Dogs Feel Guilt, Maybe Even More Powerfully Than Humans Do
Don't let the puppy eyes fool you! We've all seen ‘the look' when a dog responds to their human's scolding tone or body posture. But despite the masterful acting, behaviorists say dogs probably do not feel shame. The guilty look with the lowered nose, the ears held back, soulful eyes lowered, is a reaction to your reaction and not an indication they connect the memory of what they did earlier when they chewed your favorite shoes or expensive furniture.
A 2009 scientific study on the “guilty dog look” was conducted by Alexandra Horowitz, associate professor of psychology at Barnard College in New York City. Horowitz recorded dogs in a series of trials in which each dog was left alone with a treat with instructions to leave it alone from their owner. Then the owner came back into the room after awhile. Some dogs had eaten the treat and some had not and, of course, some owners reacted differently to other owners.
Horowitz said, “I found that the ‘look' appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs, regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed or did something for which they should feel guilty. It wasn't ‘guilt' but a reaction tot he owner that prompted the look.”
Pascale Lemire, who published a book called Dog Shaming after his website of the same name gained popularity sums up the idea this way:
“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'g know what, but he seems to calm down when I give him the sad face, so let's try that again.'”