You’d be hard pressed to find a dog owner who doesn’t believe that their dog is an emotional animal. Though we can’t communicate verbally, there are physical cues that make us aware of what our pet is feeling: a wagging tail when they are happy or excited, a baleful look when they are gloomy or a head on the lap when they’re feeling loveable. There is an argument that we misinterpret these signals and they actually mean something completely different and ancient philosophers actually thought that animals were sophisticated organic machines that could be programmed but had no emotions of their own. Well, aside from what we assume from their mannerisms, there’s some science to support the idea that guilty dogs are indeed actually feeling this emotion.
Dr Alexandra Horowitz led a study which sought to prove whether the “guilty look” we see in our dogs is actually due to guilt or something else. The way she did it was to have the owners command their dogs not to eat a treat and then leave the room. Then, whether the dog ate the treat or not, she told the owners that their dog had misbehaved and to scold them. In most cases the dog responded to being told off with a “guilty look”, whether they had been naughty or not. This has been interpreted to signify that dogs don’t feel guilt but Dr Horowitz disputes this, saying that it just proves that the response to being scolded is simply that: a response to being scolded. It does not mean that they don’t feel guilt, it just means that we can’t recognise the physical response to guilt if they feel it.
So what evidence do we have that supports the idea of guilt in dogs? First of all there’s a set of hormones that are responsible for certain feelings that humans have like love, affection and bonding. One of these hormones is called oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone”. It’s credited with making us feel kindness towards each other and is released when we put trust in people and vice versa. It is also the reason that we feel guilty when we let someone down. It has been discovered that lots of animals carry this hormone, including dogs. With this in mind, given that dogs generally wish to please their humans why shouldn’t they, like humans might, feel guilt when they let us down in some way?
One argument against dogs feeling guilt is that they feel fear of retribution for bad behaviour, not guilt, in other words when they do something wrong they are scared that they will be in trouble. I suppose this makes sense if the dog was training in a punitive way, or is regularly reprimanded for bad behaviour as part of their training. However it doesn’t make sense if the dog’s training was merit-based and positive. If the dog is never punished for bad behaviour, just rewarded for good, how would they know to be fearful when they misbehave? My argument is that they do feel bad for being naughty.
So where does this leave us? Despite the assertions of one scientist that dogs only have the emotional range of a human toddler (which excludes guilt) the consensus seems to be that we don’t know for sure how dogs feel because the cues we take from their physical reactions aren’t infallible. All I can say is that when my dog was sick in my dad’s shoes she certainly seemed very sorry!