Do dogs feel guilt?

There has long been discussion over the ability of dogs to feel guilt, but what is guilt? Guilt is a feeling of regret that you have acted in a way which doesn’t fit your morals and goes against your own ethical values. Ethical and moral values are constantly changing along with society.  For example, particular sexualities were once considered morally wrong. Today, that idea isn’t accepted by the majority of people and it now seems very strange that people ever felt that way. A further example is how people felt towards slavery, whereas today it’s outrageous to think slavery ever happened.  The point is, morals are very much based on measuring oneself against the ever-shifting standards of society.

Are dogs really likely to set their standards of right and wrong based on what they think all the other dogs would think of them? or are they more likely to act on what works and what doesn’t work? What’s safe and what isn’t safe?

The idea of right and wrong, good or bad, are very much human concepts, and just like morals, they are in constant flux.  How might a dog comprehend what the human thinks is an acceptable standard or choose to behave in ways they know to be wrong, then feel guilt and regret over their actions?

Let’s take an example:  The dog rips up a cushion.  When the dog’s carer arrives home, the dog doesn’t greet them as normal, holds back or is conflicted as to whether to move forward or stay back, holds head down and ears back, crouches and moves slowly.

Photo courtesy of Linda Ehrenworth

What’s going on?

There are two possibilities:

  1. The dog knows that his behaviour is morally reprehensible and regrets his earlier actions.
  2. The dog associates a ripped up cushion and the carers return with being reprimanded or with a human who huffs and puffs and isn’t in a friendly mood.

We should keep in mind that all learning occurs through association and that dogs are experts when it comes to reading our body language. The way I take my final sip of tea and the way I press the final keyboard key are both cues which Mr B (my canine companion) has learned by himself through association. I don’t know how my final sip differs from the others but he certainly does and he knows I might be about to get up out of the chair. There’s absolutely no doubt that they pick up on your mood, simply by slight differences in movement.

So, do dogs feel guilt? I don’t think so……Do you?

Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read

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