We all have seen viral dog videos online where the dog owner is recording something that went terribly wrong at home. For example, coming home to find the couch cushions are all torn up. The camera pans off to a dog grinning, eyes nearly closed, and they look 100% guilty.
This begs the question: Are dogs capable of knowing when they did something wrong? Do dogs ever feel guilt?
Understanding Dogs’ Emotions
Dogs are incredible beings and they’re truly smart, too. They aren’t, however, on the same emotional spectrum as humans are. Dogs do experience their own emotions and feelings, but at the same time, they’re not able to experience or feel complex emotions and complex emotions are involved in the way guilt comes into play.
Your dog is able to experience and express basic emotions. For example, you can tell when your dog is in a comfortable state or an upset state through their body language.
The Viral Videos Explained
Those videos we mentioned earlier that have been going viral online? Of the dogs up to no good and caught in the act? In those videos we see online, the dogs aren’t reacting to them knowing what they did. In other words, the dogs aren’t reacting on the foundation of guilt. On the contrary, your dog is reacting to something else: You.
You got louder.
Your tone changed.
Your body language is tense.
So what kind of response is this? This is a reaction stemmed from fear.
Other reactions of a dog that’s afraid include but are not limited to staring, head-tilting, cowering, and tail tucking.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) explains, “His body language seems to radiate guilt. Many veterinary experts suggest that this is a classic case of anthropomorphism — when we attribute human characteristics or behavior to an animal.
“A 2009 study examined “guilty” canine expressions. Researchers observed dogs and their owners under several sets of circumstances and discovered that dogs tended to display “guilty” body language more frequently when their owners scolded them than when the owners remained neutral – regardless of whether the dogs had actually done anything wrong.”
What we’re seeing in these viral videos online is a conditioned response that’s beautifully explained by PBS.org. They shared:
Pascale Lemire, the creator of dogshaming.com, told the AP she doesn’t think dogs actually feel shame.
“I think they know how to placate us with this sad puppy-dog look that makes us think they’re ashamed of what they’ve done. My guess is that their thinking is: `Oh man, my owner is super mad about something, but I don’t know what, but he seems to calm down when I give him the sad face, so let’s try that again,’” she said.
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