. Next, the dog owners came back into the room and verbally reprimanded their pets.

The results? Even if a dog had nothing to be guilty of, it still showed the familiar submissive expression, This ultimately suggests we are assigning human ideas to less complex displays of normal canine behavior.



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About the Author

has a Ph.D. in Psychology and enjoys writing in the third person.

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