People often mistakenly project a human emotion onto their dog’s behaviour and I am often asked if dogs feel guilt. The simple answer is ‘no’.
It’s often hard to understand though why your dog peed inside or on the bed, or chewed up a favourite pair of shoes, and easy to interpret this as “payback” for leaving them home alone or spending too much time with a new baby, another dog or person – and assume that the look tyour dog was giving you when you got home was because you assume that dogs feel guilt.
My dog was naughty so it must be guilt
Destructive behaviour can also be the result of a dog who is feeling frustrated or simply needs more exercise and they are instinctually reacting to relieve the stress or pent-up energy.
There can be other things going on too, particularly with toileting in the house. You may have simply left them too long to hold on, outside access outside may have been blocked, or they could have been spooked when they went outside. It could have been raining, cold they might be suffering a Urinary Tract Infection, marking their territory, or seeking comfort by mingling their scent in with yours.
In short, it could be many things, but it’s not spite or revenge, or because dogs feel guilt.
Why does it look like my dogs feel guilty?
Let me explain that look of so-called look of guilt too.
You’ve been out, you’re dog has peed in the house or destroyed an item, again! In the past you have told them off, maybe rubbed their nose in it, so now your dog is cowering, eyes wide, doesn’t look at you and of course you assume this is from guilt.
However, what they do know and are reacting to, is very different to what we are. Your dog knows that 1) there is pee or destroyed item present (you probably keep looking at the pee or damaged item, or pointing at it) and 2) you are angry.
So, while they can associate your reaction with the pee or item being in the room, they don’t associate your reaction with the actual act of peeing or destroying said item. In other words, dogs don’t feel guilt, they just know you are angry at them and they are feeling scared or anxious about it.
Why latent punishment is cruel
A dog needs to have a consequence, good or bad, for a behaviour the time or within a few seconds of displaying it at time or within a few seconds, to make the association between the action and the consequence. This is at the heart of any dog training and behaviour.
This means scolding or punishing your dog when you get home for something they’ve done, no matter the reason, is not only unfair, it’s actually kinda cruel, and it will generally makes the behaviour worse by increasing their anxiety. It’s also why positive training methods are the best way to help your dog understand what you need from them.
You’ll know when your dog is mad at you!
When dogs are mad at us, they let us know in other ways. They grow or glare, they might bark in retaliation for being hurt. They don’t stew on it and plot ways to get back at us like a human might.
While they feel basic human emotions, those such as guilt and revenge are complex, self-conscious emotions far beyond their cognitive skills – which are around that of a two year old child.
So next time you come home to a destroyed item or a puddle of pee, think about what your dog might actually need from you, rather than punishing or guilt shaming them with a photo or video on social media because you believe dogs feel guilt. They don’t, no matter how much you want to believe or assume they do.
About the Author: Lara Shannon is a certified dog behaviourist and trainer, Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10 and editor of Poochesatplay.com. Lara runs her own dog training business in Melbourne’s Bayside area, is a sought after pet expert speaker and Author of Eat, Play, Love (Your Dog).