Do Dogs Feel Guilt When They’ve Done Something Wrong?

by | Mar 25, 2020 | Articles | 0 comments

You come home and instead of the usual waggy greeting, you discover a downcast dog and a whirlwind of couch cushion fluff all over the floor. 

It seems like your dog knows they’ve done something wrong, so you might be wondering if dogs feel guilt. After all, your dog knows that you get upset when they have accidents or destroy things around your home. 

The truth is, dogs just do not understand why we hate cleaning up their messes. They do not know right from wrong. While we can acknowledge that dogs can have more humanlike emotions than once previously believed, it’s not true that they feel guilt over wrongdoings. 

Why Do Dogs Act Guilty When They’ve Done Something Wrong?

Avoiding eye contact, flattening their ears, and tucking their tail-aren’t these signs that your dog feels guilty? 

While your dog is certainly trying to tell you something when they act this way, it’s not to say they’re guilty. 

Your dog doesn’t feel guilty over turning your designer heels into flats. They don’t understand how gross it is that you have to clean pee, or how problematic it can be when they bark too much. 

Here’s the meaning of some common body language signals that are often mistaken for “acting guilty.”

Calming signals are your dog’s way of saying, “I don’t know why you’re angry with me, but I’ll lay low to de-escalate the situation. I don’t want to fight. Please don’t hurt me”.

Calming signals include avoiding eye contact, hunching over, keeping the tail tucked, and a low tail wag, and sometimes, an appeasing grin. 

Displacement behaviours are normal behaviours taken out of their usual context. It’s your dog’s way of saying, “I’m keeping my distance from you and I’m avoiding engaging with you because you’re scary right now. Please don’t hurt me”.

Displacement behaviours include yawning even though they’re not tired, sniffing the ground even though there’s nothing there, shaking off when they’re not wet as though to “shake off” the stress, and scratching even though they’re not itchy. 

Your dog may show these stressed body language signals after they’ve done something wrong because they may have been punished for a behaviour in the past. These signals are a good thing. They’re your dog’s way of showing that they do not want to have to react by lashing out and biting you. 

When your dog seems afraid of you, it’s a sign that you may be too harsh with them. 

It’s important to avoid raising your voice and using aversive punishments because when your dog is stressed, they’re unable to learn. That’s why, despite that seemingly guilty face, your dog will continue unwanted behaviours unless you manage their environment, set them up for success, and teach them what you want them to do instead. 

Studies On Whether Dogs Feel Guilt When They’ve Done Something Wrong

In a 2009 study, researcher Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog, worked with dogs and their owners to see if dogs act guilty when they disobey an instruction. The dogs were set up in a room with access to a tasty, forbidden treat, and their owner was instructed to tell them not to eat it. 

In some runs, the dogs ate the treat, and in others, they left it alone. The owners then walked back into the room and, in some cases, scolded their dog. The dogs’ behaviours did not tip off their owners if they had eaten the treat. In the instances in which the dogs were scolded but did not eat the treats, they actually showed the most “guilt”.

This and similar studies suggest that a dog’s seemingly guilty behaviour is a response to their owner’s anger and the threat of harm, rather than the understanding that they have done something wrong. 

How To Repair Your Bond While Stopping Unwanted Behaviours

Now that you better understand your dog’s body language and their intentions, you can start to work on building trust again. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you have to let those destructive behaviours slide. 

Here are some posts that may help:

How To Stop Destructive Chewing

How To Deal With Potty Training Issues

What Your Dog Wants You To Know About Separation Anxiety

Learn More About Your Dog

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