Shame or Fear? Do Dogs Feel Guilt?

A dog looks guilty.

If your dog has ever knocked over the trash can or stolen that last piece of chicken off of your plate, they might have looked pretty guilty upon receiving a scolding for their bad behavior. 

Many pet owners (and viral video viewers) believe that dogs feel guilt when they know their humans are unhappy. Do canines actually experience this emotion? The experts believe that…it’s hard to say. 

Do Dogs Feel Guilt…Or Fear?

Most experts tend to think that the signals we humans tend to translate as guilt from our pups are actually demonstrating fear. After a dog uses your favorite rug as the bathroom or chews through your new shoes, your initial reaction might be to yell or to scold the animal. When this happens, the dog might:

  • Cower
  • Avoid making eye contact
  • Put his or her tail between the legs
  • Whine
  • Yawn
  • Lick paws or another body part

While many pet owners tend to immediately associate these physical traits with feelings of guilt, scientists point out that these occur when a dog is feeling fear or stress. The tone of your voice might be scaring the dog, which could be why they’re acting this way.

Teaching Old (And Young) Dogs New Tricks

Any dog owner who has practiced easy commands like “sit” or “stay” knows that a dog can learn actions and behaviors that their human wants them to learn. 

Dogs are happy when you are happy, and if they sense that you are unhappy with them, they will do what they think you want them to in order to regain your praise. Many researchers believe that if a human starts to scold a dog for barking during a Zoom meeting or digging a hole in the yard, the dog can hear the disapproval in the voice. Their fear of this negative reaction might have them looking down at the ground or covering their ears to encourage you to return to your usual smiling, happy self. 

Consider Positive Reinforcements

At the very least, dogs appear to be able to understand what humans consider “appropriate” behavior, especially when the humans take the time to train them. Using positive reinforcement encourages your dog to choose the appropriate behavior over the inappropriate one. 

An example of positive reinforcement would be to give the dog a treat when they do their business outside instead of yelling at them if they have an accident in the house. This way, the dog has a true incentive for choosing good behavior.

No Clear Consensus 

Although there is not yet any scientific evidence that proves or completely disproves whether or not a dog can feel guilt, it is clear that they can experience negative emotions. If your dog tends to demonstrate negative or aggressive behaviors, it is important to get to the root of these destructive issues. Once you know the cause, it will be easier to train your canine to leave these bad behaviors behind.

The team at Beverly Hills Veterinary Associates is here to help you with any questions you might have about how your dog is feeling emotionally and physically. Visit us online or give us a call at (248) 646–5655 to learn more or to schedule an appointment for your furry friend.