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The Truth: Do Dogs Feel Guilt?

Updated on January 19, 2016
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It happens to every pet parents.

You come home to find your pup had an accident, so you scold them for it. You were in the right, because they looked guilty; they must've known what they did and feel bad about it, right? Not so fast.

The truth is dogs don't feel guilt. They don't feel bad for chewing on your couch. They don't regret urinating everywhere when you weren't looking. They don't feel bad about any of it.

Does your dog act "guilty"?

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Dogs are a lot like children.

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When dogs are considered adults, it is important to remember that they don't have the maturity of human adults. They don't feel the same emotions that human adults do; in fact, dogs reach the emotional maturity of a two and a half year old child.

Emotions that dogs do feel:

  • Excitement
  • Distress
  • Content
  • Disgust
  • Fear/shyness
  • Anger
  • Joy
  • Love

Emotions that dogs don't feel:

  • Shame/guilt
  • Pride

CLICK HERE to read a study that observes dogs and their "guilty" behaviors.

Dogs react to our behavior and cues more than anything.

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At the end of the day, it's all about body language. Take the above example:

You come home, and your dog had an accident. Your response is to get angry, throw your hands up, yell at your dog, and scold them. Why would they enjoy any of that? What about that should they be happy about? They respond to your body language by cowering and appearing "guilty".

This isn't real guilt. This is fear. They have seen what you look like angry before, and they aren't looking forward to it. They don't want you to be angry with them and scold them. It is important to point out that when your dog has done something wrong, and you didn't catch them until after-the-fact, it is not okay to correct them. Yes, I know they look guilty. I know it looks like they know what they did, but they don't know anything beyond what they are doing in that exact second.

For example:

If you didn't catch your dog having an accident until two minutes after it happened, you cannot scold them. The only thing they understand is that they are sitting on the kitchen floor and getting yelled at for doing so. Why would you get mad at your dog for sitting on the kitchen floor? You wouldn't.

Understanding the different between guilt and fear is important. Understanding the timing of corrections is equally important.

Have your dogs perfected the "guilty" look? Do you fall for it? Will you change your ways after reading this article?

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