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Do Dogs Feel Guilt?

By Emily Scott, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant  |  March 1, 2020

I’m sure you’ve seen the videos on YouTube!  A dog is sitting in the corner with a trash lid on his neck, looking pathetically guilty and remorseful, while his owner verbally chastises him for his obvious transgressions.  Is the dog truly feeling guilty?  Does he know what he did and that it was BAD?


As a certified Canine behavior specialist, I hear similar comments from many dog owners regarding their dog’s problem behaviors.  Here are a few of the comments I regularly hear:


  1. “He knows when he’s not supposed to do that! You should see his face!”
  2. “He does it to spite me”
  3. “She does the behavior to get my attention”
  4. “She knows better…”


Many  pet dog owners have a tendency to put human emotions onto their animals.  The technical term is “Anthropomorphism”---- an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics---Merriam Webster Dictionary.  Why do we do this?  Perhaps because our dog lives with us in such an intimate way and because they show such an impressive ability to read our emotions, it is easy to interpret their body language and behavior in human terms.


Let me be clear from the outset, dogs are self-motivated animals.  They live in the moment.  They do NOT possess the ability to predict the future.  They do not ‘regret’ their actions.    When Fido successfully gets up on the counter and eats half a chicken, he is NOT thinking “wow, I probably shouldn’t be doing this…”


They DO have an incredible ability to read our body language, our eye contact and our voice tone and can very quickly understand when we are upset or angry.  That poor dog who is sitting in the corner with the trash lid on his neck is NOT feeling guilty.  He is feeling anxious because he knows his owner is upset.  The guilty look he is showing is an ‘appeasement behavior’, which means he’s trying to bring calm and peace to his owner because he knows the owner is upset.  The dog does not feel guilty.  I would also bet $100 that the dog would get right back into that trash can when the opportunity presents itself again.  Further, if you walk in on a dog who is in the trash, and he quickly runs away with his trashy-prize, he is not running because he’s guilty, he’s running because he is protecting his hard-earned prize and doesn’t want you to have it.   It is pure self-motivation.  Nothing more.


It is critical that pet dog owners understand that poor behaviors are a symptom.  It is not a personal vendetta against the owner, nor is it done out of malice.  Frequently, when a dog is getting into the trash, or digging, or stealing food etc. he is misbehaving merely because of opportunity and self-motivation.   If the dog continues to repeat this bad behavior, it is because the behavior has been heavily rewarded and he hasn’t been properly trained.  Timing is critical when working to extinguish a poor behavior.  Yelling at the dog or punishing him AFTER he’s already eaten the Christmas ham is not going to stop the behavior.  Eating that ham is incredibly rewarding for the dog!  Why wouldn’t they try to get another one?!


If your dog is showing a pattern of repeat poor behavior and you haven’t been able to stop it, GET SOME HELP!  Please don’t misinterpret his responses to your anger and frustration as guilt or vindictiveness.  This is counterproductive and it won’t fix the problem.   Management is so important with opportunistic dogs!  Gates, tethers and doors prevent poor behavior.  Don’t leave stuff out where the dog can get it!


Emily has great success with modifying scavenging behavior and other unwanted behaviors.  She is here to help you, please don’t hesitate to call! 559-797-4343

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