Radio Freethinker

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Let Guilty Dogs Lie

Posted by Ethan Clow on June 6, 2012

As a dog owner I must admit, there are times when I think my dog is pondering deep philosophical questions about morality and whether or not she should eat that plant. Sometimes the way she acts really gives the impression that something is going on in her head besides “I’m hungry”. But the question is, does dog behavior imply that dogs feel emotions like guilt (for eating the plant) remorse (for disobeying me) or pride (for not eating the plant.)

Or is this just learned behavior like the Clever Hans effect?

This is what a group of canine cognition researchers from Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, led by Julie Hecht set out to investigate, which they report in a paper in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.


According to the researchers, seventy-four percent of dog owners believe that their dogs experience guilt. No doubt they base this on behavior that they’ve noticed in their dogs when it’s misbehaved. Emotions like guilt are called secondary emotions, they include things like jealousy and pride, and they are very rare in the animal kingdom. The argument usually given for this lack of evidence is that such secondary emotions seem to require a level of cognitive sophistication, particularly when it comes to self-awareness or self-consciousness, that may not exist in non-human animals.

On the surface, the idea that dogs might feel guilt does seem a tad extraordinary claims-y. If dogs, wolves or even cats felt guilt, wouldn’t that adversely impact their ability to hunt or pick off the weak prey or in a cat’s case, play with a mouse before eating it?

However, Charles Darwin observed that the types of behaviors associated with guilt – keeping one’s head down, and averting one’s gaze – are also seen in other social non-human primate species. This should not be too surprising; guilt serves to reinforce social relationships and to minimize the effects of transgressions against social partners amongst humans. Since these are important things for any social primate, it’s not out of the question that other primates may use similar behavior to reinforce their social bonds. But the same patterns have been observed in wolves as well as domesticated dogs. In wolves, it is thought that guilt-related behaviors also serve to reinforce social bonds, as in primates, by reducing conflict and eliciting tolerance from other members of the social group. The same could be true of dogs, though their social groups would primarily include humans.

But that does not necessarily imply secondary emotions. Do guilty behaviors follow from transgressions? If so, that would provide evidence that dogs may be aware of the violation. Or do guilty behaviors instead follow from scolding? Or in the wild, a thrashing by the alpha male or female? Given that owners tend to scold their dogs less if their dogs “act guilty” guilty behaviors could simply be the result of a learned association between a stimulus (eating the plant) and impending punishment – not so different from Clever Hans, the famous horse who relied on subtle behavioral clues from his owner in order to “succeed” at mental arithmetic problems.

The researchers at Eotvos Lorand University came up with an experiment to test this. The experiment was designed to answer two questions. First, would dogs who had misbehaved in their owners’ absences behave differently when greeting their owners than dogs who had not misbehaved? Second, would owners be able to determine, upon entering a room and relying solely on dog greeting behavior, whether or not their dogs had actually transgressed?

First, the researchers determined the baseline greeting behavior for each of sixty four dogs, when reunited with their owner after a brief separation. Then, the researchers enforced a social rule that food placed on a table was for humans, not for dogs. Then, dogs were left alone in the room with the food. Then, researchers assessed how dogs greeted their owners after eating or not eating the food. In addition, they assessed whether the owners could determine whether or not the dog had transgressed and eaten the food.

The first finding validated the notion that dogs don’t always act guilty – only under certain circumstances. What they discovered was that dogs who had misbehaved were not statistically likely to behave differently than dogs who had not misbehaved.

However, almost seventy-five percent of owners were able to determine whether their dogs had misbehaved, which was significantly more than would have been the result of random guessing. However, it is possible that owners were relying on their dogs’ prior behavior to determine whether their dog misbehaved. Once this was taken into account, it turns out owners were no better than random guessing about whether their dogs ate the food.

Although the study has a few flaws and some pretty significant limitations. It does seem to lend credence that the perception of guilt is more of a learned behavior in dogs – acting guilty seems to lower the duration and severity of scolding.  And regardless of whether the dog actually did something wrong, when scolded they are more likely to act guilty anyway.

One thing I would add, as someone who is in the process of training a puppy, dogs have dramatically different development speeds. Different dogs are breed for different purposes and because of the artificial selection humans have done, some dogs are naturally more obedient and some are more aggressive, or perhaps more likely to break rules that would normally be in place as household pets.

I think if this study is to be done again the researchers should consider using the same breed of dog, at about the same age and with the same amount of training so as not to get skewed results.

One Response to “Let Guilty Dogs Lie”

  1. hastywords said

    They just get that guilty….oops…look in their eyes when they have done something they have been scolded for in the past. I don’t own a dog because those puppy eyes would trap my heart every time I looked at it.

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