Do dogs feel guilty? Commenting on TikToki
Nobody would like to see a mess or a large pool of urine in the middle of the living room when they return home. Unfortunately, dog handlers sometimes have to face this reality. Many people get angry in similar situations. They tell the dog that he did wrong, they put bitten objects under his nose, etc. The dog reacts in such a situation with fear and shows a number of so-called calming signals, also known as stress signals. The dog crouches, avoids eye contact with the handler, puts his ears back, licks his nose, yawns. Some dogs raise the front paw or wag their tail nervously. If the stress level is very high and the dog feels that his life may be in danger, he can trigger one of five survival strategies. Most often, the pooch will just try to escape from a difficult situation, but he can also noticeably slow down his movements or even freeze motionless.
I have recorded a video for you with my commentary on tiktoków in which dogs show such behavior. However, do they prove that the dog feels guilty and knows that he did wrong? Will he exhibit undesirable behavior in the future when we punish him?
Do dogs feel guilty?
Dogs possess most mental abilities, including emotions, about the level of a two-to-a-half-year-old child. So they feel excitement, anxiety, contentment, disgust, fear, anger, joy, shyness, or attachment. On the other hand, emotions such as guilt, shame, pride or contempt are completely alien to dogs. What we often read as a dog’s guilt is actually fear. The dog, seeing our reaction, knows that something is wrong. However, he does not necessarily associate our anger with his previous behavior.
It is worth remembering that for the punishment to be effective, it must occur when the undesirable activity is performed by the dog or a few seconds later. Punishing a dog a few minutes or hours after the fact does not make any sense. The dog simply will not associate its behavior with its consequence, i.e. punishment. However, he will learn that when the guardian comes home and is very angry, it is better not to get in his way.
Research on guilt in dogs
Professor Alexandra Horowitz conducted an interesting experiment. The dogs’ keepers would put the treat on the ground and forbade their pupils to eat it, after which they left the room. Only the observer, who filmed his behavior, remained in the room with the dog. The dog could obey the guardian’s prohibition and leave a treat, or disobey and eat it. In addition, the observer sometimes took the treat from the ground himself without the knowledge of the dog’s handler. Before returning to the room, the handler was informed whether his dog had broken the command or not. This information was not always correct. Upon hearing of the obedience, the guardian was to greet the dog in a friendly manner, while the disobedience was to be punished with a verbal reprimand.
It turned out that the dogs’ behavior did not depend on whether they were obedient or not. It depended, however, on the behavior of their guardian. When the handler greeted the dog in a friendly manner, the dog was happy even when he ate the treat lying on the ground. On the other hand, when the handler punished the dog with verbal reprimands, the dog displayed behaviors interpreted by many people as guilty even when the dog obeyed and did not eat the treat.
Based on a similar study by a team of researchers in Hungary and Scotland, it has been established that the behavior of dogs when greeting a handler cannot be a reliable indicator of whether the dog has committed a “crime” or not. What about punishing dogs for destroying, pampering themselves at home or stealing food in our absence?
Destroying various items
When a dog has not been taught to be independent and stays home alone for many hours, it will look for ways to cope with increasing stress and anxiety. When biting or tearing objects apart, serotonin is released in your dog’s body. It is a hormone responsible for improving the dog’s mood, among other things. Destroying objects is therefore one of the stress coping strategies for dogs. If, after returning home, we scold the dog for the damage, we will not teach him this behavior. We can, however, increase his stress level and intensify unwanted behavior in the future.
The dog can also destroy objects in the house out of sheer boredom. If we do not provide him with the right amount of movement and mental stimulation, he will be looking for ways to meet these basic needs. In this case, punishing the dog will also not stop it from destroying the apartment. Disease can also be a cause of chewing things. Many dogs find solace by chewing on various objects when they have digestive problems. Biting is also more severe in puppies who replace their teeth permanently. Neither punishing a sick dog nor a teething puppy will solve the problem of destroying items in your home.
Taking care of yourself at home
Another problem that dog handlers face is killing a dog while the handler is absent. There can also be many reasons for this behavior. Perhaps the dog has never been properly trained to clean and simply doesn’t know that he shouldn’t pamper himself at home. It is also possible that the dog had to wait too long for the next walk. Often, changing the diet, times of meals and walks causes the pooch to relieve himself at other times than usual. Many dogs kill themselves at home in the absence of their owners due to stress. You cannot forget about the diseases that make the pooch have to go outside more often.
Punishing a dog that is relieved of stress, because he is ill, because he has not been taught cleanliness or because he is taken too rarely for a walk will certainly not solve the problem. It can, however, aggravate your dog’s stress and make him pee at home even more often. A dog that is punished for taking care of himself in the house may also learn to eat his droppings. When there is no excrement, the person is not angry and there is no punishment. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to teach your dog this behavior later on.
Some dogs just wait for the handler to disappear from sight to steal food from the table, kitchen countertops, or the garbage can. It’s important to know that this is a natural behavior for many dogs. In the canine world, as long as the dog eats or stands over food, the food belongs to him. However, when the pooch leaves him and ceases to be interested in him, everyone can come and take them. In the human world, the rules are slightly different. When we leave the sandwich on the table and go to another room for a while, we expect food to be waiting for us when we return. Due to these differences in human and dog habits, we often have unnecessary conflicts.
Of course, you can teach your dog not to move any food that is left for a while. However, it should be remembered that this behavior is not natural for the dog. We also cannot expect the dog to guess what rules prevail in the human world and to follow them perfectly. We cannot demand behaviors from the dog that we have not taught him before.
If we have a dog that has experienced hunger in his life, his need to constantly get food can be very great. Punishing a dog for this behavior will not make it stop stealing food. Some dogs are constantly looking for food because they are just hungry. If we feed our dog with highly processed, poorly digestible food, even giving him large portions will not satisfy his nutritional needs. Punishing a dog that is hungry, lacking in its diet, or is sick will not suddenly make it stop stealing food.
How to fix the problem?
If your pooch destroys various items, takes care of things at home or steals food, the key to solving the problem is always finding its causes. Only when you know the causes of your dog’s undesirable behavior, you can try to change them. If the pooch destroys the apartment because he suffers from separation anxiety, it is worth taking him to the vet and to a behaviorist who will develop an individual plan for further therapy. On the other hand, if the dog destroys various objects at home out of boredom, increasing the number and intensity of walks and introducing additional mental stimulation in the form of olfactory games or learning the basics of obedience should solve the problem.
Likewise for dogs that mess around in the house or steal food. We first identify the causes of the problem, and only then consider how we can change the dog’s undesirable behavior. We will work differently with a dog that has not been trained to clean, and differently with a dog that has a sick bladder. One thing is for sure, yelling at your dog will not solve the root cause of the problem and will not change its behavior. However, it can negatively affect your relationship and your dog’s sense of security.
Coren S. (2013). Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience? Psychology Today
Hecht J, Miklósi Á, Gácsi M (2012) Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviours associated with guilt in dogs. Appl Anim Behav Sci 139: 134-142.
Horowitz A (2009) Disambiguating the guilty look: salient prompts to a familiar dog behavior. Behav Process 81: 447–452.