February 2, 2024 opinion

Do dogs feel guilty? I think not - you’ve conditioned them that way

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Sofia Radysh in London, United Kingdom

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January 4, 2016. The dog destroyed the toy two weeks after receiving it.

Picture by: Sheila Sund

Have you ever been angry at your pup and they looked back at you with a guilty face?

Perhaps they tore up your designer cushions and peed all over your grandma’s carpet, then looked at you with watery eyes and you thought, do dogs feel guilt?

Well, science might not be on your side.

Owners report that their dogs’ greeting behaviour after performing a ‘misdeed’ indicates guilty behaviour, but what does science have to say about that?

In 2015, Researchers conducted an experiment where 96 dogs were given the opportunity to eat food, while the owners instructed them not to before leaving the room. The study, which saw experimenters remove food in some cases, observed whether dogs would display ‘guilty’ behaviour after their owner returned.

They found that dogs don’t display guilty behaviours when they are truly guilty of eating the treat, but appear that way when scolded. Such findings would suggest that doing the ‘guilty face’ is a fear response to being berated rather than the pet feeling remorse or having an internalised guilty conscience.

A few studies suggest that the dogs’ guilty response is dictated by their social circumstances.

A hilarious experiment was conducted by Vollmer in 1977. In the experiment a dog owner performed a typical dog misbehaviour – such as shredding some paper. Afterwards, the dog was let into the room with the evidence of the ‘crime’. Although the dog had nothing to do with the ‘crime’ committed, when the owner came into the room the dog displayed typically guilty behaviours.

Although the study relied on a small sample of dogs and is outdated (having been conducted over 40 years ago), it still shows that guilty behaviour was a conditioned response triggered by the presence of the owner and the supposed disobedience.

Your beloved pet has more than likely been conditioned to react in response to behavioural cues from the owner.

An angry voice, a disappointed face, or perhaps a recently chewed slipper as evidence in your hand are all cues to the dog that something bad is about to happen and therefore the dog displays fear.

This particular ‘guilty face’ has mostly occurred because the dog is trying to please the owner in a way that will stop them from being angry.

And let’s be honest – a lot of the time it works, and owners respond back with something much softer such as “how cute” instead of “why did you eat half of my rotisserie chicken?”

Some dogs are masters in manipulation. I believe dogs are conditioned to manipulate us in various smart ways to get what they want. Once you recognise these, you’ll immediately pick up on the manipulation mechanism your dog has ‘chosen’.

Back when I lacked experience, my dog – a pup at the time, hurt her foot while running around. In response, I carried her after not being able to bear her whining, and talked to her in what I thought was a very sweet, soothing ‘baby voice’.

Well, that situation didn’t play out the way I thought it did because in the following months, the moment I noticed her doing something wrong, such as eating from the bin or acting somewhat aggressively, she would pick her paw up and start whining.

So I accidentally conditioned my dog into faking an injury to get me to be sweeter to her.

Of course, not all dogs are the same. But this type of behaviour can explain the infamous ‘guilty face’ that dogs purposefully display in order to make you behave the way they want.

It would be nice to believe that our furry pets do share a similar behavioural conscience to us – explaining exactly why they are man’s best friend.

There are hilarious occurrences of dogs appearing to do this, or in my eyes trying to manipulate. But the science ultimately does not support this.

As Dr Juliane Bräuer, head of the DogStudies lab at the Max Planck Institute, said in her article on Psychology Today: “What humans often perceive as ‘guilt’’ is simply submissive behaviour as a reaction to human behaviour.”

Dogs do react to learnt behaviour, and what is perceived as guilt is actually just conditioning.

Written by:

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Sofia Radysh

Science Section Editor

Animal welfare correspondent

Kyiv, Ukraine | London, United Kingdom

Born in 2005, Sofia lived in Kyiv, but now, because of the war, is a refugee in London. She is interested in animal welfare and how current events and social media impact the lives of our four-legged friends, and writes about this in Harbingers’ Magazine.

In 2022, she took over from Isaac Kadas as the second editor-in-chief of Harbingers’ Magazine.

In her free time, she does dog training and film-making. She likes getting out of her comfort zone and trying new things out.

Sofia speaks Ukrainian, English, Russian and a bit of German.

Edited by:

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Sofiya Tkachenko

former Editor-in-chief

Kyiv, Ukraine | Vienna, Austria

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