An emotion that most owners would be fairly certain that their dog feels is guilt. Just look at that face! It would be easy to assume that a) she knows that she has done something wrong, and b) that she’s very sorry!
As a matter of fact the photo is staged and she hadn’t done anything wrong (although destruction was her forte for the first six months of her life……).
According the Collins English Dictionary “Guilt” is defined as
“remorse or self-reproach caused by feeling that one is responsible for a wrong or offence”
It is, of course, impossible to know precisely what thought processes go on in a dog’s head, but it is all too easy to assume that dogs are capable of very complex human emotions.
Can a dog truly feel remorse? I think that it is unlikely that a dog can remember an action that it performed an hour ago and wish they hadn’t done it. Alexandra Horowitz in 2009 performed an experiment where dogs were left alone in a room with a treat and either allowed to eat it or not, but in both cases the owner was told the dog had eaten the treat. It was found that the majority of owners would think that their dogs looked “guilty” whether or not they’d really eaten it – what the dog was reacting to was the owner’s response and body language, not to a feeling of remorse.
What we often interpret as “looking guilty” (ears back, averted gaze, low posture, tail tucked under) is actually appeasement behaviour. Dogs are very good at reading human body language and if we are looking tense or cross then they show these signs to try to diffuse the situation. They will even do this if they don’t know what they’re supposed to have done – which is the case with Nutmeg in my photo!
They can’t learn any lessons at that stage as they won’t associate any punishment given with the misdemeanour, unless they are discovered in the process of the deed. Then even if they are, punishment doesn’t address what is driving the behaviour. This may be anxiety, boredom, fear or any number of emotions, all of which can often be exacerbated by, what seems to the dog, to be random punishment.
In the case of separation problems where a dog may be destructive, if they are told off when the crime scene is discovered, then next time they are left not only will they be worried about being alone, they will also be worried about their owners response when they return – the dog wants their owner to come back but is worried they may be cross like last time! These conflicting emotions may in themselves cause the dog to feel anxious, and to chew to make themselves feel better, and so the cycle continues…..
So next time you see that guilty look, remember that your dog is only trying to stop you being cross, and probably can’t even remember why they misbehaved in the first place!