Guilty as Charged

imageWith tons of dog shaming photos and videos buzzing around social media these days, it got me to wondering, do dogs feel shame or guilt? Everyone will tell you their dog ‘knows’ when he’s done something bad; he’ll hang his head or go to another room out of shame, but is it really shame or remorse that he’s feeling? I thought maybe for just a nanosecond it might be in Sam’s case, but research suggests otherwise.

Oh, you know that look and exactly what it looks like: pathetic, hangdog look often times with lowered head, ears back and a soulful “I’m so sorry, it won’t happen again” pleading from his eyes. It’s next to impossible to catch Sam on the sofa though I know he’s been on it due to the obvious indents on the pillows (despite the rule that dog must be invited in order to lounge on furniture–whether it’s on the sofa or the bed). I can’t decide if he’s actually sorry for disobeying the rule or so excited to see me or some combination of heaven only knows with that dog because he always jumps down before I can whip out a camera and photographically bust him.

A 2009 study suggested that ‘guilty’ look is in response to being scolded and not from any real feelings of shame. A Barnard College psychology professor put a number of dogs through a series of trials to see how they reacted when their owner told them not to eat a treat and then left the room. Naturally some ate the treat, others did not which lead Professor Horowitz to observe that the dogs assumed the “look” most often when the owners reprimanded them. While she didn’t rule out the possibility that dogs may feel guilt, she pointed out that ‘look’ isn’t necessary an indication of it. Of course, dogs (hopefully) learn from bad behavior but probably only based upon our reaction to what occurred which underscores the importance of catching them in the act so they will make the connection between good and bad behavior. All this prompted me to try a couple tests myself to confirm.

Recently I was able to bust Sam getting into something he shouldn’t have, I raised my voice and said “Oh Sam, what did you do?” spoken with a stern voice but with a slow cadence with pauses between each words and heavy emphasis on each word as well. Immediately that hangdog look took over. It was so pitiful, I actually chuckled inside because it was hilarious. I shooed him away knowing full well he’d back in a moment to investigate since he really hadn’t had enough time to quench his curiosity. And just as predictable as if he were some pre-teen, he was back in a few minutes sniffing and checking it out again. When I ‘caught’ him in the act again, I said nothing. He was a little confused and then followed me out of the room with his tail happily swishing as if I’d bestowed some awesome gift on this goofball. Of course I removed the curiosity so avoid this again.

Clearly my non-reaction was a better outcome for Sam and he proved it by being his usual goofy self, tossing his head, wagging his tail and trying to engage me in play. I guess the real take-away for me here is to make sure the house is completely baby’ proofed so that the opportunity for mischief is removed. We’ll both be happier and that’s the bottom line, right?

Do your dogs show you that ‘guilty’ look when you found they’ve committed some bad behavior? Did it make you secretly smile or be obviously cranky?

Live, love, bark! <3