Do Dogs Feel Guilt?

by K. Garland

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By this time, you may have viewed the viral video depicting Denver the dog who appears to look guilty after allegedly eating cat treats. Here is the video in case you haven’t seen it:

Many people find this video cute. I can’t help but feel a slight discomfort when I view it.

I mean, the question is…do dogs really feel guilty after the fact?

Is Denver really displaying guilt? Did he even eat the cat treats for that matter?

Or is he just responding to the tone of his owner’s voice?

For instance, is it not a generally accepted notion that when house training a dog, you should never reprimand him if some time has passed since he soiled the rug. The idea in that example is that the dog does not associate your correction with an act that was done a while ago. So, if this is the case, why would a dog act “guilty” about something done in the past?

Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, oversaw an experiment where various dogs were videotaped while left in a room alone with a tasty treat. The owner of each dog was asked to bring the dog’s attention to the treat and clearly instruct the dog not to eat it. The treat was placed in an accessible and tempting location near the dog. The owner then left the room. A number of variables were alternated with each setup, like whether the owner knew the dog had eaten the treat or not. In one trial, the videographer gives the dog a treat and in another the owner is misled into thinking the dog has obeyed the command to leave the treat.

In Horowitz’ words:

“In many of the trials, the dogs could be models for the guilty look: they lower their gaze, press their ears back, slump their body, and shyly avert their head. Numerous tails beat a rapid rhythm low between their legs. Some raise a paw in appeasement or flick their tongue out nervously. But the guilt-ridden behaviors did not occur more often in the trials where the dogs had disobeyed than in those that had obeyed. Instead there were more guilty looks in the trials when the owner scolded the dog, whether the dog disobeyed or not. Being scolded despite resisting the disallowed treat led to an extra-guilty look.

“…This indicated that the dog has associated the owner, not the act, with the imminent reprimand.”

Now back to Denver. View the video again. Listen to the man’s voice. Consider there is a camera in the dog’s face (drawing attention to him further). Is Denver feeling guilt over eating the cat treats a while ago? Or is he reacting to the immediate stimuli (his owner’s disappointed voice)? What do you think?

{ 5 comments }

Iamna April 7, 2011 at 1:29 pm

I think, no, I know, dogs do feel guilt. The owner’s tone was not at all harsh and sounded more like teasing than dissappointed. He spoke no differently to the first dog than he did to the second and the reactions were very different. I have seen my own dogs display guilt without me even saying a word to them. As soon as I walk in the room and see something they have done that they were not supposed to the will sort of cower and avert their eyes from me and ignore me when I finally do question them. Perhaps the reason in the trials that some dogs reacted and some did not is because like people some of us carry guilt and some do not. And guilty or not, interrogate a person and they can display signs of guilt under pressure whether guilty or not. Why people think that dogs cannot have feelings of pain, disappointment, guilt, loss, love, happiness, etc., I will never know. Anyone who has ever owned a dog and genuinely loved that dog and spent a lot of time with them knows they have many of the same feelings that people do. So many people think dogs are stupid non-feeling “animals” that do not deserve to be treated any better than any other animal because unlike us humans they don’t walk erect and talk. Maybe dogs think we are stupid. Lord knows I have met more people than I care to admit that I would gladly have spent time with a dog than have had to waste with those people.

Kathy April 7, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Thanks for your thoughts. I certainly agree with you that dogs have complex emotional worlds and experience many feelings. And quite often, I also find the company of dogs more enriching than that of many people. I think what’s great about dogs is they tend to live more in the moment than most people do. Perhaps that’s why it can be debatable whether this dog is reacting to what he may or may not have done in the past…or to the tone of the man’s voice (in the present). What may sound like a teasing tone to us can possibly sound more negative for a dog. However, I can’t speak for all dogs and every experience. So, it’s interesting to get your views on your own experience with your dogs. Thanks again for sharing.

Julie Hecht April 24, 2011 at 8:26 pm

I was really glad to come across your post! I have an MSc in Applied Animal Behavior and Welfare and lecture about dog science, the “guilty look” in particular. I made a youtube video replicating Alexandra Horowitz’s guilty look experiment. My video is called: Is Denver really guilty? and I’m trying to make it as highly viewed and ‘viral’ as the guilty Denver video.

Cheers!

Julie

Kathy April 24, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Thanks for your perspective Julie. Your YouTube video certainly demonstrates how a dog will react in a what might seem like a guilty manner (whether warranted or not) based on the vocal tone of the guardian. I’ll include a link to your video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVQNc0zonzw
Thank-you for bringing your viewpoint based on your studies.

Kathy April 24, 2011 at 11:46 pm

I also wanted to share with readers a link to another blog post about this subject. I was very interested to see that Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell wrote a post about Denver on her blog The Other End of the Leash. The post called Guilty Dog Viral Video received some very interesting comments. Check them out.

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