Seventy-four percent of all dog owners believe that their dogs experience guilt when doing something the owner doesn't want them to do. But then almost sixty percent of dog owners claim that their dogs’ guilty behavior leads them to scold their dog less.

One dog owner described her reasoning for believing her dog felt guilt as this: “I behave in a particular way when I feel guilty; my dog behaves in a similar way in equivalent circumstances; I know intuitively that my behavior is motivated by guilt; therefore the behavior I see in my dog is also accompanied by feelings of guilt.”

Although there is plenty of evidence for what scientists refer to as primary emotions – happiness and fear, for example – in animals, there is little evidence for secondary emotions like jealousy, pride, and guilt in animals. This lack of evidence is usually explained that these secondary emotions seem to require a level of cognitive sophistication, such as pertains to self-awareness or self-consciousness. The thought has been that these secondary emotions may not exist in non-human animals.

Charles Darwin observed that the types of behaviors associated with guilt such as keeping one’s head down, and averting one’s eyes, were also seen in other social non-human primate species. Not too surprising, guilt serves to reinforce social relationships and to minimize the effects of transgressions against social partners. The same behavioral patterns have been observed in wolves as well as domesticated dogs. In wolves, it is thought that guilt-related behaviors serve to reinforce social bonds by reducing conflict and increasing tolerance from other members of their social pack. Although this could also be true of dogs, their social groups would basically just be humans.

Given the fact that owners report that they are likely to scold their dogs less following the display of guilty behaviors, it stands to reason that dogs “guilty look” may just be a learned response. Research has found that dogs don’t always act guilty – only under certain circumstances. Dogs displayed significantly fewer guilt-related behaviors when being greeting by their owners, compared with when they were scolded. Another finding was that dogs who had misbehaved were not statistically likely to behave differently than dogs who had not misbehaved.

There was however a subtle finding that may have actually provided evidence that the dogs who had misbehaved were more likely to show guilt-associated behaviors. But not in the way one would anticipate. In an experiment each dog had three opportunities to greet their owners. Once before a rule had been established, the second time after the rule had been established and dogs had an opportunity to violate the rule, and the third time, after the rule had been established, but without an opportunity to violate the rule. Although all the dogs were more likely to act guilty during the second greeting while being scolded, only the dogs who had actually transgressed were more likely to continue acting guilty during the third greeting. These experiments were all done within a laboratory environment.

It has been suggested that future research should investigate these questions in a familiar environment rather than in a laboratory. The research should also examine a social rule that has already been established between an owner and their dog. It appears then that there may still be some time before we will know for certain whether dogs can experience guilt, or whether people can determine if a dog has violated a rule prior to finding concrete evidence of it.

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