Dogs Feel No Shame

When you come home to find the recycling bag you accidentally left on the floor torn to shreds with cans and papers scattered everywhere and start berating your guilty looking pup, don’t be a sucker. That skulking, tucked tail, and nervous eyes look does not necessarily mean your pup is sorry or feel ashamed.

So despite the popularity of various so called dog shaming web sites and videos, researchers say guilt is generally in the eye of the human beholder. The conventional wisdom among many animal behaviorists is that dogs do not feel guilt as we know it.

This is one reason that yelling at a dog for something that happened earlier is rarely an effective training strategy. Since your Poodle or Beagle doesn’t feel guilt, they won’t feel remorse over a past act. They will, however, become neurotic over your current anger and become confused as to the cause.

Bonnie Beaver, Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine professor and executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, says, “Just get over it and remind yourself not to put temptation in the way next time.” founder Pascale Lemire and author of Dog Shaming, admits, “I don’t think dogs actually feel shame. I think they know how to placate us with this sad puppy-dog look that makes us think they’re ashamed of what they’ve done. My guess is that their thinking is: ‘Oh man, my owner is super mad about something, but I don’t know what, but he seems to calm down when I give him the sad face, so let’s try that again.’”

Researchers have studied whether or not dogs in fact feel guilt. Alexandra Horowitz, an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College, videotaped 14 dogs to see how they reacted when an owner left the room after telling them not to eat a treat. Some dogs listened; other went straight for the snack.

Horowitz reports, “I found that the [guilty dog look] appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs, regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed or did something for which they might or should feel guilty. It wasn’t guilt but a reaction to the owner that prompted the look. I am not saying that dogs might not feel guilt, just that the guilty look is not an indication of it.”

Horowitz also believes there is a difference between guilt and shame.

Veterinary professor Beaver adds that dogs can certainly learn from bad behavior, but rewards or punishment are most effective right after action. “Humans have a natural desire to know what an animal is thinking, and yet will never truly know because we cannot ask them.”

So, is your Brittany or Queen Elizabeth Pocket Beagle really feeling guilt when they give you “that look.” We at Animaroo are not sure about the entire guilt thing, but we can definitely say a pup knows when it has done something wrong.

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