Do Dogs Feel Guilty?

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Ask any dog owner and they'll tell you that dogs can feel guilty, but what does science say? Julie Hecht of Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest did the experiment to find out:

Given that so many dog owners report that they believe that dogs who have broken a rule act guilty even before the dog’s transgression is discovered, and given that owners report that they are likely to scold their dogs less following the display of guilty behaviors, it stands to reason that dogs’ “guilty look” may just be a learned response. If scolded, a guilty look might simply serve to reduce the duration of the negative social interaction.

Keeping this in mind, the researchers designed an experiment to answer two questions. First, would dogs who had misbehaved in their owners’ absences behave differently when greeting their owners than dogs who had not misbehaved?

Second, would owners be able to determine, upon entering a room and relying solely on dog greeting behavior, whether or not their dogs had actually transgressed?

Jason G. Goldman of Scientific American's The Thoughtful Animal blog has the results: Link


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I guess this means at least half of us have been wrongly scolding our dogs. Ok dog havers, either set a camera on your pet so you know for certain that they have in fact broken a rule, or risk doing it wrong to the poor pups. Parents can take a lesson from this too. I remember vividly when my mum punished me for something I didn't do and when she discovered she was wrong later, she apologized to me profusely. I know, who wants to live in a world where every moment is surveilled. However, think of all the wrongs that can be righted, all the mistakes avoided. At least until humans evolve further such that we don't have to have a recording to know for certain, we have a Spidey sense that fixes that for us. I think it's the reason cell phones all have cameras on them now.
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Maybe their method was not as accurate as it could've been.

The dogs would absolutely have to associate the new "rule" with performing a specific action, rather than just greeting an owner in the lab setting. This is the biggest flaw, since dogs are extremely context-oriented and behaviors take some time to learn to the extent where they will feel "guilty" by not doing things correctly.

There's also plenty of baggage that comes with snatching food off a table. Some dogs don't control their urges at all, some control them when the eye of authority is around, some really do have the level of self-control that they just won't take the forbidden fruit. It has a lot to do with both training and the permissiveness of the owners.

Lastly, different breeds have different levels of social awareness with humans and intelligence. Assuming that "dogs are dogs" is kind of stupid. Different breeds generally do different things with different levels of social interaction with humans.

There are some misbehaviors that only the dog can be responsible for, an obvious one being having an accident in the house.

As far as my dog goes, it's super obvious from her behavior if she's had an accident-- she is bouncing-off-the-walls excited if she's been good, but tends to be really subdued or even just avoids contact for a while if she's had an accident. I'll add that I NEVER scold her after the fact, all that would accomplish is that she might associate me coming home with being scolded, or otherwise form an incorrect association of non-problem-behavior with scolding. Her reaction is almost always the first clue as to whether I need to start looking and sniffing around.
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