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Despite the Guilty Look, Animal Behaviorists Insist Dogs Feel no Shame

cute guilty puppy blogThe next time you come home to an expensive pair of chewed up shoes, you may want to think twice about yelling “bad dog” and lecturing your puppy. Recent scientific findings suggest that dogs are actually incapable of feeling shame.

So what about that guilty expression, the tail between the legs, and the cowering head? Animal behaviorists attribute these “guilty” behaviors to the owner’s anger. Dogs are simply responding to their owners’ reactions and are unable to connect that anger with the damage they did earlier in the day.

This isn’t to say that dogs are incapable of learning from their behavior. If a reward or punishment is handed out immediately after the good/bad behavior, dogs are more likely to connect their actions with the consequences. They still may not feel shame, but they will realize that something bad happens when they behave a certain way. (It’s important to remember that punishment should never be physical, a firm “bad dog” will do.)

So, what is an owner supposed to do when they come home to the insides of their trashcan strewn all over the floor? According to Dr. Bonnie Beaver, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, “just get over it and remind yourself not to put temptation in the way next time.”

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Brandon Mustful March 4, 2014, 7:52 am

    Your article states the following: “Recent scientific findings suggest that dogs are actually incapable of feeling shame.”

    Could you please share some references for these studies?

    Thank you.

  • Bill Scott March 4, 2014, 8:47 am

    Honestly, I have to call BS on this. Another article based on people who obviously don’t actually have pets in their house. I have a dog (and have had dogs in the past) who would sulk around *before* you knew what they’d done. It was actually kind of funny because you could tell by their behavior that they’d done something they knew they weren’t supposed to do. I don’t know about feeling “shame”, but guilt is definitely something they express.

    • VetDepot March 4, 2014, 9:04 am

      Hi Bill. Thank you for your comment. This post is just passing along information from this study: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0376635709001004, recently reported on by the Associated Press.

    • 'Berta Landin March 4, 2014, 12:54 pm

      I also have a dog who experiences some sort of “guilt,” or at least the anticipation of a bad consequence, when he breaks a rule. His kennel is his safe place, and if I find him during the day crowded as far back in the kennel as he can get, I start looking for something amiss in the house.

  • Roberta March 4, 2014, 2:15 pm

    Dogs don’t know they’ve done something wrong when you come home. They react to their person’s verbal and body language much more subtly and quickly than we do. I find the videos of people deliberately causing their dogs to look shamed disgusting. This animal trusts you and you are using her for amusement. Dogs can be funny, no doubt and how I know it, but we need to respect their understanding of us.

  • Robbin LaPorta March 8, 2014, 8:26 pm

    I absolutely agree with you. I have had many dogs over my lifetime, as many as 4 at a time of my own and everyone of them acted exactly as you said. I would open my door to see that look on their faces way before I could even see what they’d done.

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