Do Dogs Feel Guilt? Hint: Social Media is Lying to You | Pupford

December 6th, 2022

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You come home to a chewed-up shoe, see your dog avoiding eye contact or making themself look small, and wonder… do dogs feel guilt? 🤔

The vast majority of pup parents believe that dogs feel guilt.

But what does scientific research say?

Alexandra Horowitz, a writer, professor, and researcher of dog cognition, conducted a study in 2009 to find out if our pups really can feel guilty!

So let’s break down her study and find out for ourselves if your pup really feels guilty after they have an accident on the carpet.

Let’s do it! ⤵️

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TERMS TO DEFINE

defining terms related to the dog guilt study by Alexandra Horowitz

Before we dive into the study, there are a few key terms to understand. Let’s line them out clearly below.

Anthropomorphism. Human interpretations of dog behavior rely heavily on anthropomorphisms. Anthropomorphisms are claims which are generally unsupported by scientific research. Commonly, animal behavior is compared to human behavior, and where there is superficial matching, the attribution (of understanding, emotion, or knowledge) that is made to the human is extended to the animal.

In simple terms, you can think of anthropomorphism as human behavior being matched to an animal (specifically dogs in this case) behavior, whether there is any scientific backing for it or not.

Another example in media would be Goofy (from Disney) being a dog but standing on 2 feet, speaking, and performing tasks a dog never actually could. That’s anthropomorphism.

Guilt or guilty (in this context). While guilt can be its own philosophical conversation, for the sake of this study guilt can be defined as:

“Dogs not only look guiltily, but this indicates that dogs feel guilty or realize their misdeed if they have done something wrong, inappropriate, warned against, or otherwise violative of an established code of behavior. Owners take behavioral evidence, or the outward appearance of the animal, to be conveying information about the animal's understanding or experience.”

In simpler terms, guilt in this context means a dog understands and realizes when they have done something wrong, ie disobeyed a cue/behavior from their human. Guilt will equate to Associated Behaviors (see below).

ABs (Associated Behaviors). The study (and I will as well) reference the term ‘Associated Behaviors’. Here is the definition from the study:

“Using prior descriptions, owners were asked to identify the elements they recognized as being part of the “guilty look”. From this, nine behaviors associated with the guilty look (hereinafter referred to as Associated Behaviours, ABs) were identified.”

Some included avoiding eye contact, frantically offering a paw, slinking back in a submissive way, etc. These are common appeasement behaviors and body language. 

Okay, now let’s look at how the study was conducted. ⬇️

HOW HOROWITZ’S STUDY WORKED

dogs were told not to eat a treat and then their human left the room

This study consisted of 14 dogs of varying ages and breeds. The main criteria were that the dog was at least 6 months old and had lived in their current home for at least 3 months.

So as to get the most realistic results, the study was performed in the respective living rooms of these 14 dogs and their humans.

Here is how the study was carried out.

  1. The dog and their human were in the living room a treat was placed in a place accessible by the dog
  2. The human told their dog to not take the treat (ie saying leave it, or no, etc.)
  3. The human left the room while the dog (and treat) remained in the room

And this is where the real study kicks in…

The study had two main “elements” that varied:

  1. Obedience: Essentially, did the dog follow the cue given by the human, aka obedience or did they “break” the cue, aka disobedience
  2. Owner response: The pet parents were given two ways to behave when reentering the room, scolding the dog (not hitting or hurting, just scolding with their voice/words) or greeting the dog in a friendly way

So once the pet parent left the room, sometimes the treat was immediately taken away thus guaranteeing “obedience” to the human’s cue.

In other instances, the dog was prompted by the experimenter (although it was done in a way not to undermine the pet parent’s request to leave the treat) to eat the treat.

Two outcomes occurred for each dog:

  1. The dog consumes the treat
  2. The dog does not consume the treat

Before returning to the room the pet parent is told to act in one of two ways (see “owner response” above):

  1. Scold the dog if told by the experimenter that their pup had consumed the treat
    1. Note: The scolding was verbal, not physical. Think of it as a verbal chastisement like “did you do something bad?” or “what did you do?” or “oh bad dog” etc.
  2. Happily greet the dog if told by the experimenter that their pup had NOT consumed the treat

“Obedience” = happy greeting.

“Disobedience” = scolding.

Here’s the twist though!

Some pet parents were told their dog had NOT eaten the treat when the dog actually had.

Others were told the dog DID eat the treat when the dog actually had not.

But the pet parent completely believed the experimenter was being honest. Their behavior returning to the room was equal to what decision the pet parent had been told their dog had done.

So now for the most important part, the results of the study.👇

RESULTS OF THE ‘GUILTY LOOK’ DOG STUDY

the results of horowitzs study showed that dogs looked guilty when scolded

The results of Horowitz's study were quite eye-opening.

There was no significant effect on the dog’s obedience to the number of ABs. Meaning whether or not the dog “disobeyed” their human’s “command” had no major role in whether or not the dog acted guilty…

Want to know what did have a significant effect on the number of ABs?

The pet parents’ responses!

The study found that the pet parent’s reaction had a MUCH greater impact on the amount of “guilty looks” than the dog’s actual behavior.

To say it more clearly… The strongest correlation to guilty looks from the dog was scolding from the human!

And to make matters even more interesting, there was a higher rate of guilty looks from dogs that did NOT eat the treat. Meaning even the dogs who DID obey and then were scolded showed higher rates of ‘guilty looks’ than the dogs who disobeyed and then were scolded…

That piece alone shows strong evidence that the dogs did not have ‘guilt’ or ‘remorse’ for their action, but were purely responding to the pet parent's scolding and behavior.

For a more detailed look at the actual statistical results head here. 

FINAL THOUGHTS ON DO DOGS FEEL GUILT

scolding dogs is what leads to the behavior from dogs that can look like guilt

This study set out to determine whether dogs feel guilt (knowledge of a misdeed or mistake), and the data says no (or at least, probably not).

I’m certain there will be comments on this article from pet parents saying “but I know my dog feels guilty…”. And guess what, that’s okay!

My goal isn’t to dissuade you in your beliefs/feelings, but rather to lay out research and bring to light a more important point.

Our actions and behaviors as pup parents (including our tone/demeanor/energy/etc) can have an extremely strong impact on our dogs’ responses and behaviors.

Our dogs look to us, as humans, for direction, reassurance, and reinforcement. We have a duty as pup parents to strive to not only show empathy for our dogs but also to provide clear direction for how we want them to behave.

So the next time you go to share a ‘guilty dogs’ video on social media, ask yourself if that dog is actually guilty or just showcasing a learned behavior to human reaction and response.

I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments, civil discourse and commentary are always encouraged!

PS- If you are looking for an extra boost of dog training knowledge & guidance, check out the 100% free online dog training class 30 Day Perfect Pup with Zak George. Learn more and sign up here!

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